“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
― William James
A sincere thanks to all the awesome experts who shared their best tips, insights and strategies on what to do when you are emotionally overwhelmed.
Let’s face it: Life is difficult. We all struggle. We all suffer. We all experience anxiety, to varying degrees. #FACT.
Financial woes, divisive politics, chronic sleep deprivation, job insecurity, pressures to succeed, family demands, and hectic schedules can cause chronic overwhelm.
We work hard for the ‘reward’ of the weekend, and then Monday quickly arrives. For many, the weekend is hardly replenishing. Instead, it may add more demands to the calendar. Even vacations are stressful. Any family who has travelled to Disney World knows this first hand. Plus, simply turning-on a vacation ‘relaxation switch’, regardless of the vacation destination, is not how most of us are wired.
As sources and levels of stress increase, our coping ability may diminish… or take a nosedive.
Turning to alcohol/drugs, gambling, compulsive shopping, and the like only temporarily dampen or numb uncomfortable feelings. Many of us feel ill equipped to effectively navigate the stressful morass of daily life.
Even if it were an option, relocating to a technology-free mountain top would not solve our problems. If chanting in the Himalayan mountains won’t buffer the reality of modern day stress, then what will?
To paraphrase the late great psychologist William James, the best tool we have to manage stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.
We have options for how to respond to stress. Appraisal of situations determines how stressful we deem something to be. Our thoughts about how to cope affect what we in fact do to cope. The methods we use to cope with demands may be helpful or ultimately intensify stress levels.
Fortunately, there are teachable skills to help regulate anxiety/stress successfully. Over time, “qualities of presence naturally radiate from a person who has worked with their mind in a genuine and disciplined way”, according to as Noel McLellan, a high school teacher and Buddhist scholar. This is the secret sauce for finding more ease and flow while navigating the bumpy terrain of life.
Here are five suggestions for coping with inevitable overwhelm.
What we practice, strengthens. Being mindful of which coping methods we are strengthening allows us to be more actively involved in creating the most delicious sauce available!
1. The NCFA approach
a. NAME what you are feeling.
There is a saying in the therapy world: “Name it to tame it”. Recognizing an emotion and calling it by name helps to contain it, and therefore make it more manageable. Making something more concrete (e.g. naming/labelling an emotion) provides a more effective opportunity to work with it.
b. CLAIM what you are feeling.
To paraphrase Erin Van Vuren, we WILL have painful moments in life. Let them make you stronger, smarter, and kinder. (Or not.) But don’t become someone you are not. Cry. Scream if you have to. Then straighten out that crown. In other words, own the emotions/stress/overwhelm. Validate them for yourself. Remain true to yourself. Honor your dignity.
c. FRAME what you are feeling.
Charlie Chaplin said, “Nothing is permanent in this world. Not even our troubles.”
Recognize that it is normal to feel stressed/overwhelmed/anxious. Putting it into context might sound like, “it makes sense that I am stressed. The stress is a result of feeling overwhelmed by bills, the kids’ doctor’s appointments today, and that unfinished project that is due tomorrow.”
d. AIM what you are feeling.
Shayne McLendon offers: “I will breathe. I will think of solutions. I will not let my worry control me. I will not let my stress level break me. I will simply breathe. And it will be ok….”
Other iterations of aiming the feeling include radical acceptance (“it is what it is”), assertiveness, seeking support, going for a walk, or saying ‘no’ to unnecessary requests.
2. BPRR is another relevant mnemonic: Breathe, Pause, Reflect, Respond
Essentially this refers to accessing the body’s built in adaptive mechanisms. Mindful breathing helps to slow down our nervous system, which improves our ability to problem solve and respond wisely.
In the absence of slowing down our nervous system via mindful breathing, we may become more emotionally dysregulated, reactive, and impulsive. What we practice, strengthens. Are you strengthening the circuitry of calm responding or of impulsive reactivity?
3. Bring your body fully into the process.
The mind and body are one unit, each influencing the other. We can therefore calm our mind by calming our body. Anxiety/overwhelm are particularly relevant to this strategy because they often manifest physically. People report bodily tension/tightness, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, and the like, along with subjective feelings of anxiety.
Using a mindfulness or meditation app, accessing meditations online, and/or learning mindbody practices from other sources can be enormously helpful. In my experience, this is a central and often underutilized ingredient in that secret sauce we talked about earlier.
Mindbody methods empower those who utilize them. It gives people something concrete to do to boost their coping repertoire and to stay more calm and at ease in the moment.
4. Identify your values and assess how aligned your life is to those values.
If family is a top priority for you, then stress and coping decisions will be different than if your priority is to earn tenure or to become partner at the firm.
