How to deal with overwhelm
Have you ever had those moments that turn into days where you just feel so overwhelmed and alone that all you can think about is how to escape this feeling?
No matter who you are, even if you are someone like me who is a therapist and has a lot of tools under her belt, you are going to experience and move through periods of overwhelm. The key is building out a practice that supports you through them and having the right people in your corner. This is what I would like to talk about in today’s blog post.
I experienced one of those situations where I felt overwhelmed and alone one evening of last week. I was sitting at home alone and was thinking about what a difficult and challenging time this is for all of us globally as we are coming out of what has undoubtedly been the most challenging period of our life time, as we are all shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine knowing the consequences this may have for the whole world, and as we are becoming increasingly aware of other global threats like climate change. And I was contemplating my personal situation too: Since I came back to Ireland last August after having been with my parents in Germany for 18 months, I have been finding it difficult to settle back in, having only a small social network in Ireland and an only slowly growing therapy practice. My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Dementia last year and I have been aware of how much my parents are struggling on a daily basis to manage this new and totally unexpected life situation. And my closest of few friends here in Ireland decided for reasons unbeknown to me to end our friendship last october. And as I was contemplating both the global situation and my personal situation, I started to feel really overwhelmed. I could feel my heart-beat quicken, my breathing became faster, my chest tightened, my mouth went dry, and I felt hot and cold. I must also have eaten something wrong that day because I developed a severe abdominal pain during the course of the evening and couldn’t keep anything in which in turn made me feel more overwhelmed because now on top of my difficult emotions I also had to deal with very unpleasant sensations.
The challenge to stay present
When we have a lot going on, and when we are then also feeling physically unwell, it is a real challenge to stay present. Our fight-flight response tells us to “get out of here”, to “move away from this”, for some of us it would be chain smoking or drinking or consuming other drugs in order to numb their unpleasant experience. For me as I was going through my experience last week, it was that I wanted to pack my suitcase and go back to my parents on the first flight in the morning, just fleeing and going to a place of safety where I knew I would be cared for. But whatever we do to try and escape, all those things don’t help because the feelings of overwhelm are still there and remain there for us to be felt, experienced and processed; and even if we manage to keep them at bay for a while with some of our evasion strategies, they will not really go away until we have faced and worked through them.
When we are experiencing challenging situations like the one I went through last week, what we need is self-compassion. The feelings are there for a good reason. They have to be experienced in order to be processed. There are many ways in which we can show compassion to ourselves. We can put a hand on our heart and say to ourselves, like you would to a good friend, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am here.” We can say, “I am safe. I am safe.” We can also put our feet firmly on the ground and feel our feet connect with the earth, feel them like roots that are extending into the earth, firm, supporting, strong. But sometimes, when the feelings are really threatening to overwhelm us and when our fight-flight response is so strong that we can’t concentrate on any of those things, neither speaking sentences to ourselves nor visualizations, as was the case for me last week, the only thing that’s left to do is breathe. This is what I did during that night when I was feeling so unwell. I was breathing in deeply, as deeply as I could, and then I was breathing out thinking, “Relax, relax, you are safe.” And sometimes, when the feelings were too strong, I would only breathe. It eventually helped me to relax and sent my tired body and mind to sleep.
“What is going on inside me right now?”
The question “What is going on inside me right now?” is a really important one to ask. Mindfulness Meditation teacher Tara Brach teaches about this a lot. And I teach about it in my Mindfulness Meditation workshop when exploring emotions. This question helps us to identify what is really going on inside us right this moment. Often we don’t really know because we haven’t really looked, and we are afraid to take time to look maybe because we don’t know what we will find and whether we will be able to hold it. But unless we know what is happening inside us right this moment, right when the feelings are strongest, we can’t calm down, we can’t process and release. So asking ourselves, “What is going on inside me right now?” helps us to recognize what’s happening.
“CAN I be with this?”
“Can I be with this?” is the second question. This is the question where we are invited to allow whatever is going on inside us right this moment to be there. It may be deeply unpleasant, it may make us cry, it may make us want to scream in rage… But whatever IS is welcome. Allowing stops us from fighting against what we are feeling, from trying to push it under, from trying to deny that it’s there. Allowing helps our emotions to be felt, seen, heard.
Reaching out for help
Many of us feel that we should be able to cope on our own, that we can’t “burden” others with our stuff, that others have enough on their plate and that we therefore shouldn’t bother them with our problems. I sometimes catch myself thinking like that too. However, we have to remember that we are a social species. We need human warmth and connecting in order to thrive. We need to share our problems in order to be able to cope. So reaching out for support is not a weakness, it’s actually a very important strength – and, because it’s new to many of us, we need to practice it.
This is what I did that night when I was feeling so unwell. I texted my friend in my neighbourhood to let her know that I was feeling really unwell both emotionally and physically and that, if I didn’t get in touch with her the next day, she should come to my house and look for me. This made me feel safer, at least now somebody knew about my situation. And I contacted a number of friends who gave me their loving thoughts and opinions. But, most importantly, those friends listened. Often it is just to be listened to that will help us to think more clearly, to move forward from a seemingly difficult place. So have the courage and reach out. And of course there is not only reaching out to family and friends but also reaching out to professionals who can help us to move through our experience of overwhelm. Sometimes it can help to reach out to a therapist and have a few sessions with him/her to talk about the feeling of overwhelm and he/she may be able to offer ideas on how to navigate these difficult times. There are holistic therapists like myself who offer relaxation techniques and therapies that help to relax and come from the fight-flight response (stress response) into the rest and digest (relaxation) response and workshops that teach you tools for dealing with your feeling of overwhelm; for example, during a Reiki level one workshop one is learning to give Reiki to oneself which is incredibly relaxing and calming, and during the Mindfulness Meditation workshop one is learning how to work with recurring thought patterns and difficult emotions, how to ask the questions, “What is going on inside me right now?” and, “Can I be with this?”
“This too shall pass”
Ultimately, I would like to remind all of us once again that it is only natural to go through periods of overwhelm as we are facing both personal and global challenges. difficulties, challenges and overwhelm. “This too shall pass” can sound to some of us as if we are a little blasé about it all. However, it is really true that, because this life, everything in this life, is impermanent, even the most difficult emotions and worst experiences will pass. It can be very comforting to remember that.