Combat Overwhelm With the Emotional Workout

Jan 22, 2023
dark haired, middle-aged woman rolling out a pink exercise mat in her living room. She has a serious look on her face.

A simple tool for improving clarity and focus.

I cannot remember exactly how I heard about Anna Celestino, the author of “Igniting Change.” Destiny set our paths to cross is all I can say.

Just at a time when I was going through a huge personal upheaval, I received an invitation to join one of her online groups about managing change in our lives.

That was over three years ago. Since that time I have learned much about myself, including how to better manage conflict and express my wants or needs without feeling so guilty about it.

One of the most useful (and my personal favorite) techniques I learned from Anna is the Emotional Workout, a series of simple, clarifying questions she developed to help define our issue or problem.

The Workout has been instrumental in helping me deal with the overwhelm of important decisions. I have used it to figure out relationship issues and manage financial worries.

And lately, with all that is going on in the world, I have used it to help me manage my inability to gain clarity about my feelings and my sense of “what can I do?”

Untangling our emotions

Part of the problem with gaining some kind of clarity over our personal situations is our inability to clearly define our emotions. Our feelings get all tangled up.

We might say we are sad when what we are actually feeling is worried. We might say we are angry when what we are really feeling is embarrassed.

The “Emotional Workout” is a tool for seeing through the blurriness.

You start the workout by identifying a particular area in your life where you are feeling overwhelmed, or where you are struggling to make change.

The key is to just look at one problem, one area at a time. It’s when we see only the big picture that overwhelm, confusion, and hopelessness take over.

Begin “exercising” by responding to each of the following questions with serious, thorough reflection. Most likely, you will have more than one answer for each question.

What am I sad about?

Sadness is the go-to emotion. As humans, we tend to lump all of our feelings into the unhappy category. Of the emotions focused on in the emotional workout, this may be the most difficult one to discern.

I discovered this the first few times I went through the steps. I waited and returned to the question “what am I sad about?” after I identified the other three emotions.

However, I mention it here first because as I said, sadness or unhappiness is what we tend to identify with first. And we tend to make it so general, so big, that we cannot see our way around it.

Here is a personal example: I am sad about the closure of schools and not being able to provide the educational, mental, and emotional supports my students need. I am also sad that many of my students choose not to participate in our online class groups.

What am I angry about?

It seems to be easier to determine what we are angry about than what we are sad about. (Sometimes I’m just angry about the fact I am feeling unhappy.)

When thinking about what makes you angry, consider the different levels of that emotion. Let’s face it, angry can range from slight irritation to seething resentment to full-on rage.

My example: I am angry that I am not able to contact some of my students and they are not attempting to make contact with the school. (Being honest here!) I am angry that I must still assign lessons, but no grades are attached. I am angry that I cannot teach in the way I am used to.

What am I worried about?

Worry is another emotion like sadness that tends to be overused. Or at least it becomes the bag that holds many related feelings. We may express anxiety, fear, doubt, or concern about a situation, a person, or idea.

A certain amount of worry is good. It reminds us to take necessary precautions or plan ahead. But too much worry can cause us to lose sleep, lose focus, drive us to overeat or not eat at all.

Identifying what we are really worried about is important. How can we take steps toward improving our situation if we cannot recognize our true concerns?

My example: I am worried my students are losing important skills. I am worried they will fall behind and not be ready for next year. I am worried that we won’t be able to return to the classroom in the fall. I am worried about the health and well-being of the students I have not been able to contact. I am worried about my own health risks.

What am I embarrassed about?

Why the need to address the emotion of embarrassment? Well, the truth is many of us will not acknowledge our feelings or ask for help when we feel embarrassed.

How many times have you not done something because you were too embarrassed? Even if it was something you needed (like asking for directions) or wanted to repair (like apologizing for hurt feelings)?

