Uncertain times and busy lives are leaving us stressed and overwhelmed. We find out how to manage these emotions…
It can happen at any moment. You’re driving somewhere for an appointment and get stuck in traffic. You switch on the news and are left reeling by scary situations and worst case scenarios. You have your hands full, juggling multiple tasks and feel like the ball is going to drop. From flushed cheeks or a racing heart, to unshakeable anxiety or a deep sense of doom, feelings of overwhelm are hard to avoid and affect us all. And in these very uncertain times, those emotions are increasingly becoming part of daily life. We asked three experts what to do when it all feels a little bit too much.
Why do we feel overwhelmed?
“The feeling of overwhelm occurs when we feel as if we have more and more things to do, there are increasing pressures and responsibilities and we can’t get on top of anything,” says confidence coach, Natalie Trice (natalietrice.co.uk). “It is an intense feeling and one that makes it seem as if everything is too much, and we worry more that we won’t get things done and won’t be able to manage.” If this sounds familiar to you, it’s important to remember you’re definitely not alone. “Life can be stressful and difficult to manage at the best of times, but as a result of the current public health crisis, people around the world are experiencing higher levels of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty,” says Sarah Romotsky, director of healthcare partnerships at Headspace (headspace.com). “Between social distancing, travel restrictions, 24/7 news alerts, and financial stressors, the shifting landscape is affecting everyone. It’s no wonder that we can get caught up in our thoughts and worries – overthinking can induce stressful thoughts, anxiety and result in feeling overwhelmed. Take a moment to stop, relax and enjoy the present. It’s healthy to think about the future and address problems head on, but constantly making this a habit can cause negative and worrying emotions.”
What does it feel like?
Stress affects us all in different ways, but overwhelm can leave us helpless and hopeless. “It can feel like we are emotionally and psychologically lost at sea, all alone in the water,” says Jane Barnfield Jukes, founder of The Practice (thepractice.co.uk). “We can often find it hard to create a sense of stability for ourselves. We may feel unsure of where to turn and unable to cope with simple day to day tasks. This sense of being out of control can be overwhelming. Compounded by the anxiety about our current situation, small bumps in the road suddenly feel like large mountains. The pandemic has sped up and heightened our awareness of how fragmented our society has become, and the support networks we used to rely on are no longer there – human beings struggle with not knowing what’s coming next.”
Overwhelm manifests in many ways. “It can feel different to different people,” says Natalie. “Some people will feel their heart pound, they might get sweaty palms and their stomach clenches. For others, it’s a feeling of anxiety, anger or guilt that they can’t cope and see this as a failure. Doubt and helplessness are also common feelings when it comes to overwhelm and crying isn’t uncommon. None of these feelings are great and while they can impact all elements of your life, things can get better.”
Who does it affect and when?
Experiencing notions of being overwhelmed can happen to anyone at any time. “It’s likely that at one time or another we have all had the feeling that everything is just too much,” says Sarah. “The pandemic has affected everyone, from all backgrounds, so it’s understandable that to some extent we have probably all felt overwhelmed over the past nine months.”
In tumultuous times it’s vital to check in with your emotions regularly. “The more chaotic our environment, the more difficult we may find it to ground ourselves,” says Jane. “Understanding the reasons can be as difficult as the feelings themselves. This is because we find it easy to understand what is in our conscious awareness but much more difficult to identify what’s going on in our deeper unconscious inner-world. The sense of being ambushed by our feelings is universal.”
5 ways to beat overwhelm
“Write down what you’ve got to do,” says Natalie. “This sounds simple, but if you have lots and lots of things floating around in your head, you won’t be able to really see what needs to be done, and what you can tick off the list. In a similar vein, journaling is a great way to put your worries down on paper and free your mind from the overwhelm. No one is going to look at what you write and there are no rules, but it is a great way to gain clarity and peace of mind.”
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“Breath can be used as a tool to reset your mind and physiology,” says Sarah. “Try a simple 10-minute breathing exercise. Start by taking deep, full breaths and exhaling slowly out of your mouth. Focus on counting your inhalations and exhalations as that can help you transition from faster breathing to slower even breaths, which promote relaxation, counting aloud after each breath. Observe the sensation that it creates in your body, the rise and fall of your diaphragm. It’s completely normal if your mind wanders. Notice these thoughts, but then let them go, bringing your attention back to your breath.”
Return to mindfulness
“Practice mindfulness,” says Jane. “Choose a simple act to focus on, such as lighting a candle or making a cup of tea. Try to fully engage all five of your senses for as long as you possibly can while performing your task and be kind to yourself if your mind wonders – gently refocus all of your senses on the simple ritual. Try going for a mindful walk where, as much as possible, you bring all of your senses into what’s going on around you. You may find it easier to engage in flow activities such as reading, painting, crafting, puzzling or cooking. This can give us hours of rest from our overactive minds.”
Change the narrative
“Learn to let go of negative commentary,” says Sarah. “It’s OK to feel sad, unhappy or angry at times. You may naturally have a restless mind or frequently feel overwhelmed, frustrated, sad or worried which are natural responses to the current situation. We might mistakenly believe this is all we can feel and be, forgetting that thoughts and feelings are simply on the surface. The only way we can feel more in control of how we feel is to let go of that endless commentary which questions, doubts and obstructs the way to achieve happiness. When we let go of negative thoughts, we have more compassion towards ourselves and others.”
Celebrate the small stuff
“We can let our minds run away with us and think that all kinds of terrible things are going to happen when we are feeling overwhelmed, so rather than going to the worst case scenario, look at what you can do now,” says Natalie. “Take one task at a time, get that done and then reward that action. We sometimes think that only big wins like getting a promotion, a marriage proposal or moving house are worth celebrating, but small things such as cleaning the house, walking the dog or finally getting your admin done can, and should, be seen as wins.”