Prioritizing according to our own internal code and values system works as a GPS. This approach helps us to evaluate and possibly reconfigure how we spend time and money and what we deem stressful.
5. Remember, challenges, stress, and anxiety are inevitable.
We have choices for how to respond. Be aware of the thoughts you choose. Recognize available coping resources inside of you (thoughts, physical sensations) and those that are external (e.g. social support, meditation apps).
Straightening your crown is optional, though I recommend it. Find the ingredients for yourself that optimally combine to make the ideal sauce. Whether or not you reveal the secret to your sauce I will leave up to you.
Dr. Elayne Daniels – www.drelaynedaniels.com
Allow me set the scene of what it’s like to fear emotion. Fearing emotion is to believe one or all of the following regarding pain:
- I can’t handle it, it’s too much.
- If I allow an emotion to surface it will never leave.
- I need to avoid it any way I can (food, substances, avoidance, distraction, working, etc.).
At the core of all these beliefs are the thoughts that:
- There is something wrong with me,
- I am powerless to control my emotions.
- My emotions mean that I am weak or am lacking in some way (faith, strength, abilities, intelligence, etc.).
What’s unfortunate about this struggle is, because we are emotional beings, it sets us up to struggle with the very nature of our makeup.
This is especially true for the more sensitive souls, those who feel things deeply and to a bigger degree than others. Let me draw a parallel. If we have a distrusting relationship with our left leg, for example, we will experience a great deal of suffering and expend a lot of energy trying to compensate for only having one leg. However, if we learn about our leg and how to utilize it as an inescapable part of ourselves we will experience a greater level of harmony in our lives. Emotions are as much a part of our lives as our physical bodies so we need to learn how to take care of them in kind.
What do we know about emotions?
Emotions are constantly changing; we are always experiencing something and the feelings we have change regularly as well. Think about the last time you heard a joke. Chances are you laughed for a moment or two, got distracted by the next thing that came along, and then your mood shifted. You certainly didn’t get suck laughing. The same is true for the painful and unpleasant emotions we experience.
The nature of emotions is very similar to the nature of ocean waves.
Recall walking along the beach and watching a wave roll over the sand; it slows until it comes to the end of its reach, hovers a moment, and then recedes back into the ocean. And then the next wave comes, hovers, and recedes. The waves are constantly in motion. Some waves are big, stormy, and take longer to run their course.
Some waves are medium sized and some are small, depending on the weather. Emotions, like waves, come in different intensities, last for varying lengths of time, sometimes carry debris, can be loud and intimidating, and can be awe-inspiring in their power. Regardless of their intensity, they are not permanent.
The key to emotions running their natural course is to allowing them to do so.
The way we respond to our emotions influences our experience of them. Trying to avoid, suppress, deny, run away, or hide from our emotions has the paradoxical effect of either making them worse or keeping them around longer.
Using the analogy of the waves, if we see a wave (emotion) coming that we don’t want to feel, it can be enticing to try to build a barrier so we don’t have to experience it. We could grab sandbags and try to build a structure to keep the water out but then what happens?
The water comes around the wall, and, as it recedes, it becomes trapped at the wall and kept from going back into the sea. The very thing that we tried to use to avoid the feeling only keeps it around longer and sometimes makes it worse.
Other examples, “retail therapy” where we spend money to feel better only to have a new problem of debt; substance abuse, where we try to avoid an emotion only to have a new problem of addiction; disordered eating, where we try to numb our emotions only to have a problem with food, weight, or health conditions. The list goes on and on.
Conversely, we can hold onto the emotions by engaging in activities that produce more of the same. Have you ever been sad and then watched sad animal videos on YouTube, watched a movie you knew would make you cry, or listened to sad music? These are examples of holding on to emotions rather than allowing them to pass on their own.
What do I do with my emotions?
So, the next time you find yourself in the midst of an unpleasant emotion and catch yourself fearing you will be stuck in it or wanting to run away from it, you now have the option to remind yourself that this emotion will pass, just like all the ones you’ve felt before have passed. Just as this one came, this one too will go. Take a deep breath, brace, feel the emotion, and allow it to leave. Repeat.
May you find peace with this human experience of feeling emotions.
Erica R. Daudt Counselor, LMHC - www.sacredwisdomcounseling.com
I know what it’s like to live a life driven by emotion, and believe me, it won’t make you happy.
Someone shows up late, and you’re angry. You get some negative feedback, and you sulk in sadness. You live in anxiety and fear, cycling thoughts over and over about what will happen next and if it will all be okay.
It’s like you’re a yo-yo on a string, with your happiness tied to all the circumstances in your life that you can’t control.
If you ask me, this is no way to live.
So what do we do with our emotions?
