Overwhelm. That feeling of emotional heaviness: when you feel defeated, like you’re drowning or sinking beneath a mass of something unmanageable. It’s an almost intangible feeling. Not quite stress or anxiety but somehow stressful and anxiety inducing. It’s distinct in its quality of heaviness and people often report feeling defeated or overpowered. The intensity of your emotions outweighs your ability to do anything about them.
CAUSES OF OVERWHELM
Overwhelm can be caused by almost anything; finances; romantic relationships; familial relationships; business; work; children; eating poorly; family; friends, lack of sleep; a death in the family and so on.
More often than not, overwhelm is caused by a combination of these things and they can feed off one another in a vicious circle of poor choices and habits. Work may be busy and so you go to bed later, but you have to get up early to take your child to swim practice, so you sleep less. Your tired and your boss is demanding, so you stay chained at your desk to prove your worth and just eat office treats for lunch, which peaks your blood sugar and then you feel crappy when it drops in the afternoon. This impacts your productivity; you feel pressured by work, so you skip school pick up and feel parenting guilt.
You can see how all of these factors and the complicated associated emotions could add up to a real sense of overwhelm within a relatively short period of time. The trick is to catch yourself mid-cycle and try to make a change.
ONCE YOU’RE OVERWHELMED
Usually once you’re in a state of overwhelm, something simple can set you off and it can be hard to determine what the real problem is, because your emotions have been building for so long. You’ve been struggling to keep your head above the rising flood of your thoughts and feelings and now you’re sinking, but the trigger may not be the real issue.
Once you’re overwhelmed you can become anxious; experience a depression; feel excessively irritable or angry for no reason; you might retreat into yourself and avoid the world. You might find it hard to act rationally in this moment or to function normally as your cortisol and serotonin are likely to be all out of whack. You could be in a state of fight or flight, or maybe you’ve been that way for so long that you’re completely depleted.
You may experience physical warning signs like fatigue, nausea or queasiness or even come down with a cold or flu. This is your body not so nicely asking for a break and it’s time for all of us to not only recognise the warning signs of overwhelm, but also learn what to do when we feel it setting in.
TRICKS FOR DEALING WITH OVERWHELM
Hopefully you can catch yourself before something really sets you off when you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you’re feeling a certain type of way, or anything similar to what is described above (heavy, inexplicably cranky, irritable, excessively guilty etc), but can’t put your finger on the exact reason or feeling, that could be your clue that it’s overwhelm that you’re feeling.
If you are in this state and you know it’s been going on for a while, try to clear space in your life. Practice saying no and give yourself the time you need to take the steps to reduce your overwhelm.
If you don’t catch yourself and something sets you off, try not to be too hard on yourself. Practice the steps below and you’ll get better at dealing with it.
STEP 1: STOP & BREATHE
You always have time for a couple of breaths. Wherever you are, when you’ve self-identified that you could be starting to feel overwhelmed, just stop and breathe. Remind yourself that you are safe and then world won’t end if you take a few deep breaths in the here and now.
If you have time to count 12 breaths, in and out, this will give you just enough mental space to calm your brain and hopefully stop you from losing it. Keep yourself in the moment while you count your breaths. Sometimes this is all you need to tide you over until you can get to step 2.
STEP 2: PUT PEN TO PAPER
We know with overwhelm that it can be hard to identify what the problem is, so you’re going to write down what’s bothering you in this exact moment. Physically writing down what you’re feeling or what’s bothering you can be just as good as talking about it to someone. It’s cathartic to express yourself and it gives you more space to be in the moment, which will calm your emotions.
STEP 3: PUT ON YOUR LOGIC LEGGINGS
Look at what you’ve written honestly. Is what you’re feeling really true or are you awfulizing a situation because you’re actually overwhelmed and upset about other issues.
The question you are asking yourself is whether you’re discovering the source of your overwhelm or catching the straw which is about to break the camel’s back.
Sometimes we think something is terrible and then by the time we’ve written it down we see that it’s not that bad. Maybe you had an interaction with someone that you think went terribly and you’ve spiralled into self-doubt and loathing.
You may realise in writing it down that you have no evidence and actually your conversation was fine, and you have nothing to worry about. You may realise that actually there are bigger things going on that are driving this negative internal self-talk.
The interaction is the straw and your overwhelm made you feel like it could break you.
You might also discover that actually what you have written down is a source of overwhelm for you, but likely there are other factors at play as well, so use your logic leggings to nut out the truth. Investigate each and approach with curiosity.
STEP 4: INVESTIGATE
Your job now is to try to investigate what could really be causing the sense of overwhelm if it wasn’t the interaction you had. Take a step back and run a mental scan over your life. You know you’re feeling a certain type of way, so examine if there’s anything in your life that makes these emotions really ping. It might be more than one thing. You already have a pen and paper, so write them all down, one by one.
STEP 5: ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT THE SITUATION
Next ask yourself what you can really do about the situations or issues that are contributing to your overwhelm. Can you take a break from work or delegate some tasks? Can you rejig your budget? What can you actually do to create a change that will impact your feeling overwhelmed?
Write down the first steps to creating the change. This type of methodical approach will help to calm your brain and it will make you feel better.
The first step might be asking for help and this is totally fine. None of us are alone, so reach out if you need help. Phone a friend, a family member, a therapist or your colleague and ask for help.
STEP 6: REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE IN CONTROL
Your overwhelm is completely within your own control. No one else is causing it or making you feel overwhelmed. You are causing the overwhelm by reacting to your world or what is going on around you. Your overwhelm is completely within your own control. No one else is causing it or making you feel overwhelmed. You are causing the overwhelm by reacting to your world or what is going on around you.
This might seem harsh, but it’s actually intended to be empowering. You are causing it, so you can stop it and control it. Reminding yourself of this will spur you into action and you will implement the plan you created in step 5 and ultimately it is this action that will create the change and stop the cycle of overwhelm.
No one causes the overwhelm but you, but this means that no one else is going to fix it but you.
STEP 7: GENERAL SELF-CARE
Ultimately the state of overwhelm can impact every facet of your life. Ideally the practice of self-care should front of mind for everyone at all times, but this is not the world we live in. So, if you catch yourself in a moment of overwhelm, promise yourself a time period of self-care. Less alcohol, more water. Less pressure, more sleep. More exercise or rest depending on what you need. More self-compassion and less internal critiques. Less social media, more time with good friends.
We all know the drill and would all easily reel off this advice if anyone else asked us, but so often do not put it in place for ourselves. So next time you can yourself feeling heavy and you think you’re on the verge of overwhelm, follow steps 1 through 7 and hopefully you’ll not only get through, but be better for it.