Surviving Overwhelm or Exhaustion

Let me introduce the 3-2-1 Survival Method©, which I have developed over three decades of working with clients with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, and in emergency situations of overwhelm and stress.

While I have been in my own situation of illness I have been able to put this method into written form so that I can share it with you. This post is about the Survival Method, the emergency prescription you can give yourself in a crisis. Ideally you are already, or can arrange to be, signed off work. It’s likely you have had a sudden health or mental health crash and given yourself quite a fright with the symptoms. I will blog next time about the Maintenance Programme for those who haven’t yet crashed and are beset with external demands of work or other people, or those who have recovered enough functioning to appear back to normal but now know that their health is not to be taken for granted.

Do you feel that you have reached the end of your tether? That the last straw happened about three straws ago? Paralysed by the amount of stuff that you need to do but are unable to make inroads into? Pretending you’re coping but too fatigued to get up the stairs to bed?

If you are treading water just to keep from drowning, then the 3-2-1 Survival Method is probably just what you need in its ease and simplicity. In an ideal situation you could use this method for a few days or a few weeks, I will talk another time about being able to use this method for longer term and chronic situations.

Let’s get straight to the method.

You wake up, you are lying in bed and for what ever reason the day ahead looks impossible. Maybe you are depressed, maybe you are in physical pain, maybe you are exhausted, maybe there is no point to anything.

Today you only have to do 3 things, but you do have to do these 3 things. They are your 3 Essentials: move; eat and rest. That is it, that is all you have to do today. Make them the first 3 things you do. You have limited time, motivation or energy so the trick is to do it quickly and easily so you can definitely achieve them before you use all your energy.

The definition of movement, eating and rest is up to you. The key component is that you can definitely achieve these 3 things today, with the energy you have today. If getting dressed and going out of the house is going to be beyond you today, then you may count as today’s ‘movement’, the act of getting out of bed, and stretching or staying in bed and circling your ankles. This is just how it is some days.


Resting in the Sunshine

I know you are an intelligent and informed adult, and you don’t need me to tell you about the recommended amounts of daily exercise, the health benefits of exercise, healthy weight averages, graded increases and the importance of daylight and sunshine. If you can, I am sure you will incorporate as many of these pieces of information as you can into your movement today. If you can, of course, you will go outside and walk or run, but if you can’t it is really important that you feel satisfaction as you can put a tick by one of the 3 essential things to be done today. You can only work with what you have, you can only be where you are. You are making movement into a priority and will attempt to do that before other things. When you undertake your movement you need to be aware of what is too little for you and what is too much and how you can easily and comfortably get a nice, big, satisfying tick against this essential today.

Usually I am able to follow good advice and have the blinds open to let the light in by 7.30 or 8am. Sometimes it takes me till 9 or 9:30am to get from my bed to lie on the yoga mat at the foot of my bed. But when I have done my simple yoga exercises I can know I have done my movement for the day. If I am having a better day there is nothing to stop me getting dressed, going outside, going swimming and doing more movement later on, yet I do not need to feel like a failure if it’s not that sort of a day. This program is for survival. If you stick to the 3-2-1 Survival Method, you are doing all you need to do to keep your head above water and to manage. This is your emergency prescription for hard times. It is essential that we can meet these three goals every day.

Rest is so important, especially when you are stressed or exhausted. You need some introverted, quiet time without stimulus and without people. Facebook time, TV and having a coffee with a friend are NOT rest times. Lying on the yoga mat listening to a meditation CD, having a long bath, gazing out the window at the clouds and being asleep ARE rest. Again you are a sensible adult and know that if possible it is best not to be asleep in the format of a lie-in but to get out and if necessary go back to bed later on. There are lots of studies on the best way to nap and as each of us is an individual, you need to find your own way. But if I am going to nap I set an alarm so that I do not nap for longer than 90 minutes. Some people find that having a coffee just before going to sleep or eating a square of dark chocolate just as they wake up is helpful to stimulate a wakeful state.

I might sit on the edge of the bed after a shower for half an hour before I can move to get dressed. The choice to feel frustrated by this or to see it as an achievement of resting is mine. Sometimes I fall asleep with about 30 seconds notice in the middle of the day! With 30 seconds I try make sure that my sleep will be as physically comfortable as possible and that I have an alarm set. Other times I structure in an afternoon rest, even if I don’t feel desperately tired. I have a fantastic range of meditations, relaxations and yoga nidra CDs and know how to engage with Constructive Rest as explained in Alexander Technique. I try to ensure I utilise these methods of rest several times a week.

So you now have two big ticks against 3 essential tasks for the day: movement and rest. I like to have all 3 of my essential tasks done before midday. So after my time on my yoga mat I just need to eat a small bowl of fruit, yoghurt and nuts and I have now attended all to all 3 essentials. There is nothing more I have to do today!

If I want to do more resting, eating and movement, I am free to do so with no pressure.

Making these 3 things the priorities when we have little time or energy or motivation is helpful as we won’t be defeated because we expect too much of ourselves. We can be successful! Furthermore achieving these things are likely to boost our mood and wellbeing. Even if they don’t, they help to prevent an exacerbation of our difficulties. It’s a way of practicing kindness towards ourselves, but not complacency. Creating a middle ground between pushing too hard and giving up. A daily act of commitment towards ourselves, with hope and active participation in our lives.