Emotions are asking for our tender loving care. Left unexamined, they leave us in pain and are the culprit behind behavioral choices that get us in trouble.
We’re frustrated because we want them to go away, but we just don’t know how to make that happen. They detract from our quality of life and block us from knowing the peace and happiness that are available in any moment.
Out of the Shadows
So let’s take emotions out of the shadows and bring them to the light of conscious awareness—even the hard ones. Only then can you begin to find some relief from the pain.
Emotions are highly conditioned, meaning that they are automatic reactions that arise in you in response to things that happen. When a memory comes to mind, you don’t need to make yourself feel sad. You just do.
What is an emotion?
Getting curious about what we’re actually experiencing when we feel an emotion, we discover physical sensation or energy in the body and a story that you repeat to yourself about what happened and why you feel justified feeling the way you do.
This is an amazing discovery. You notice that if you continue to feed the story with your attention, the emotions stays stuck. But instead lose interest in the story and begin to lovingly meet the physical sensations you’re experiencing in the moment, and the emotion starts to soften.
If you avoid emotions, they will continue to affect you.
Even though it sounds paradoxical, turning to meet our emotions sets us free from them. We stop spinning in the story fueled by the emotion and instead go right to the core of what we’re experiencing when we’re feeling something.
Once emotions aren’t in the driver’s seat, you’re able to respond from clarity, logic, and intelligence. It’s so much simpler!
Emotions Are Normal
Our human bodies are designed to react to the outside world. Here’s how it works.
Our brains process information that comes in through our senses and sends signals out to the rest of the nervous system to prepare us for fight or flight.
If what we perceive is familiar and comfortable, we relax. But if there’s danger, the nervous system goes on high alert, ready to react.
Things get complicated when our thinking minds try to make sense of what’s happening. This leads to rumination, worry, confusion, and irritation.
And for those of us who’ve had traumatic experiences when we were young, our nervous systems are highly sensitive and subject to strong reactions such as terror, rage, hate, and chronic anxiety and hopelessness.
A Friendly Relationship with Your Feelings
Here’s how to begin to develop a friendly relationship with your feelings.
Lose Interest in the Story
The key to freedom from the drama of emotions is to lose interest in the story they are telling you.
How do you do that?
Get completely fed up with the pain and refuse to listen what the mind is telling you.
Our minds are very good at weaving stories telling us that something is wrong. The more we pay attention to what the mind is telling us, the more we’ll be caught in emotions.
But let all of this story-telling go as much as you can, and breathe and be. Without the mind jabbering at you, is there a problem right now?
You’ll probably notice that all is well.
Say a polite, but firm, “No thank you,” when the familiar stories get going.
Take a Conscious Breath
First, when you notice you’re caught in the grip of any emotion, stop and take a slow, conscious breath. Put your attention on the breath and take your time with the inhale and exhale. You might put one hand on your heart and one on your belly as you breathe. Enjoy a few breaths as it feels right for you.
Conscious breathing is a reset for your experience and right away brings your attention back to the here-and-now. What’s happening? You’re just here breathing, and all is okay.
The nervous system holds the experience of emotions in the body. Turning our attention away from the mind and into the body, we’re invited to be the loving presence that welcomes physical sensations.
To welcome sensations, you stop and simply notice the sensations that are present and allow them to be.
You meet any sensation with an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and love—and with no story, no commentary, no resistance, and no need to figure it out.
Rather than panicking with what you notice or going into a story about how hard it is to feel it, you’re simply aware of it. You're a friendly host to whatever wants to visit you.
Stop resisting what you’re experiencing and let it be with gentle acceptance—this is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. Sitting here, breathing and allowing things to be as they are with no story, you’re likely to feel an uncanny sense of ease.
Take these steps when you become aware of emotions and you’ll begin to form a friendly relationship with them.
No longer avoiding or indulging your feelings, you’re doing something radically different—simply meeting them with the deepest acceptance. And this changes everything.
Gail Brenner, Ph.D. - www.gailbrenner.com
What causes one to become emotionally overwhelmed?
Is it meeting deadlines, having too much on your plate, or just having an off day? Whatever is causing one to be emotionally overwhelmed, there are common feelings that we all may experience. It may be anxiety, stress, frustration, anger, or sadness.
Although these feelings may seem like they won’t go away, there are many things you can do immediately that may ease the feeling of being overwhelmed.
There are different types of essential oils that have soothing or calming qualities. Some of these qualities include lavender, lemon, bergamot, and lemongrass. Smelling essential oils may help ground us when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. When feeling overwhelmed, we may get stuck in our own heads. This may cause us to ruminate on the feeling and not calm ourselves down.
Having a smell to focus on can help ease any anxiety that we may be currently feeling. One way we could utilize aromatherapy is simply carrying a rollerball of your favorite essential oil.
When you feel that you are becoming emotionally overwhelmed ,you can roll it on the palms of your hands, rub your hands together, and cup your face so that you are able to inhale the essential oil.
Write What You’re Feeling
When we have a million things running in our mind, it can be hard to focus. This may cause us to feel emotionally overwhelmed, which can then cause us to not do our work and responsibilities, and then the pattern repeats itself.
Writing down how we are feeling can not only be cathartic, but it may also clear some space in our head. Sometimes if our plate is too full, it may be hard to focus on any task we have to do, which can lead to procrastination.
Procrastination can then cause us to feel overwhelmed by the work we aren’t able to focus on. If we are able to write out our feelings and to-do lists, it may give us a starting point of where to start so that we aren’t overwhelmed by the idea of having so much to do.
It can sometimes be difficult to be present in the moment when we are emotionally overwhelmed. We may be too focused on thinking about the past or the future. When we aren’t present in the here and now, we may not be able to see that we do have the power to control our thoughts and reactions.
Ways to practice being present can be as simple as meditating, grounding exercises, saying out loud what you are doing in a current moment, or not passing judgment on thoughts that come to mind. Meditating can help us really focus on the present.
Whether it is a guided or unguided meditation, allowing ourselves to reflect on our thoughts and check in with our body can be beneficial to becoming more aware. When we are more aware of ourselves in the present, we may be able to better understand why we are becoming emotionally overwhelmed. With awareness you may be able to combat or even stop yourself from getting to the point of being overwhelmed.
Confront Cognitive Distortions
A reason why we may become emotionally overwhelmed is because of faulty thinking patterns. Some common faulty thinking patterns are black and white thinking, filtering, or catastrophizing. Black and white thinking is when we think there is no middle ground. Filtering is when we filter out all of the positive aspects of a situation and focus on the negative. Finally, catastrophizing is when we blow things out of proportion.
Of course we all experience faulty thinking patterns. But, if we can identify that our thinking is faulty, we may be able to have a counter-argument that can ease our anxiety or stress. You can start with asking yourself if your thoughts are realistic, if they are based on fact or feeling, and what is the evidence behind this thought.
There are many ways we can combat the feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed.
We all experience moments of anxiety and stress, but we also have the tools to ease all of this. There is not shame to ask someone for guidance, help, or support. We are all human and sometimes things can seem unbearable and tough. Hopefully with increasing self-awareness, practicing mindfulness, and questioning faulty thinking patterns we are able to ease the feeling of not being able to handle what life throws at us.
Tiffany Falk, MMFT - www.tiffanyfalktherapy.com
Have you ever felt overwhelmed and held hostage to strong emotions, yours or those of others?
Once an emotion, such as fear, anger or sadness takes hold in you do you feel like you lose control, forget your long term goals and start behaving in ways that damage your self-esteem or relationships? When others become highly emotional around you do you ever feel like you “catch” their emotion like a bad virus?
You are not alone.
Because we are social animals who connect and communicate through emotions, urges associated with emotions are hardwired in our bodies. All of us, when we are angry want to lash out. When we are afraid we want to run away. When we feel joy, like children playing at recess, we want more joy.
Every emotion has an action urge and sometimes those urges are almost irresistible.
The problem is that many urges, when acted upon, can be destructive. If we always go on a tirade when we are angry, chances are we don’t have many friends, let alone a job.
Similarly, if we always run from anything we fear, we may end up never going out of our homes. But we can’t just squelch our emotions either. Emotions give us important information about our relationships and ourselves.
So how do we balance understanding and experiencing our emotions with acting less from urges and more from our inner wisdom, even when we are emotional?
One powerful solution to intense emotions is mindfulness.
Does that mean you need to learn to meditate? What if you already meditate, do yoga, get massages and generally take care of yourself but still fall prey to intense emotions?
Mindfulness, unlike meditation, does not require you to go into a quiet place, sit down and close your eyes.
Mindfulness skills will help you come into the present moment intentionally and without judgment for the purpose of being aware. It is from awareness that you can make choices rather than acting on urges.
Mindfulness skills are techniques for stepping back from your emotions and their accompanying bodily sensations, action urges and thoughts.
My favorite mindfulness skill is called “Wise Mind,” and was first taught by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a psychologist, researcher and Zen Roshi from Seattle.
The essence of Wise Mind is this: everyone has invaluable inner wisdom within themselves that can be accessed in the moment with practice. Wise Mind is a state of mind and we can enter by choice.
To enter Wise Mind we must first observe the state of mind we are in.
Are we focusing on a task, such as reading these words, feeling calm, a little detached and nothing feels particularly urgent?
Are we mainly influenced by facts? If that is the case we are in a state of mind called “Reason Mind.”
Are we in the grip of a strong emotion so that we can’t take our minds off how we feel and our thoughts are full of content related to that emotion?
Are we feeling a strong urge to act on the emotion?
An example would be reading these words but being unable to concentrate on them due to being so worried that we might have said the wrong thing to a co-worker who will now be angry at us and we feel an urge to text her right away and apologize. This state of mind is called “Emotion Mind.”
Reason Mind is not that concerned with emotions and Emotion Mind is not that concerned with facts.
Only Wise Mind has full access to the facts and the feelings. That is why we often need to get to Wise Mind before we act, especially when relationships or self-esteem are involved. Recognizing your state of mind is the first step to actually accessing Wise Mind. But how exactly do you get to Wise Mind?
Dr. Linehan has outlined six steps you can take and I have described them in detail in my book, The Mindfulness Solution for Intense Emotions.
But here are some quick things you can do right away that will really help.
First, recognize when you are too emotional to think straight and make a good decision.
Recognize that while it may feel urgent to act is most likely isn’t. Build in a pause. Take time to settle down and exit Emotion Mind.
Be willing to consult the facts of the situation. If possible, sleep on it before acting. Sometimes time alone will help you get to Wise Mind, especially when the situation involves making a decision.
What if you don’t have time?
Use your breath to calm down in the moment.
When you recognize you have entered the dangerous territory of Emotion Mind begin to deepen your inhalations and exhalations while saying to yourself, “Consult” on the in breath and “Wise Mind” on the outbreath. This can work especially well in an interpersonal situation such as an argument you can’t afford to become a fight.
When you are alone with intense emotions try the “cold cure” before you act from Emotion Mind.
Cover your face with an ice cold washcloth for at least 30 seconds and watch your emotion come down. You may need to do this several times before you feel the change. When you feel your heart rate having decreased ask yourself, “What does my Wise Mind say?” and listen very closely.
I can almost guarantee you will get an answer, usually right away. If not, that is okay keep listening and don’t act. You will be in Wise Mind’s waiting room and very soon she will come to greet you.
Good luck with your mindfulness practice of Wise Mind!
Cedar R. Koons MSW LCSW - www.cedarkoons.com
Overwhelm is an invitation to turn lovingly towards yourself, to care for your body, to tend to your emotional needs, and to change unhealthy habitual thoughts and self-talk.
A common reaction to overwhelm is to brace against it, turn away from it, and distract our selves in an effort to cope and feel better. But, problems are rarely solved by pretending they aren’t there.
If you turn toward your emotions and lean in to your true experience, you can sort out what’s going on inside and figure out what you need.
Turning toward gives you the ability to respond instead of react. Leaning in, you can examine things with enough detail to create solutions, you can ask for help, and you can organize yourself inside. The brave curiosity of leaning in puts you in control – at least of yourself – and allows you to use your personal power to effect change.
What is emotional overwhelm?
Overwhelm is an anxiety response. We feel overwhelmed when we not only have difficult emotions and situations to sort out, but we also fear there is too much to handle.
The human nervous system has some basic responses to fear – fight, flight and freeze - which are effective in dire emergencies but not so great in solving our day-to-day challenges.
At the most basic level, emotional overwhelm is fear of our own feelings.
If you are in a fear response, your system is operating in survival mode and not in your higher functions. Acknowledge your fear as one of the emotions you are having, and then allow yourself to explore the other emotions that are also present in you alongside of or below fear.
Here’s a Three Step process to transform emotional overwhelm into an action plan.
Step One: Tune in to your body.
First of all, bring conscious awareness to your body and the sensations you are having.
Notice any discomfort, numbness, heat, cold, pressure, tightness, tingling, posture or anything else you may be feeling in your body. Also notice any and all places in your body that feel calm or normal and do not seem to be part of the physical experience of overwhelm.
What are you experiencing in your belly, chest, throat, head, or elsewhere?
Describe the sensations that are present during this episode of overwhelm. Consider what would support your body in feeling calm. Slow deep breathing, going for a walk, stretching, or having a cry are all examples of helping the body to restore calm.
Going to the body is like applying first aid – first we look at the physical symptoms and bring support to the body. What would immediately be helpful? What might help your body to feel more relaxed or stabilized?
Step Two: Identify what emotions you are feeling and call them by name.
Emotions are here to serve: they are trying to inform you. Even the difficult ones hold many gifts if you can learn to welcome and explore them to see what they have to teach you.
Make friends with your emotions.
Get to know them and call them by name: sadness, anger, fear, grief, abandonment, loss, lonely, frustration, shame, joy, hope, love, tenderness.
