Almost everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes. All it takes is a few extra stresses on top of our normal responsibilities and it’s easy to get tense, reactive, and overwhelmed. Since we can’t control all the variables in our life, the best thing we can do is not fuel the flames when we feel burdened, emotionally raw, and doubting our ability to cope.
Here are five things to watch out for as you make it through a particularly challenging time. With a little self-inquiry, a lot of self-compassion, and the intention to lighten your load, you can support yourself more wisely through a rough patch.
The desire to find the exact right response to a stressful situation or big decision, and fear of making the wrong choice, adds lots of extra pressure to a situation that’s already overwhelming. Remember that there really are no wrong choices. If you doubt me, read: No Mistakes Only Lessons. It’s also helpful to remind yourself you’re doing the best you can in this moment. It’s hard enough to make decisions when stressed, adding extra pressure will only make it feel more overwhelming.
Impatience for resolution:
Feeling overwhelmed is overwhelming. Like all discomfort, most of us want it to end as soon as possible. Unfortunately, when we push for a quick resolution, we can act in haste and repent at leisure. While it’s hard to pause and thoroughly consider all the aspects of what’s overwhelming you, especially, if you feel triggered, flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, or highly anxious, it’s probably the best thing you can do.
As long as you believe you have to deal with everything immediately it will feel daunting.
Break up your tasks into small parts and vow to only do one at a time. Current research on multi-tasking has found that it is less productive than mono-tasking.
Unhelpful thoughts that undermine your confidence:
I can’t handle this. It’s too much. (You may not want to, but you probably can.)
I’ll never be able to cope with all this. (Take a few minutes to recall times when you handled unpleasant and difficult situations in the past.)
I shouldn’t be feeling overwhelmed. (Benign as this may sound, it might be the most unhelpful thought of all. Give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel overwhelmed. This ultimate allowing of what is true for you now makes your roiling thoughts and emotions feel safer and more manageable. Mindfulness meditation, where you sit with the feeling even if you’re afraid it will engulf you, is the best thing you can do to re-ground.)
Forgetting how resilient you have been and still can be:
It’s so easy to lose sight of every difficulty you have faced in the past, whether interpersonal, vocational, physical, financial, or existential. During a crisis, or anything that feels like one, it’s especially important to call up other tough situations you have faced and conquered, or simply lived through, in the past.
Neuroscience tells us we’re Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. It’s not you, it’s simply how our brains are wired. Actively recalling times when you faced your demons, even if you simply waited until they left, builds resilience. It reminds you you can deal with what feels overwhelming.
Getting hooked by your body’s chemical reactions to stress and believing they are your only truth:
When stress chemicals flood your body and mind it can feel scary and unnerving. It’s easy to have them undermine your confidence and experience in handling life’s challenges. In the midst of feeling insecure and emotionally weak, it’s crucial to remember this is temporary. What makes that especially hard is that, once your body chemistry changes, and you’re in fight/flight mode, it’s as if your pre-frontal cortex is suddenly offline. When that happens you can use an anxiety coping strategy to calm down. (Check out the anxiety section on this site.)
Or, choose to wait until the adrenaline and cortisol storm subsides.
Resisting the urge to act once your nervous system is engaged is the smartest thing you can do. Take an adult time-out, if possible. If not, and you’re with someone who is pressuring you for an immediate response, say: I’m not in a position to give you an answer now. I’ll have think about this and get back to you.
No one likes feeling pressured. When the pressure is from external demands, and things you can’t control, like accidents, health issues, job loss, etc., perfectionistic ideas of how you “should” cope only exacerbate your stress. It’s in these moments of life slinging it’s full quiver of arrows at you that your self-compassion can come to the rescue. Ask yourself: What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now? Then, do it. Even if you think of dozens of reasons why your can’t or shouldn’t. Make your mental health the priority. It will not only help you stay centered and calmer in the moment, but build emotional muscle for the next time you feel overwhelmed.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang