3 tips for when you feel overwhelmed

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What is overwhelm?

Overwhelmed is defined as experiencing a strong emotional effect and a feeling of being flooded by a series of emotions. To add to this definition, it is also feeling numb and disengaged as a response to a series of emotions.

How one person’s overwhelm shows up likely looks very different to how another person’s overwhelm shows up. For perspective, reflect on how a family member, your significant other, or a close friend experiences overwhelm. You’ll likely realize that it shows up differently for each person.

Consider our current times in response to this pandemic. I’ve seen the overwhelm take a variety of forms for clients, loved ones, and myself.

Sometimes the overwhelm is a flood of anxiety that shows up as fear and uncertainty. Other times it looks like compulsively checking on and calling family members that are most susceptible to the coronavirus. The overwhelm shows up as feverishly cleaning and disinfecting every corner of your home. It could also look like wanting to control the actions and behaviors of others. There are other moments where the overwhelm surfaces as feeling numb and disengaged from your family and the outside world.

If you’re anything like me, the overwhelm you might be experiencing is a type of overwhelm that you’ve never experienced before. You’re not alone. The beauty of acknowledging how the overwhelm shows up is that it leads to a path of being able to overcome the overwhelm.

Next time you find yourself in a place of overwhelm, try this plan:

1. Name it to tame it

Describe the overwhelm using a feeling(s) word.

  • I feel _____
  • I am noticing _____
  • I acknowledge a feeling(s) of ______

Naming the feeling doesn’t add fire to the flame, it smothers it. In other words, stating your feeling(s) for what it is doesn’t make you feel worse. By labeling your feeling(s) it allows you to feel less engulfed by it so that you’re able to move forward. A feelings wheel is a great tool to help you put into words what you’re feeling. 

2.     B R E A T H E

Breathe through a couple of rounds of the 4-7-8 breathing technique to help you move from a place of overwhelm to a place of calm. Mindful breathing quite literally allows a person to access the place in your brain that is the source for creativity and problem solving.

When our system is overwhelmed and flooded with emotion, our fight, flight, or freeze mode gets activated. When this is online, our switch for emotional regulation, frustration tolerance, and problem solving abilities (among other executive functioning skills) becomes offline.

Mindful breathing, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique, helps to turn the fight, flight, or freeze mode off and the executive functioning skills on. Usually this switch occurs after a couple of rounds of the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four
  2. Hold your breath to the count of seven
  3. Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight 

How do you know if you need more rounds of mindful breathing?

Try a body scan! This is where you mentally scan your body for any signs of tension, emotional distress, and overwhelm. Continue your breathing until your scan results show up tension free. Consider this your mental metal detector and the metal you’re scanning for is tension and overwhelming emotions.

3.     Shake it off

Literally, shake it off. 

Thank you for the melody, Taylor Swift, and for your song getting stuck in my head. When animals are terrified and overwhelmed from escaping a predator attack, they, quite literally, shake it off. These animals will shake their entire bodies in order to let go of literally almost dying so they can get back to homeostasis.

This is why yoga and mindful, trauma informed movement, is so helpful for moving through emotionally overwhelming experiences.

So, how does this help when feeling overwhelmed?  It allows you to figuratively shed and get rid of the sense of overwhelm to help you move forward. Some of my favorites that I use and teach my clients are the butterfly hug and the shaking for stress relief movement. 

The next time you find yourself in a place of overwhelm, try these practices. You can take these three practices with you anywhere and you can use them whenever you feel overwhelmed. No fancy tools, equipment, or apps needed.

Once you’ve reached your emotional place of calm, you can then creatively develop a plan to help you overcome your overwhelm. Even in the midst of the overwhelm, you might feel powerless to what you’re feeling and powerless on your ability to move forward. But remember, that these feelings of overwhelm are temporary, no matter how heavy and all-encompassing they feel.

You’re more powerful than you know, especially in your ability to move through hard things. Look at you go. You’re more powerful than you thought, aren’t you? 

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