The antidote for overwhelm is not to feel less, but to feel more accurately. Can you tell the difference between excitement and fear? Many emotions feel fairly similar in the body.
Our emotions are a brilliant internal guidance system.
Naming the emotions you are experiencing, you begin to see what emotional needs are going unmet. Sadness has a different need than shame. Abandonment has a different need than frustration. How can you begin to get what you need? We can only discover our emotional needs if we are able to understand what it is we actually feel.
Step Three: Notice your thoughts and self-talk.
Next, notice the thoughts you are having. You might have some like “I can’t handle this” or “I’m going to fail” or “I hate the way this feels.” Just notice your thoughts. There may be several themes or repeating thought cycles. Do your thoughts frighten you? Depress you? Devalue you? Insult you?
Speak the dominant unhealthy thoughts out loud so you can hear them with your own ears. Write them down so you can see them with your own eyes. Many of our self-critical or self-frightening thoughts go unchallenged in the privacy of our minds. Speaking them aloud and writing them down allows us to experience them differently, and to see what old beliefs we may want to discard and replace with healthier beliefs.
Thought habits can absolutely be changed.
What are the unhealthy thoughts or beliefs you have about yourself that are contributing to your emotional distress? What healthy thoughts and self-talk would you like to replace them with or make more prominent instead?
You can provide calm, wise leadership inside yourself.
Leaning in to your inner world, you can understand who you are and what you value, and you can make changes that feel right for the life you want to live. Instead of simply coping with difficult emotions and overwhelm, you can learn to lovingly care for yourself and grow your confidence in your ability to be your own strong and wise leader.
Leaning in, you step out of helplessness and step into your personal power. You discover your own wisdom, compassion and ability to overcome difficulties and lead a happier, more authentic life.
Tara L Caldwell Counselor, MA, LMHC - www.taracaldwell.life
*This column is not a substitute for mental health counseling. If you are experiencing severe overwhelm or emotional distress, please seek additional help from a therapist, coach, trusted elder, or clergy member.
People often come to see me because they are having difficulty regulating and managing their emotions.
They feel overwhelmed by the intensity, frequency, and duration of the negative emotions they experience.
One of my go-to techniques to decrease feelings of emotional distress, pulled from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, created by Marsha Linehan, is to self-soothe using the five senses.
As babies when we are feeling overwhelmed or sad, we are soothed by our parents. Parents might provide comfort to their babies by holding them, rocking them, singing a lullaby, or giving them a warm bottle of milk. Our need for soothing never goes away. The only shift is that we must learn how to self-soothe for ourselves. We can’t depend on others to calm our emotions as we get older.
This is why I find the technique of using the five senses to tolerate emotional distress so effective.
It pulls from the things that we might have found calming or comforting in our infant and childhood years.
The unfortunate thing is that many of us don’t ever learn how to self-soothe effectively, and we may find ourselves turning toward maladaptive behaviors such as using alcohol or other substances, food, shopping/compulsive buying, or other things to cope with feeling emotionally overwhelmed. It is never too late though to start utilizing other coping skills.
Below, I will outline some examples of self-soothing using our senses.
An example of self-soothing using sight could be using colorful markers and a mindful coloring book to unwind. Another example would be to buy a book of postcards of beautiful scenery or pull out some pictures from a relaxing vacation to look at when feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
What are some scents that you find calming? If you have lavender scented lotion or a lovely smelling candle, these could be great ways to self-soothe using smell. A common self-soothing technique utilizing smell would be aroma therapy with an essential oil diffuser. It is really all about figuring out which smells appeal to you.
One of my favorite ways to self-soothe when I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed is to wrap up in a warm blanket. Taking a bubble bath is another common way to unwind and relax. Maybe, you need to spend the time and money getting a massage to really decompress?
One of my areas of specialty is working with people with eating disorders. If you are prone to using food to cope with negative emotions, I would recommend being cautious with this sense. For anyone that enjoys it, tea is a great option, and of course food can be used at times for comfort. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed, try making your favorite comfort dish.
This is sort of an obvious one. Try listening to your favorite calming music, or put on some nature sounds that help you unwind.
When I share this technique with clients, I encourage them to try a combination of activities for optimal effect. For example, if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and having difficulty tolerating your emotions, put on classical music, make a cup of tea, put some lavender oil in a diffuser, wrap up in a warm, soft blanket, and spend some time coloring mindfully.
These are just some basic examples. There are so many options for self-soothing using the five senses, though. It’s important to try different things and see what works for you.
Leslie Samdahl, LMHC - www.leslieweisgramtherapy.com
Pause and Then Remind Yourself You are Safe
When you initially realize you are emotionally overwhelmed, the first thing to do is pause. Then look around and remind yourself you are safe.