Feeling embarrassed is a combination of guilt which focuses more on action and shame which is more related to morals. Think about when your mother said, “You just knocked Joey down. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Our first instinct is usually denial, avoidance, or to make an excuse. Then, of course, we feel ashamed. But if we can admit we are embarrassed about some part of a situation, we can move past the guilt and shame and work toward a resolution.

My example: I am embarrassed that I have not been able to make contact with some of my students. I am embarrassed that I am not mentally prepared or technically savvy enough to teach online. I am embarrassed to admit my anger toward a few students (and their families) that have made no attempt at reaching out to the school or their teachers during the shutdown.

Heading into the turn

Once we have taken a serious look at the four emotions of sadness, anger, worry and embarrassment, we can identify a main theme.

For me, it was connecting with my students.

Then we then take a turn to consider the more positive side of things.

What am I grateful for?

Having an attitude of gratitude is so cliche that we often joke about it. However, in the process of the Emotional Workout, recognizing what positives there are in your life allows a turning point to occur.

Consider your current situation and list several things you are thankful for. Sometimes it may seem like a trivial, mundane thing like having a window near your desk or a cup of hot coffee in the morning.

We always have something to be grateful for, something we appreciate. It’s so easy to forget when we are stressed out and overwhelmed. But it’s the things we are grateful for that give us hope.

My example: I am grateful to still have a job and to be able to return to teaching in the fall. I am grateful for the internet, telephones, and the mail system that allows me to have contact with students. I am grateful for my colleagues that share student information and collaborate on lessons and learning opportunities. I am grateful for the multitude of free resources available to teachers to help them manage distant learning.

What gives me hope?

This question is related to gratitude. It takes it a step further pushing us to think forward through a positive frame.

The seeds of hope can be cultivated by taking something we are grateful for and fertilizing it, in a sense.

I am grateful for still having a job, for the opportunity to return to the classroom, or at least teaching, next fall. That gives me hope!

My example: I am hopeful that I can use what I learned and experienced during the school closure to improve my relationship with students, adapt my curriculum and instruction to better meet their needs in the classroom or online, and become a trusted support to their academic, mental, and emotional growth.

What is one small thing I can do to make things different?

The last step in the Emotional Workout is to think about one small step, one action, one little change in attitude that can provide the forward-moving momentum, to visualizing the possibilities for change.

My example: Take the Google Classroom training which will be a beneficial tool to use whether I am teaching in the classroom or via the internet next year. Show appreciation to each of my students regardless of the amount of contact I receive from them. Continue to try contacting the students I haven’t heard from using the mail system. (I know, it was three steps, but I felt it was appropriate.)

An Overview

The first four questions compel us to look at the shadow side or the negative side of our feelings. They give us the juice to know what to work on.

Then you turn to the lighter side of your particular situation. By being able to ferret out positive aspects, you can uncover ideas for improving the situation and lessen the depressing or overwhelming thoughts.

Like any good workout, it takes practice to get proficient at each step and you may think you’re not getting results quick enough. But you can measure how you did on that first step and that encourages you to take the next step.

To avoid injury or burnout, you adjust one thing at a time. Evaluate your results and make a plan.

Just by taking action, purposeful and meaningful action no matter how small the steps, you start gaining a sense of control. And that is why the emotional workout is so helpful.

Overwhelm is basically a feeling of life out of control. By improving our emotional clarity and gaining focus on where we want to be, we can get back into the driver’s seat.

An invitation

If you would like more information about Anna's work, you can visit her website, The Shift System at

I am not an affiliate. I earn no commission by inviting you to check her out. The Emotional Workout used to be a stand alone workshop, but is part of one of her programs more comprehensive programs. Feel free to reach out to her if you have questions about the "workout."

I wanted to share a tool that may be helpful to others like myself, struggling to make sense of all the craziness going on in the world today. It’s one of those small steps I am taking in response to my latest Emotional Workout.

I hope you find it helpful.

Feel a bit guilty for not taking better care of yourself?

Wish you had more time for it?

The Self-Care Mini-Workbook will help you discover what you are doing or could be doing to enhance your self-care practices? Give it a try for free!

Click here!

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