What to do when chaos comes home

Chaos. Complete disorder and confusion. It’s an unfortunate but inescapable reality that can come into our lives through a natural disaster, political or social upheaval or through events like a reorganization at work, a divorce, or a move to a new city. Even joyful events like the birth of a new baby can bring chaos.

Some of the very ideas we’re taught to embrace encourage chaos to come knocking. Change is good! Comfort is the enemy of progress! Move fast break things!

Everything everywhere. Great movie, terrible coping strategy.

Here’s the problem with chaos. It brings with it disorder and confusion. Disorder and confusion are the ingredients for overwhelm. And overwhelm is the state of mind we enter when we’re in the midst of circumstances that are too much for our brains to cope with.

It’s a neurobiological fact that when we’re overwhelmed our brains begin to operate differently.

Automatic neurobiological processes take over and our overwhelmed minds start to perceive everyday concerns – deadlines at work, conflict with our partners, unpaid bills, a messy house, uncooperative kids – as threats to our safety.

No, it’s not logical. And that’s the point.

Logic simply isn’t available to us when our brains are in a state of overwhelm.

How do our brains respond to perceived threats to our safety? By going into the mode often called fight or flight. In this mode there’s no such thing as slowing down, assessing, making considered choices about our next move. It’s a state of mind in which all that matters is action to ensure survival. Fight or flight.

Living in a state of overwhelm can wreak havoc on our physical health – your doctor can help you understand your health risks associated with chronic overwhelm.

Overwhelm takes a toll on emotional health, too. While helping clients cope through chaos, I show them how it can be the culprit behind some of their most pressing concerns – panic, insomnia, chronic irritability, impulsivity, work/life imbalances, burnout, creative blocks, living with regrets.

What to do when chaos comes home

First things first: to cope effectively through chaos you must know you’re in chaos.

Look around you. Describe your surroundings – do this silently or out loud, to yourself or another person. It doesn’t matter. Do phrases like a disaster area, a mess, cluttered and disorderly describe your surroundings? If yes, you’re in the midst of chaos.

Next, check in with your thoughts and feelings.

Are your thoughts coming fast and furious? Is it hard to slow them down?

Do your feelings seem highly charged? Does it feel urgent to buy something, eat something, drink something, to drive fast or go have a drink?

If so, you can be sure chaos is present and overwhelm on the way.

When we’re in the midst of chaos, when overwhelm is on its way or has settled in, it’s time to narrow your focus to your immediate needs in the short term.

Narrow your focus to your immediate needs in the short term.

Moment by moment, one by one. For as long as it takes for your nervous system to recover from overwhelm and logic to return to your thinking.

Don’t rush it. It took time to get into a state of overwhelm. It’ll take time to get out of it.

Engage an outside anchor

This vital work is made difficult by its very nature. If you can, engage the help of someone not involved in the chaos – someone who can help you assess, narrow your focus, recover. I think of these as outside anchors. A family member, a friend, a therapist.

Consider this:

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Quieter, less chaotic times provide the opportunity to explore, gain awareness and build skills.

During quieter times, I help clients consider what’s worth knowing about themselves and their responses to chaos and overwhelm so they can make more informed choices.

We collaborate so they learn to monitor their thoughts, feelings, impulses and behaviors to detect when chaos might be building and overwhelm on the way.

I also help clients identify which individuals or groups could serve as outside anchors and provide meaningful support the next time chaos comes home.

If you’d like to explore how we may work together, please get in touch. I’m here to help.

This post addresses coping through chaos. If you are reading this and you or someone else is at imminent risk of harm, you are in a state of crisis. Stop reading this and immediately call 911, the Travis County 24/7 Helpline (512-472-HELP or 512-472-4357) or go to the nearest emergency room.

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