When you feel overwhelmed, your body can’t really distinguish between feeling overwhelm because you worked too much this week, said yes to too many extras, are going through a rough life patch, or are in the middle of a war or famine.
Sometimes, especially when we have too much on our plates, our primal brain takes over and our body processes emotional, family, or work stress as an emergency when it is not.
When this happens, pause and tell yourself you are safe.
Even if it’s something silly you say to yourself like, “Body, I am safe, there are no monsters here, just a lot of overwhelm.” You can even follow this with simple reminder to yourself, “I got this!”
Once you’ve paused and given yourself a safety check, take a breath, do a meditation, or some really yummy self-care like an Epsom salt bath. The internet and the app stores are full of resources of meditation for everything under the sun.
I used to recommend specific meditations or guided relaxation exercises but overtime I have found that people usually find what works for them if the take a quick look.
If I recommend something, people often find they are annoyed or disinterested in what I picked but they do find something that speaks to them—a true testament to everyone having their own style.
When I am emotionally overwhelmed I like to simply call my energy back to myself and then imagine all the places I’ve given or left energy.
That quick run through of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done in that day or week and the image of myself scooping up my imaginal energy and putting back in my own body is a great way to calm my overwhelmed self when I am out of energy. It’s almost like a reset to my body. Try it!
If you aren’t safe, that is your first order of business is to get yourself somewhere safe.
Most of the time when we are emotionally overwhelmed we are perfectly safe and simply overwhelmed by other things, however if this is not the case, get yourself out of whatever situation you are in and then begin the process of calming down. Your body will not calm if you are unsafe.
Keep Up on Basic Self-Care
When you are overwhelmed, do a basics check-in. On first glance this seems like a no-brainer but really, routine self-care is the first thing to go when we are emotionally overwhelmed. So often people drop eating, drinking water, exercise, hygiene, and sleep when they are overwhelmed emotionally or pressed for time.
Hangry is a thing.
Sometimes having a snack or a meal changes the whole entire shape of the day. I know some medical professionals who would advise everyone to carry a packet of nuts and a juice box around with them at all times. This can help with anxiety as well as people who get irritable when their blood sugars are low.
Often when we are stressed we put off eating or just don’t think of it and this lack of attendance to a basic need just adds to our stress and takes away ability to respond well.
Drink some water. Water is life. Without it, we cannot survive and yet a surprising number of people do not drink enough water. This is especially true when emotionally overwhelmed or stressed.
If you are a person who does not love water, find a flavored water, add some fruit or safe to ingest essential oils, or herbal tea. It might surprise you what a great reset a tall, perfectly temped glass of water can be.
I have a friend who, when she is stressed, drinks enough water to feel it slosh in her stomach and then does her two favorite yoga poses and finds she can conquer the next thing on her list so much better than she thought.
I think my friend’s combo emphasizes a principle that is so helpful when thinking about self-care because it is simple and pared down.
Sometimes, whether it’s a day or a season, we simply cannot do all the things we need and want to do to feel well. In those cases I recommend truncating what you’d normally do. Just because you can’t do your normal exercise routine or haven’t been to the gym in 3 years, does not mean you can’t do something each day.
Even five minutes of physical activity can give the benefits that are often touted.
For me, a brisk walk when I’m feeling overwhelmed can clear my head and reset my emotions. For you, it might be a set of jumping jacks in your office between tasks. My clients know that I’m a big fan of the five minute dance break.
Find your favorite high energy song and dance your heart out. You can do this on a break at work, in the car (if you are careful), in the kitchen while cooking dinner, while you get ready in the morning, or with your kids in the insane time after school before dinner!
I was reminded about tips and tricks for sleep and learned additional information about exercise and sleep. Just five minutes in the morning can improve sleep. This is great news for people who can’t or don’t like to do morning exercise.
Research has shown that exercising in the morning is what improves sleep but most people think they have to fit their whole routine into the day for it to be effective. Not true.
Sleep is one of the most important things to protect in stressful times.
This is especially true when grieving, anxious, or otherwise feeling emotional. Sleep is the time our minds process difficult things and our bodies heal from stress. Eight to ten hours a night is best for stressful times.
Hygiene is the last major area of basic self-care most of us neglect when we are overwhelmed emotionally.
While cutting back on things is prudent when we are adjusting our schedules or energy to accommodate stress, don’t cut hygiene practices entirely. You’ll feel terrible. Plus we need those moments to have natural pauses in the day. Keep brushing your teeth and washing your face. Even if it’s a busy season or you don’t have time to shave and wash your hair on the same day, you’ll feel better if you do one.
