Feeling Overwhelmed? Here Are Tools to Tame the Stress Monster.
In the last two months, I have heard more people say they are feeling overwhelmed than at any other time I can recall. “Overwhelmed: when a stressful situation feels like it is too much to handle.”
It starts within seconds of waking. Your mind shakes off the fog of sleep, and instantly, a now-familiar sensation, a feeling of dread like a deep ache, swamps you. That’s when you acknowledge that the thing eating away at you is still there. This awful reality has not magically evaporated while you slept, and it wasn’t all a terrible dream. It is real, and you need to live with it for another day.
In the Before-Times, it took different forms for different people: ill health, a job loss, or heartbreak, but currently, it comes in the form of a pandemic. Add to this, in some parts of the world, we wake to news of peaceful protests and terrible riots. A horrendous act caused good people to raise their voices, and bad actors took the opportunity to rain down even more tragedy on communities. It all feels like too much.
This fear or ache lurks like a rock in the pit of your stomach. You lie there, barely having opened your eyes, but already your brain is consumed by this truly awful reality. This confluence of events, like a giant tidal wave rolling toward you, threatens to drown you; this is the feeling of being overwhelmed. Most of us have experienced this before, but this feels so much worse.
So how do we stop feeling overwhelmed, and try to wrest back some control when all we want to do is pull the duvet over our heads?
Here are my suggestions learned through personal experience:
- Before you get out of bed, take three deep breaths. With each breath, say one thing for which you are grateful. It could be as simple as: I am thankful the neighbor’s dog didn’t wake me at 5 am.
- Now you are up, but your mind starts unspooling with all the ‘what-ifs.’ You recognize this is a slippery slope with no good ending, but still, catastrophic thinking floods your brain. Stop and focus on the day ahead. If that is too much, look at a chunk of time, say between breakfast and lunch. (On some days, you may be able to only focus on the next hour.) Pick one thing you want to accomplish for yourself, not for your job or your family, for you. Again, this can be as simple: I want to clear out the junk drawer by lunchtime.
- Work on corralling your thoughts. Even with a purpose set out, it is so easy to wallow in disaster thinking, but—as we all know—it makes us feel worse. The second you sense these thoughts sliding their tentacles around your brain, stop and consider, Why am I thinking about this again? I understand you may want to scream your reply, Because it is consuming my every waking minute, but that’s the exact moment you need to reign in those rapidly cascading thoughts. Guide yourself to think about something else. Put your mind somewhere different; think about your favorite meal or vacation spot, or sing a song. This takes work, but by derailing the toxic thought process, you are taking away its power to dictate how you feel. If your schedule allows, move from that stage to doing something you love; bake, read, draw. Mentally and physically move yourself to another space away from the destructive thoughts.
- My favorite way of working out stuff, leave it all on the page! When your mind begins to fill with concerns, grab a pen, and write down how you feel. Most of the world’s population is living with a mental movie featuring all manner of grim outcomes: I’ll never work again, I’m going to get ill, my city will never be the same, we won’t have enough food. But playing it over and over on a looping reel is debilitating. Get it out of your mind and onto paper. Just seeing your worst fears written out can help put them in perspective.
- Another way to distract yourself from that dreaded drag of reality is to move your body. I am not talking a 6-mile run, a simple walk down your street will work. If you are stuck indoors, put on some music and dance. I bookend my days with a short walk with my little dog. It clears my mind, slows my breathing, and reminds me there is still a beautiful world out there.
- And, lastly, if you have the mental and emotional energy, look outside your own situation. Think about how you can help someone else. As my mum always said, no matter how you are suffering, there is always someone worse off. Start by looking around your neighborhood. There are ways to help without leaving your home. The pandemic has forced us into social isolation, but there’s proof that helping others reinforces our feelings of connectedness, thereby reducing the sense of isolation. The mere act of doing something good will remind you you do have some control. If nothing else, you’ll get a new perspective.
None of this is easy—if it were, we would never feel overwhelmed—but we are humans, and we do. I am not saying I practice all these things every single day, but I do use these skills when I find my thoughts sliding into the badlands of my brain.
We cannot hold back a tidal wave, but we can figure out a way to ride it.