Overwhelm. Overwhelmed. Overwhelming.
It's been A LOT lately, no?
We are all in it. In fact, overwhelm doesn’t feel like a strong enough word to describe – at least for me – how my system is reacting to the current state of affairs.
To overwhelm, as a verb, is defined as “to give too much of a thing to (someone); to inundate.” And also, “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass.”
I’m talking about overwhelm as a state. A mental state. An emotional state. A physical state. It’s when our nervous system is overloaded and starts to shut things down. It’s a protective response, a survival instinct. It’s involuntary.
We all have different thresholds for becoming overwhelmed. If you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) your threshold may be lower. And different stimuli cause overwhelm for different people – it depends on what triggers you, what burdens you, what drains your energy or overfills your pot.
Recognizing overwhelm, and responding to it wisely, are powerful tools. But we're not generally taught how to do that. We’re taught to tough it out, to push through, to hang in there, to persevere. Not always the right answer, folks. Nope. Nada.
Sometimes we have to stop the stimuli and allow ourselves to replete.
I know I am overwhelmed when:
My mind gets “foggy,” or I find myself “spacing out.”
I am irritable or easily set-off
I am not sure how I feel or what I think
I’m not sure what to do next
I can’t speak articulately
I am unsure how to respond
I can’t absorb or remember what someone is telling me
My body hurts
I think of it as a cartoon character with a thought bubble over her head and the bubble is empty. No thoughts or words come easily. Frontal cortex offline, out-of-order. Computer froze, circuits shorted out.
My mind and body are telling me that whatever is happening, it is too much. Too much to absorb. Too much to do. Too much to respond to. Too much to take in. Too much to carry.
Here is a recent example where I went down a rabbit-hole until I was totally overwhelmed. My son is a rising college sophomore. His school, as of today, is planning to reopen, to offer some in-person classes, and to house some kids in dorms. I disagree with this decision, but that’s not the point. (We have not yet decided how he will do college this fall – there are NO good options). So that’s already difficult. Then I joined a Facebook group for parents of students at his school. I stated an opinion. People responded. I got angry - self righteous anger. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I called friends to talk about it. I kept checking the comments on the FB page. More posts. Web searches about what other schools were doing. Checking daily coronavirus case counts. CDC guidance. "Outbreak-reaches-new-records" stories. More debates with total strangers on the FB page. "Are these people idiots?" Refresh. Refresh. My mind was racing. Then, suddenly, looking at the page on my phone, I just went blank. I felt total and complete exhaustion with the whole thing. Overwhelm. Done. Finito.
Sound familiar? Obsession and overwhelm are often evil twins. I had to cut it off. I quit the group and I’ve actually decided to take a break from by personal FB account completely. I’ll stay active with my business page and my private Facebook group, because those bring me fulfillment and joy. Those feel like I’m adding value, generating community around the things I value the most, connecting with what’s meaningful to me.
There's connection that feeds us, and there's connection that depletes us. The challenge is to know the difference.
STEP ONE: RECOGNIZE
The first step to working with overwhelm is recognizing when it is happening (or to realize it later). What are your signs? They may be like mine or they may be different. Take a moment to reflect – you probably know. Can you identify signs of extreme overwhelm – from a time of acute crisis – as well as signs of mild overwhelm – from a time of ongoing stress?
So, recognize. That's step one. "I am overwhelmed."
It’s so easy, in these moments, to panic or go into shame. “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I just handle this?” “Come on Dana, get it together!” “I can’t just shut down right now!” “Everyone else seems to be handling this just fine!”
Those thoughts add fuel to the overwhelm fire. Now, not only am I overwhelmed by whatever is happening, I am also frightened or ashamed of my reaction to it. I get even more paralyzed.
So keep an eye out for those internal narratives that say you’re handling stuff badly. Red flags. Overwhelm plus shame. Ouch.
STEP TWO: PAUSE/STOP
The next step is to respond wisely. What do we need when we’re overwhelmed? We need to pause. We need to slow down or stop the incoming stimuli, to the extent that we can. We need to ground ourselves in the present moment, in something very concrete like sensations in the body, the breath coming in and out, or what is immediately in front of us. Become mindful.
One of my favorite exercises for overwhelm (once you’ve identified it) is to look around the space you are in and engage your senses. One version is the “Color Naming” exercise: look around you. Name three things you see that are blue, name three things you see that are green, name three things you see that are red, then yellow, purple. Go through the colors until you feel a shift in your system to a calmer or more resourced state. Until your mind feels settled and clearer.
Another version is the “Three Senses” exercise. Name five things you see; name five things you hear; name five things you feel. You can keep going with decreasing numbers. Now name four things that you see, four things that you hear, four things that you feel; now three of each, etc. Take as much time as you need with these practices. The more severe the overwhelm, the more grounding you may need.
Another version is “Narration” (this one works really well in the shower. If you are standing there, under the water, and you have no recollection of whether or not you shampooed your hair, that’s a pretty good “tell” that you are overwhelmed. Tell me that hasn’t happened to you!) Narration is simply naming, out loud, each tiny action you are taking as you take it. “Now I am wetting my hair. Now I am picking up the shampoo bottle. Now I am squeezing the shampoo into my hand, etc.”
Being in nature, interacting with an animal, doing something ritualistic like making a cup of tea, drawing, writing, meditating, sleeping – these are all tools we can use to come back from overwhelm. Experiment. See what works for you.
STEP THREE: PREVENT
Then there is prevention. Prevention of overwhelm is like the PhD-level skill set. It’s often simply impossible. So much is outside of our control. But we can take steps. The strategies I recommend most are:
1. Limit consumption of news (unless it’s good news).
2. Limit social media sources that makes you feel like a) you compare badly; b) you need to do something; c) you want to respond with a rant; or d) everything sucks. (I have a friend with two new itty-bitty kittens. She's posting regular kitten videos - let me know if you want her name!)
3. Limit contact with people who elicit any of the above responses. It is ok to set boundaries even in the most intimate relationships. It’s not selfish. It’s self-care. There’s a difference.
4. Say no – to anything, to as many things as you can.
5. Get enough food, water, and sleep. Move your body if it feels like moving. Or rest, if it doesn’t.
6. Take some time in your day – first thing in the morning, before bed, or as an afternoon break – to get quiet with yourself in some way. Stop moving. Close your eyes. Tune in to your body. Notice that you are breathing. Notice what sensations are present in your body. Notice your overall mood and state of mind. Ask yourself, “what do I really need right now?” This can be just a few minutes, or a half hour, or longer. You decide how much time you have. A very short time is awesome, if that’s what feels possible.
7. Check in with someone who knows you really well, someone who you can say the truth to when they ask “how are you?” Or do a self-check-in with a journal. Ask yourself, “how ARE you?”
8. If you feel resistance to doing any of these things (and you will, believe me!) ask yourself why? Why can’t I do (fill in the blank). What’s the story that's telling you that you can’t? Are the stories true? What would happen if you did it? What’s the worst that could happen?
9. Find a coach or therapist to support you (shameless plug alert)! Sometimes you need someone else to help you name your overwhelm “symptoms” and to give you permission and strategies to reduce what is incoming.
Overwhelm is epidemic right now. It's a natural and normal response to "too much." Thank your nervous system for slowing you down when, for whatever reason, you couldn't do it yourself. It's all just A LOT right now.