Go to the bathroom regularly even when you are busy with projects. And depending on how you get there, you might even be able to get extra steps in and a drink of water on the way back. In the least, do a check to see that you aren’t neglecting the area of taking care of basic self-care items because these are often the first to go and the most important.
Keep Things SUPER Simple
Simply put, when we are feeling overwhelmed, this is our body’s way of saying the stress bucket is about to overflow (or already is). If you find yourself flooded with emotion at a strange time or unable to recover from something you’d usually bounce back from, it is time to look at how you can make things easier for yourself.
Whether the source of your emotional overwhelm is a loss of some kind, a too busy of a schedule, or just a bad day, give yourself the grace of eliminating whatever stressors you can. Can dinner be simple? Can you reschedule a couple of lesser important items this week? What can you cut out or get help with?
For my clients who are entrepreneurial or business owners, I recommend Kate Northrup’s business collective. Go to origincollective.com to get on the waitlist and to watch the videos describing the program. I’m really looking forward to reading Kate’s book Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Busy Moms when it comes out in April. Sometimes just learning a few tricks on how to spend your energy can make all the difference in not getting overwhelmed in the first place (and recovering faster when you do).
Check Your Nutritional Support
If you’ve been taking care of your basic self-care items and cutting out extraneous items and still feel emotionally overwhelmed you may be nutritionally depleted or just need an extra boost of help.
For my female clients, I recommend Aviva Romm’s website more than any other except for maybe Alissa Vitti’s book Woman Code and app called MyFlo. I recommend these items more than any other because they help my clients (and friends, family, and sometimes strangers) address the issues that are impacting them the most. I especially recommend Dr. Romm’s article and podcast episode on Magnesium for Women. Magnesium is one of the major things that can support us when we are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed. (It can help men too!)
When we are depleted, we are less resilient.
Checking into things such as protein, minerals, and vitamins can be a great place to boost your natural resiliency. Stress and overwhelm can also contribute to something I commonly see with clients. Craving or eating sweets and the mineral depletion that comes from eating sugar and simply from being stressed can weaken our resiliency.
We crave certain things when we are stressed for many reasons but the reason its problematic is that sugar causes inflammation that can worsen mental and physical problems we may have and it depletes things like magnesium and other helpful nutrients. We can meet our needs for comfort foods and drinks without weakening our reserves
Get More Support
When we are emotionally overwhelmed we need support the most. Whether from friends, family, pets, hobbies, or a professional, getting support is imperative when overwhelm last for more than a quick few minutes. A DIY approach is not helpful when we are carrying the big burdens in life.
Reach out to your friends.
So often when we need our friends the most, we are the busiest or feeling the most cutoff from them. Even if you feel guilty because whatever has you so overwhelmed has kept you from spending time with your friends or chatting them up, still reach out with a quick update or a message to let the know you are thinking about them. Just reaching out can often boost our mood a bit and then you never know what support might flow back later on.
Family is often complex. Sometimes there’s obligation and a there’s always history. However, there’s usually at least one family member who gets whatever thing is happening or could at least lend an ear. Don’t worry about being a burden, that’s what family is for. Be sure to choose a safe member and even if you don’t tell them what has you overwhelmed, you can get connection and love from them.
Maybe your friends or family are the source of your stress and what you need is actually a break from them. This is where pets and hobbies come in to play. No one in my life loves me with less condition than my dog. No matter how stressed I am or how long it’s been since we hit the dog park, she is by my side. This is why so many of us have pets.
Cuddle your furry friends when you are overwhelmed or look at pics of them if you are away (this works with pics of your kids too!). Our bodies respond with comforting neurotransmitters when we see our pets. If you don’t have pets but love animals, this is where the puppy and kitty videos come in to play! There’s scientific proof that pets calm us when we are stressed.
Hobbies are another thing that can be calming.
Even if you don’t have time to engage in them, thinking about your next craft project, jam session, dream vacation, or other hobby can get you through stressful times. I often recommend creating a de-stress Pinterest board you can add things to when you need a moment of calm. I like to pin dream vacations while listening to spa music.
There are seasons where even a combination of the above will not touch our emotional overwhelm. In those times we may need professional support. Whether acupuncture, therapy, massage, spiritual, or nutritional support, at times we all need that expert to guide us to move into a better space.
People often tell me they put off coming to therapy because they didn’t want to be weak. In my opinion this is a false belief. Knowing when to seek help is actually a strength. People are not meant to do everything on their own. We need community, helpers, and support. It’s just part of the lifecycle. Sometimes we are the helper and sometimes we are the one needing support.
That being said, sometimes all you need is to pause for a moment, take in your surroundings and remind yourself you can do it! You can do it!
Danielle D Jenkins, PsyD - www.daniellejenkinspsyd.com