Five Remedies for Overwhelm
All of us, at some point, find ourselves in a situation that feels overwhelming. Maybe it's a kind of everyday overwhelm: taxes, stress in your relationships or work. Or perhaps it's more of a sudden, major shock: losing a job or a loved one. For some people, deeply generative experiences can trigger overwhelm, too. You get your dream job, meet a wonderful partner, reach some longed-for goal, and then you find it surprisingly difficult to tolerate and integrate the experience. It's almost like our "excitement" thermostat is set at a particular temperature, and anything that deviates too far from the set point can trigger emotional dysregulation. When that happens, it can be helpful to have some supportive self-compassion practices in your toolbox. Here are five of my favorites.
1. When you feel overwhelmed, one of the most potent ways to meet your experience is to name it. You can keep it very straightforward: "I feel overwhelmed. There's a lot going on right now." It might sound simple, but taking that step back to identify what's happening is crucial, and not always easy. What makes this tool so powerful is that, essentially, you're bringing awareness to your experience, and at the same time recognizing that you are not your overwhelm; it is an experience that you are aware of. Naming overwhelm allows you to begin the journey back to a sense of your own loving presence.
2. Take three slow breaths. When I was a child, my mother taught me this breathing practice to help me calm down when I felt scared. To try it, take a deep, slow, inhale through your nose, and as you exhale through your mouth, make the tiniest opening possible with your lips. Repeat two more times. This practice slows your breathing, which helps you become more aware of your experience. It also tends to calm the nervous system.
3. Put your hand on your heart. Remind yourself that you are right here, present with your experience, and that it's challenging. You might bring to mind a person or pet to whom you feel securely connected. Research indicates that safe, loving touch signals the release of oxytocin ~ a neurotransmitter that acts as an antidote to cortisol (which is a stress hormone).
4. Remember that you are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed, you might quickly start to believe that you are somehow isolated in your experience. But, remember: we're all in this together; overwhelm is a deeply human experience. It's a sign of belonging, not evidence of your unworthiness or lack. It can also really help to reach out to someone you trust and who expresses love for you in a way that you can take in; someone who knows you well and whose perspective you value and respect.
5. Check in with yourself and see: Is there any chance that you might be excited? This won't be the case in all situations where you feel overwhelmed, but it's worth pausing and asking yourself. If you're one of those people who finds it difficult to tolerate and integrate positive experiences, give yourself a bit of space and experiment with a few inhales and exhales. See if your experience of overwhelm shifts. As Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, famously said, "Fear is excitement without the breath."