More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”
I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.
I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.
Royal & the Serpent gets it
In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.
FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.” Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:
Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”
Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.
booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…
I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….
It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”
And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.
Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.
Signs of overwhelm
Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.
If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.
Here are some common signs of overwhelm:
- You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
- You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
- You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
- You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
- Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.
Causes of overwhelm
When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.
We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.
Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.
Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.
A therapist can be a big help. Even if you are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.
Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.
- Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.
5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.
4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.
3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.
2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.
1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.
This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.
- Clean up your immediate surroundings.
The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.
You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.
- Ruthlessly prioritize.
Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.
- Stop accidentally multitasking
Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.
Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.
- Take the next tiny step.
When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.
- Radically accept what you cannot do or control.
This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).
When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.
Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.