Managing overwhelm right now
If we had to pick a word that described the last seven months, we’d be hard pushed to think of a better one than 'overwhelming', 'uncertain' might come a close second. Going about our business one day, a growing idea that something was coming perhaps, and then seemingly overnight, a lockdown that changed the way we lived in a heartbeat.
Of course, it wasn’t overnight, it wasn’t a heartbeat but no doubt many of us were taken by surprise by the swiftness and completeness of what lockdown meant, in large part because most of us have never experienced anything like this before. We have become so used to our freedoms, our choices, the unfettered horizon before us, that the idea of being confined to our homes was unthinkable. Even when it happened, it remained largely unthinkable and we saw that in the extraordinary response as people busily tried to make the best of a bad situation.
Arguably, though, making the best of a situation can often get very close to avoiding the reality of it. There was a nationwide shortage of sports equipment as online shops sold out within weeks, people started hoarding lavatory paper and online apps teaching languages were overwhelmed. Pilates and yoga studios moved to teaching online. It was as if we were trying to recreate the tactile experience of our lives in the confines of our own homes.
Being busy and boundaries
This hyper-busy engagement with doing stuff helped us all get through the first couple of months. We found new ways of socialising (who knew you could do a treasure hunt alone at home, with twelve other people online?!), of exercising and studying, of being with the people that we cared about. In some ways it was a comfort, in others, the illusion of closeness became extremely painful. We realised how much we missed touch and recognised the importance of real in-person experiences.
As time went on, Zoom fatigue became a real thing. The bonhomie of meetings at home took on an uncomfortable timbre as companies began introducing new ways of monitoring employees at home, the boundary between home and work became more nebulous, and the convenience of avoiding the commute segued into an uncomfortable realisation that working where you live, makes it even harder to set boundaries around the different parts of our lives.
While there have been positives, because as a species we are programmed to find a bright side, the downsides are starting to tell. As the seasons change and socialising outside is increasingly impractical, perhaps we are all starting to think about what challenges might face us in the coming months. Another lockdown has been announced to begin on Thursday 5th November, and the uncertainty that arises from that – and perhaps overwhelm and uncertainty can’t be disentangled – is likely to be on everyone’s mind.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to unpick the idea of overwhelm and think about some ways of coping over the next few weeks.
What is overwhelm?
Overwhelm is a sense of being buried under or flooded by a mass of emotion, sensation or experience. It has a powerful emotional effect and is often combined with a feeling of loss of control or of being controlled by an external force. We might even feel out of control ourselves. It can be destabilising and many will recognise the triggering of an autonomic response, whether that’s fight, flight or freeze as we struggle to try and rein things back in: to just try and control things.
Whatever the physical and physiological responses, emotionally it can feel, perhaps, at times, like trying to get cooked jelly back into the original box: futile, hopeless, impossible and perhaps even a bit disgusting (although those might be my personal feelings about jelly speaking). We can even feel a bit ashamed about being overwhelmed and wonder why other people are apparently able to cope in those same circumstances when we are not.
Actually, right off the bat be reassured that everyone goes through this feeling. Our triggers to it are, however, individual. What feels overwhelming to your spouse may not be overwhelming to you, and vice versa.
Overwhelm is a response in the mind and body to a situation that simply feels too much, a cumulative build-up of stress and anxiety that is being expressed through a sense of being taken over by a feeling. It is not your fault and is not a failing.
Taken at its simplest, it is a communication to your conscious mind to let you know that this is the moment to step back, take a breath and focus on what’s happening for you. Notice that 'what’s happening for you' as opposed to 'what you need to do/be doing/get done' which are often important tasks but may not be for you or your own well-being. Here are some questions to help you think about how to deal with overwhelm in the moment.
Are you feeling overwhelmed or being overwhelmed?
This is a useful question for helping us distinguish between whether we have too much to do, or are instead being overwhelmed by other, possibly relational or interpersonal, situations. Understanding which it is can help determine the best way to tackle it in the moment.
Is the overwhelm coming from task overload or is there a relationship component? If there’s simply too much to do, then there are lots of things you can do to address that – negotiate deadlines, ask for support or help from those around you, others in your household, or colleagues at work: now could be a good time to hone your delegation skills.
If you are being overwhelmed by something or someone else, then that’s an important point to think about boundaries and what you need to do to create a sense of feeling centred and able to hold your ground. If you’re experiencing a lack of safety because of the relational component of overwhelm, there are organisations that can help and it is essential you reach out to them.
What feels overwhelming about this situation?
This is an important distinction from 'why do I feel overwhelmed?' which can often sound, to our inner critics, as if we’re judging ourselves for feeling what we’re feeling. Leave the judgement to one side, accept that you are feeling this way, and then take some time to think about what in the situation is particularly triggering that.
If talking helps, reach out. If journaling is more your bag, write it down. If getting on the exercise bike helps, do ten minutes of pedalling. Whatever it is that lets you work with what’s in your head but will prevent you from steeping in it, use it.
Accept your overwhelmed moment will be different from someone else’s
What can be challenging is that, when we are overwhelmed, it is often difficult to make that feeling relatable to others and it can be isolating when those around us tell us we just need to be more organised or get some perspective. It can feel that we are the only ones who can’t cope.
The reality is that their overwhelm triggers are simply different from yours, and it is ok to accept that. Ask those around you to respect that this is what’s going on and to be constructive to help you work your way through it. When the situation reverses, which it will, acknowledge that your role will change and you’ll be there as support.
If you live alone, reach out. I can’t stress that enough. Reach out to family, friends, colleagues, or a support line if that would help. No one needs to suffer alone, and when you realise you are not alone, that can go a long way to relieve overwhelm and relieve your suffering.
I mentioned earlier about boundaries, and I think recognising our limits is a corollary of that. Secular Angel (@mixedmediapaper) posted on Instagram admiring “how when babies don’t want to hold something anymore they just drop it.” I loved this image because the idea of letting go is really difficult to most of us, so maybe infants can show us the way.
The other side of that image is, usually, some outstretched parental hands waiting to catch whatever’s falling through space. If that’s you, perhaps it’s time to decide if you need to keep your hands outstretched to catch things others no longer want to hold on to, or if you can keep your hands free to do what you need to get done. This might be, in this moment, nothing more than making a cup of tea and drinking it while it’s still hot.
So yes, of course, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Accept that some things will have to be let go and while at the moment much of our choice is out of our hands, we do have some choice available to us. You may want to try to do as much as possible to keep things normal and stop the feeling of you or your family missing out, but if things really aren’t possible, then accept you have a choice over how you respond.
Now is the time to cut some things out that haven’t been serving you. It is the moment to decide how to want to respond to situations and to recognise that if you are struggling, you have reached a limit and to get support.
What is often noticeable about overwhelm is a sense of being locked in a battle, either with the world outside or with big, powerful feelings. At the moment, we might be quite shocked at the feelings that are pushing their way into our awareness because we’ve been so busy for so long, we have been able to avoid them.
If there is an upside to what’s happening, it might be that now is a time to work on those feelings and experiences that do feel difficult, whether that’s an overload of things to do or people to communicate with, or an internal crisis, an emotional response to circumstances or relationships.
With a second lockdown starting this week, now might be the time to take a pause, get support and work on the things that might have been avoided for a while now. Getting to grips with the things that hide under the surface can really help to manage overwhelming emotions.
Mostly, remember that it isn’t a battle that has to be fought alone, and if you’re feeling like you’re struggling do get help, speak to a counsellor. Counselling can help you move from feeling like it’s a struggle to recognising it’s the journey, and you are not alone.