Overwhelming emotions and connection

“What do you need right now?“ He asks me, looking somewhat scared. I hear the question as if I am in a bubble. Somewhere far away, yet I can see him standing there. Asking me. I don’t know what I need. I have no idea. If I knew that, I would probably not be feeling this way.


I feel like my head is spinning, my stomach is tense, it's like there's a cold patch on my forehead, I can’t breathe, and I am completely alone in the world. I mean I know, intellectually that I am not alone - I can see him standing there. But I feel like nobody is there, nobody is coming to be with me. Nobody really gets it. I’m completely overwhelmed and, at this point, I would do anything to feel safe again.

You are not alone. Most of us experience emotional overwhelm to various degrees at different times in our lives. It is our nervous system telling us that we have experienced too much unsafety for too long. It is screaming to us, get safe now, but we don’t know how. So this intense fear takes shape in our bodies fuelling thoughts and actions we wouldn’t consider if we felt safe. 

This is what the overwhelming feeling is all about, it is trying to get us safe at a time when we are feeling completely alone, unwanted, unloved, undesirable and deeply vulnerable. It is as if, we have internal chaos of parts, scared parts, vulnerable parts, critical and shaming parts and sad parts, but there is no part that can guide, comfort and soothe. 

The thing is, it is difficult for us to self-soothe if we did not have anyone to co-regulate us when we were small. The capacity to internally soothe ourselves starts developing already before we are born. It is an intricate dance between caregiver and baby. How our person takes us into their internal world when we need them; loving us and being with us no matter what, showing us that we are not alone and with that soothing us.

Perhaps at an early stage, this leads to us being fed or rocked gently, or when we get older having our person reflect to us, “You are sad now, of course, you are, you hurt your knee.” Essentially, we get to live with a present caregiver person that sees and hears us. These early experiences help us learn that our needs should and can be met, and more importantly we learn that we are not alone in big emotions and experiences. Essentially, our brain wires together that we are safe and loved when having difficult emotions.

Not all of us had caregiver people who were able to provide this type of connection. Some of us may have experienced adverse childhood experiences like neglect, emotional and/or physical abuse and/or a disconnected ruptured attachment. When that happens we learnt that we are alone with difficult emotions and that we need to take care of it ourselves. When a child is left to take care of big emotions alone and sometimes take care of the caregiver person’s emotions too, but without a soothing internal part - that is a recipe for disaster and is deeply overwhelming.

The good news is that regardless of our early experiences, we all have the ability to reconnect with our internal soothing parts over time. We can learn here-and-now skills, but more importantly, we can restore and heal wounds from the past, called implicit memories, so that we no longer get so overwhelmed by difficult experiences.

We can begin to connect with our emotions at our own pace, often with a present other, so that the vulnerable and neglected parts of us can begin to feel safe again. We also learn to understand what sort of experiences, inner or outer, touches difficult emotions and implicit memories that lead to emotional overwhelm. Connection and co-regulation are key aspects of developing internal soothing when we are feeling overwhelmed. This is often when a psychologist can become helpful.

One of the reasons why we need others to regulate our nervous system is that our brains are wired for connection. According to Stephen Porges, a renowned researcher in the field of neuroscience, "Our social engagement system, which involves our ability to connect with others, is essential for our nervous system to function." So, when we are overwhelmed, we need a present other, that can be with us in our pain and overwhelm to provide us with the safety we didn’t have in the past. Eventually, this regulating presence gets wired into our brains. We then become wired with compassion and safety. Instead of loneliness, criticism, fear and self-hatred when we are overwhelmed.

This is why having someone to talk to when we are feeling overwhelmed can be helpful. Whether it's a friend, family member, or psychologist, having someone who can listen without judgment, fixing, pity, avoidance or taking over, helps us regulate our nervous system and feel more at ease with our emotional experience. This is especially important when we are dealing with difficult emotions like anger, fear or shame, which can be difficult to talk about.

If you are not able to talk to a psychologist, but you have a good present person that you feel safe with you can try co-regulating breathing together. It helps your nervous system start to mirror theirs and activate the calming and soothing parts. Here is how it is done.

Co-regulated breathing

Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with and sit or stand facing each other. If it is OK for you (you don’t have to do this), take your right hand and put it on the other’s heart. Essentially, you touch each other’s hearts. Take turns inhaling and exhaling deeply for a count of four, matching your breath to your partner's.

As you breathe together, focus on the sensation of connection and safety that comes from sharing this experience with another person. This can help to activate the ventral vagal nerve, which is associated with social engagement and feelings of safety.

Co-regulated breathing can be especially helpful during times of stress or anxiety as it provides you with a reminder that you are not alone and that you are supported. It can also be a powerful way to deepen your connection with another person and foster a sense of trust and intimacy.

Remember, you are not alone.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Totnes, Devon, TQ9
Written by Louise Hall
Totnes, Devon, TQ9

Louise is a psychologist, consultant and writer with many years experience in the NHS and in the private sector in both the United Kingdom and Sweden. She is accredited counselling psychologist with HCPC and trained at the University of Surrey. Her main interest is the related fields of Neuroscience and Trauma and Attachment Trauma.

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