2020 has been… a lot. In the past seven months, the UK left the European Union, NBA legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Trump was acquitted on two articles of impeachment, the killing of George Floyd sparked riots across the nation, and we’ve been adjusting to a new world of face masks, plexiglass, and physical distancing during COVID-19.
And yet, despite all of the changes occurring around us, life and time still continue; we still have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and relationships to maintain. So, what are we to do when the chaos of the world seeps into our day-to-day life? How can we cope when we feel like there’s barely time to even come up for air?
First Thing’s First: What is Emotional Overwhelm?
Emotional overwhelm can be defined as "being completely submerged by your thoughts and emotions about all of life’s current problems, to the point where you lack efficacy and feel frozen or paralyzed” (1). Typically, though not exclusively, it can be caused by things like physical or mental health issues, excessive job demands, relationship issues, time constraints, grieving the death of a loved one, significant life changes, financial insecurity, and more.
If you think about it, COVID-19 has affected every single one of these risk factors. Being in quarantine with the same person (or people) 24/7 can unquestionably cause relationship issues. Many people have not only lost a loved one, but been unable to attend their funeral or travel across the globe to see them in their final days. And of course, many individuals, families, and businesses are dealing with crippling uncertainty about their finances.
Symptoms of emotional overwhelm can vary from person to person. Generally, however, they include:
• Feeling as though the smallest task will put you over the edge
• Feeling like you can’t think straight (i.e. forgetting things regularly, being unable to focus on work, etc.)
• Feeling more anxious, depressed, or upset than usual
• Being quick to experience an escalation of emotions from the “tiniest things”
• Sleeping and/or eating more or less than usual
• Drinking alcohol or doing recreational drugs more than usual
• Withdrawing from people or activities you used to enjoy
• Feeling emotionally, physically, and generally fatigued and feeling hopeless about how to solve any problems
How to Handle Feelings of Emotional Overwhelm
Simplify your life however you can.
Take a moment to make a list of all of the things that are causing you stress right now, down to the smallest, nitty gritty stuff. Then, see what you can find a simple solution for or eliminate from your life entirely.
For example, you might find that your dishwasher’s inability to complete a cycle without experiencing a malfunction has been a lot more irritating than you thought and that it’s time to call a plumber. Or, maybe figuring out what to cook each night has been surprisingly difficult and planning your meals in advance would be more helpful.
The point is, sometimes the little things really do add up—for better or for worse. If you’re facing a lot of small daily stressors in addition to navigating the chaos of the world, it’s no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed! Keep things as simple as possible right now and get rid of every small thing that isn’t serving a positive function.
2. Make yourself a priority in some small way each and every day.
Whether you’re a parent trying to entertain your kids every day or an employee who’s feeling extremely overworked, it’s important to be intentional about setting aside time that’s just for you each and every day. This doesn't have to look like anything fancy. This could mean silencing your work emails at 6pm every day or setting aside 30 minutes to watch mindless TikTok videos on your own. Just think of something that helps you unwind on a personal level and commit to doing it at least once a day. My personal go-to’s lately have been to leave my phone at home while I go for a walk outside. Having some distance from technology while getting some low-impact exercise has been a great combo.
3. Look at the facts.
Emotional overwhelm = overestimating the energy required to do a task / doubting your abilities to solve the problem.
If Susan thinks that she has “way too much work on her plate” and that not completing it by Friday will result in being fired, she will feel extremely stressed. If she imagines that this feared outcome would be the worst thing to ever happen on the planet, she’ll feel even worse.
If Jacob believes that his son being on his smartphone for 2 hours a day is a sign that he “lacks creativity” or is becoming “just like those other kids,” he’ll feel very irritated and anxious whenever he sees his son playing on his smartphone. Simultaneously, if he fears that this irritability and anxiety could potentially ruin his relationship with his son, he'll feel more stressed out.
The good news it that being aware of this “formula” for emotional overwhelm can help you change the pattern and outcome. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself whenever this feeling strikes:
Am I making any assumptions here? Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
Is it possible that I’m overestimating how bad things are? Could my thought be an exaggeration of what’s true?
Is my thought the likely scenario or the worst case scenario?
What evidence suggests that this thought isn’t true?
Be a little bit of a “lawyer” with yourself and pretend that you’re trying to prove the opposite reality. You might be surprised at what you come up with (and how it changes your feelings)!
4. Maintain perspective.
Annoyingly, the more overwhelmed we feel, the more we lose our perspective. As such, I invite people to ask themselves questions that will help ground them back in reality and thus regain some perspective versus getting lost in their imagination. Here are some questions/exercises that can help you regain perspective:
• Will this situation matter in one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year? (NOTE: Answer this literally; do not let your imagination run wild and say something like, “Well, me not meeting this deadline could cause my boss to lose faith in me which means I could stop getting more work projects that would help me get that promotion in a year…”)
• What would other people say about this situation? Here, I invite you to consider looking at what’s causing you stress from the perspectives of other people in your life who are close to you. For example, what would your dad say about this situation? Your goofy Aunt Mildred? Your friend Salim who never seems to be worried about anything? Doing this thought experiment simply helps you consider the situation from different perspectives rather than getting lost in your own thoughts.