Homemade Soup

Sitting in Bed

Before I have completely run out of energy (motivation, if your problem is depression), it is time to do 2 Worthwhile Things. This is the next part of the 3-2-1 Survival Method.

I have survived cancer so far. Being debilitated by the side-effects of my treatment is not just frustrating, it can be very depressing if I’m not sure why I have survived, if all I can do is lie around in bed all day! I need to know that life is worthwhile, that I survived for some reason and that my courage each day to keep going is worth the effort.

Everyone’s reasons will be different but we all have reasons for living. Mine are love, creativity, ideas and beauty. If I message a friend or FaceTime with one of my kids, then I have done a worthwhile thing today. If I write a poem, have an idea for a blog, feel moved by a film or a play at the theatre, then my day has been worthwhile. One day last week I was able to plant some iris bulbs in a pot, they will flower in the spring, that was worthwhile. I message with my three best friends and my two daughters most days. I tell people I love them every day, I spend tender, quality time with my partner, and these types of connection use some energy but not over much. I love exciting times when I meet and talk with friends and I like to have lunch with my dad and speak to my mum and spend time with my brother and his family. I can’t manage many of these types of occasions. There’s so much more socialising I want to do than I can do, more messages to return than I can manage and that’s a wonderful problem to have.


Irises Planted in a Pot

Think about what makes life worthwhile and take time each day to do 2 worthwhile things, whether they are big things, such as visiting a place you’ve always wanted to go to, painting a canvas, or small, like sending a text or adding flowers to the grocery shop.

3 Essentials, 2 Worthwhile Things, and finally, 1 Job. Sometimes I call the jobs ‘structural tasks’, because these tasks help keep the structure that supports us going. They might include banking, repairs, bill paying, and often include annoying things such as trying to make an email and a password match, or being ‘on hold’ for ages! I hate doing these things but they are important in terms of contributions to a secure base. Having an organised, smooth running, beautiful home, especially if you have to spend a lot of time in it, is important as is having balanced finances.

Naturally, 1 Job / 1 Structural Task is not enough to make our homes beautiful, when the list of these jobs that need doing is endless. I know that and there are reasons the 3-2-1 Survival Method asks you to do only 1 Job and that it’s done after the 3 Essentials and 2 Worthwhiles.

When people are in survival mode it can go two ways: one is to be so overwhelmed that the person can achieve nothing and they bury their heads in the sand, and the other is to frenetically engage in multitasking, trying to achieve all the jobs and not experiencing the satisfaction of completing one task.

I am guilty of the latter. I can feel extremely stressed by all the jobs that I have not been able to complete. This stress is really bad for my physical health and recovery because I cannot get to the bottom of my list. In fact even when I was well and healthy I could not get the bottom of my list!

Prioritising our Essentials and Worthwhiles helps us feel healthier and happier in spite of not achieving everything and the 3-2-1 Survival Method even helps us to feel SUCCESSFUL!

So 1 Task is all I have to do today. What’s more difficult is that we have to leave the other tasks. Learning to let go, learning that we cannot stretch our time and energy to do everything is a very important survival skill. Finding peace with it is a major life lesson. Surviving is the real job in hand. If you were in a stormy sea, in a life ring, none of those jobs on your list would be worrying you.


Beautiful , Worthwhile View from Stanage Edge

Ideally, we prioritise the jobs into the most urgent. Often it is hard to choose as so many tasks feel pressing. So I have a my own rules: I have no more than 5 tasks on my top sheet of ‘Things to Do’ and don’t have a long list of jobs visible; medical issues take priority over financial issues and financial issues take priority over organisational issues. Sometimes prioritising, in order for our sanity or energy to be in tact by the end of the day, results in extra costs, for example this week I will have to pay a parking fine rather than appeal it because I am going to prioritise a scan at the hospital and I can’t manage both. That is the cost of my recovery program and my sanity. Stress, as well as being useful and stimulating, reduces my physical resilience so I have to choose my battles wisely.

That is why I have invented, and why I use, the 3-2-1 Survival Method. This helps me clarify my priorities: 3 things that are essential for survival; 2 things to make survival worthwhile and 1 job to strengthen my secure base. The beauty of the method is that anyone can use it, no matter how tired, sick or depressed, because it’s about what you can manage. If you get to the end of your 3-2-1 tasks and think, ‘what next?’, this simply means that you’ve underestimated your capability today, that’s wonderful! So go back, eat, rest, move, do a couple more worthwhile things and tackle something else on your jobs list. You will find that the better you get at reading yourself, the more accurate you become in estimating your ability that day. Eventually you will move from Survival Method to Maintenance Programme.

As a way of holding a middle ground between success and defeat, action and inaction, the 3-2-1 Survival Method is an excellent way of treading water, neither drowning by passivity not drowning by over exertion. Keeping afloat is the aim. Hanging in there.

What I’d love to hear are your stories and experiences and feedback when you try this method for yourself. Your feedback and questions help become clearer about what is most helpful and who is most helped. So please don’t just try this for yourselves, let me know how you get on. And if you really like it please share my article with people who will benefit.

Much love to you all. Writing to you today is my ‘Worthwhile’.



Looking at the Sky, Sitting in the Car




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