Five steps for ending the “mouse on a wheel” feeling.

In a recently published post, I wrote a sentence ending with “if you … feel fragmented and stressed from multi-tasking and over-stimulation.” After writing these words, I realized I was describing how I feel more often than I care to admit. Despite my dedication to mindfulness and my desire for less doing and more being, I feel frazzled, hurried, and anxious a lot. There are so many things pulling at my mental attention, it can be challenging to stay focused, positive, and present. Maybe you can relate.

I am acutely aware that my frequent feelings of anxiety and overwhelm are a detriment to my well-being and, honestly, I’m simply tired of feeling this way! So above all else, my most important personal aim for this past year has been to reduce this sense of stress and hurry and to experience more calm and clarity. This is a big challenge for me and has required that I repeatedly (as in, many times a day) connect with a process that helps me make an inner shift whenever I’m overwhelmed, anxious, distracted, hurried, or about to do something that doesn’t serve my best interests in response to those feelings. There are many ways to describe this process but one of them is with an acronym I first discovered in a wonderful program called Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating.

The acronym is FEAST. It stands for Focus, Explore, Accept, Strategize, Take Action.

FEAST is a very practical application of mindfulness in that it helps us pause, become aware of our inner and outer experience, observe it non-judgmentally, and intentionally choose whether and how to respond. In mindful eating, the FEAST process is initially taught to participants as a way to identify non-hunger triggers and meet their needs in more effective ways than eating, it can be helpful in many situations outside of eating. If you’re looking for more calm, clarity, and presence in your own life, you might consider experimenting with it.

Here’s how it works.

Focus starts with a pause. Take a few deep breaths. Notice what’s happening. Focus on your physical sensations, your thoughts, and your feelings. Label them as if you’re an outside observer.

Explore. Peel back the layers on what you noticed. Ask yourself a few exploratory questions like “What’s this about?” or “What’s really going on here?”

Accept. As you observe and explore your bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, allow whatever comes to the surface to simply exist. Attach as little judgment and emotion to your exploration as possible. Whatever you’re experiencing is valuable information that can help you make decisions about how best to meet your needs. Be kind and compassionate with yourself. Remember that you don’t have to respond to circumstances, thoughts, and feelings the same way you always have – but you also don’t need to feel badly for whatever is happening for you right now.

Strategize. Once you recognize what’s driving your discomfort or unwanted impulse, you get to identify and assess your options for how to respond. Think about what’s available for you to do in the present moment. Sometimes a specific in-the-moment action will arise as the best response. Sometimes you’ll recognize you have a larger issue that needs to be addressed over time or with support from others. And sometimes simply observing and accepting the moment diffuses the uncomfortable inner state so that there’s nothing left to do but be glad you paused and breathed.

Take Action. Listen to your intuition and make the choice you feel is in your greatest interest right now.

Here’s an example of FEAST in action for me recently.

My work day is coming to a close. I just ended a frustrating phone call. There are still unanswered emails and a project I want to finish before I wrap up. I only have 30 minutes before I need to leave to pick up the kids and get my daughter to gymnastics on time. My phone vibrates with another text message. I see the load of laundry I was going to fold this morning but never got to. I have done nothing to prepare for dinner. As a single Mom, I know I’m headed into the evening solo and it’s “all on me”. I am tired, overwhelmed, and feeling rushed.

The old me would have jammed in as much in my last 30 minutes as I could, hurriedly responding to the text message and emails (likely with a few mistakes), then raced to pick up my kids, feeling preoccupied and edgy throughout much of the evening.

Having “been there, done that” way too many times, I instead choose to FEAST.

Focus. As soon as I notice I’m feeling frazzled and fragmented, I push away from my computer screen, close my eyes, and take a few deep breaths. My brain wants to continue its busy-ness but I just bring my focus back to my breath each round. Within just a few breaths, I begin to feel the relief of having removed myself from my mental chaos. A teensy bit of calm emerges.

I notice what has been happening, almost as if I’m an outside observer. I label my feelings: anxiety, irritation, overwhelm. I notice the physical sensations associated with these feelings: increased heart rate, tightness in my chest and throat. I identify the thoughts surrounding the previous moments: “I need to get this all done before I go.” “I should have prepared something homemade for dinner but I haven’t done anything.” “I don’t want to be late.” “Why is life so busy?!” “I’m tired of feeling this way!”

Explore. As I peel back the layers, I recognize that it is my thoughts, beliefs, and ingrained, automatic responses that are making me feel anxious, irritated, and overwhelmed – not actually my circumstances or environment. I am creating my own stress by letting thoughts of past or future ruin my now. I also begin to see the insanity of feeling the way I do in response to phone calls, emails, and thoughts about dinner and gymnastics. I almost laugh out loud as I see how disproportionate my stress is in relation to what’s actually happening right now, which is … nothing!

More calm emerges. I feel the tension release a bit more.

Accept. I let all these observations and feelings arise and pass (as they usually do fairly soon). I connect with kindness and compassion – just as I would if I was talking with a friend. Of course I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. I am a working mom with young children and I’ve been in the habit of hurrying and feeling anxious for years. It makes sense and there’s no need to feel badly about it. But just because I’m in the habit of allowing technology and my inner monologue to make me feel rushed and anxious, that doesn’t mean I have to right now. I am in charge here. Thank goodness I pushed the pause button!

Strategize. I ask myself “What does this moment call for?” “What would serve me best right now?” I feel the urge to get back to busy-ness immediately but I listen more deeply – past the habit and the impulse – for the truth. Several options arise. I see clearly what I need to do, which starts with non-doing.

Take Action. I sit for a few more moments, focusing on my breath, enjoying and deepening my sense of calm and clarity. I go back to my computer and respond to the only email that really needs attention today; the rest can wait for tomorrow. I type up a short and realistic list of priorities for the next work day, being careful not allow the To Do list to create renewed anxiety. I shut down my computer. I look at my phone and choose to wait on the text message. I make a salad for dinner, put it in the fridge, and decide I’ll order a pizza on the way home from gymnastics. I do this all without physically hurrying, though I’m still aware of the impulse, so as to send continued calming messages to my nervous system: “All is well.” As I pick up my kids and chat with them on our ride, I feel so grateful to be able to be present for their stories and their love.

Broken down this way, FEAST may sound like something that takes too long or too much energy to be practical when you’re already feeling hurried, irritated, or otherwise emotionally taxed. But in my experience, the whole process takes just a few minutes or less – and the benefits are often long-lasting. One FEAST can change the trajectory of an entire day. Many days strung together where FEAST makes an appearance can change the trajectory of your life.

With FEAST or any other regular practice of pausing, noticing without judgment, and intentionally choosing, we gradually rewire our brain. Over time, we learn to recognize triggers for distress earlier, respond to them more effectively when they arise, and let go of them more quickly. We’re less likely to react with the same old automatic behaviors that used to result from the turmoil of our inner state. Instead of overeating, over-drinking, overworking, criticizing, or ____ (fill in the blank with your own coping mechanism) to feel better, we tap into our own internal source of calm and clarity.

What makes you feel frazzled, fragmented, and stressed? What areas of your life could use more calm and clarity? Would a FEAST help?