• Imagine your future self looking on this situation. What would he/she/they say about what you’re going through right now? What would they want you to know? What does your future self know compared to your current self?
• Look at the big picture. Zoom out rather than paying attention to the details of the situation. Does this really matter in the grand scheme of life or is it possible that you’re blowing things out of proportion?
5. Eliminate ‘should’ from your vocabulary immediately.
The word “should” can very easily heighten feelings of emotional overwhelm. If you’re meeting all of your work deadlines, for example, but then say you “should” also be working out every morning, you’ve added one more thing to your to-do list that you just might not be able to complete right now. As I said in the first point, focus on the basics: what do you absolutely have to do every day? What can we let slide for a little bit? Your standards might need to change and that’s perfectly okay; in fact, altering your standards to meet the situation is just about being smart.
Rather than saying “should,” try saying something like, “I could go for a bike ride later if I feel like it.” Much less anxiety-provoking, I’d say!
6. Focus on what’s important… like, actually important.
Someone in session recently shared with me, “As I’ve been able to slow down during this pandemic, I’ve realized that I was pushing myself so hard at work without ever stopping to ask myself why I was doing it in the first place.” How powerful! It got me thinking about how sometimes we get so lost in the noise of life that we forget to stop and check in with ourselves. We forget to say, “Hold on, what are my goals for myself and are my actions serving them?”
Whether your goal is to raise a happy, healthy family or create a booming business, ask yourself if your day-to-day habits are supporting your goals in the long run. If they aren’t, perhaps it’s a sign to reevaluate if what you’re doing is helping you live the life you want to be living rather than supporting someone else’s goals or agenda.
7. Make it visual.
Whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed, I turn to a blank piece of paper. Whenever I make things visual by writing them down or drawing them out, I’m better able to manage the tasks in front of me—and I’ve heard similar feedback from patients when I use a whiteboard in session.
There are so many different ways to organize your thoughts using visuals, including:
• Making a pros and cons list
• Making a table that highlights evidence for your thought/fear versus evidence against your thought/fear
• Creating a mind map like the one below to organize your thoughts
• Filling in a to-do list with categories like Urgent / Delegate / Do Later / Unneeded as a way of prioritizing your time
The point is, getting your thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper helps you slow down and organize them versus becoming totally lost or submerged in them.
8. Work directly with your nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the primary mechanism that controls your body’s fight, flight, and/or freeze response. Acting mainly unconsciously, it also is in charge of regulating bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination, and sexual arousal.
The nervous system has gained much more attention in the world of mental health as researchers and therapists develop a deeper understanding on how we it can be regulated. When we are able to bounce back from stressful situations and return to comfort and safety efficiently, we have a large window of tolerance—that is, we can tolerate varying levels of stress throughout the day without being pushed over the edge. Conversely, having a small window of tolerance means that events can quickly bring us to a state of hyperarousal (anxiety-like symptoms) or hypoarousal (depression-like symptoms) and getting out of those zones can feel quite difficult.
Working with a therapist one-on-one can help you become more attuned to your own nervous system and learn strategies to help you broaden your window of tolerance. This usually involves learning strategies that can help you de-escalate when you're hyper-aroused or re-energize yourself when you’re hypo-aroused.
For now, if you’re someone who is more prone to hyper-arousal, or feeling “on edge” or anxious during stressful moments, learning deep breathing strategies and/or coping statements can be enormously helpful. If you’re someone who is more prone to hypo-arousal, or feeling depressed or deflated during stressful moments, including gentle movement and stimulation in your day is most helpful.
9. Keep it specific.
Emotional overwhelm usually comes with big “why” questions that don’t have answers. Be sure to ask yourself questions that can actually be answered in the moment. Sometimes I’ll actually ask myself, “Can this problem be solved in the next 10 minutes?” If the answer is “no,” redirect your attention to a solvable problem or try to just distract yourself instead. My personal favourite forms of distraction are knitting, painting, watching TikTok videos, reading an educational or trashy tabloid magazine, or watching an engrossing TV show or movie.
The Bottom Line
If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed right now, know that you are not alone. Rather than being critical towards yourself for “not doing enough” or convincing yourself that “everyone is managing better than you,” please know that it makes total sense if you’re having a rough go at things right now.
In the meantime, however, the best thing you can do to take care of yourself right now is simplify your life, find small ways to make time for yourself, and regain some perspective. Reconnect with your values and goals and focus on answerable questions rather than the vague “what if” ones.
How have you been staying sane throughout this year? Share with the community and me in the comments below!