Overwhelm. Nobody likes it, but if we’re honest we’ve probably all experienced it. Overwhelm can hit us predictably, when we’re juggling many responsibilities and stresses at the same time - or strike out of the blue when something happens and triggers a powerful emotion - but it floods our mind and paralyses our thinking, triggering powerful emotions and difficult thoughts that trigger yet more emotion. At its worst it can leave us afraid we might break with what we are carrying, or feeling like we can’t carry on. And overwhelm is often behind those moments we act out of character, lash out or do something we later regret or wish we could change.
What is Overwhelm?
Overwhelm is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - your brain triggering an alert that it has too much to deal with in any one moment. Your mind’s capacity isn’t limitless - whether that is attention capacity (how many things can you juggle or focus on at the same time), cognitive capacity (how much can you problem solve, decide or analyse at once), emotional capacity (how much difficult stuff can you process whilst still carrying on relatively normally) or just plain energy (your brain gets tired just like your body does so just like you can’t keep exercising non-stop your brain too needs to stop and rest sometimes).
Even your brain needs a break sometimes!
As well as the practical limits to how much you can hold in your head, all the things going on around you make demands on your brain - and that triggers your physiological stress system because they need you to respond. Life doesn’t have to be DISTRESSING to be STRESSFUL - times when you are juggling lots, or very busy raises your baseline stress level as your brain coordinates all the things you need to keep your mind on.
We can think of the level in our physiological stress system as a bit like the water level in a pool. When the baseline is around our ankles everything is fine. The little challenges of everyday life are like waves - and if the water level is low a wave is no problem at all. But we all have a limit - when the water gets up to our neck. When stress gets that high, we start to feel at the edge of ourselves. You might notice physical symptoms like palpitations, your breathing getting faster or headaches. Your thinking changes as your brain starts to try to get you to move yourself to somewhere quieter and less demanding so that you don’t go under. You might notice thoughts like ‘I need to get out of here’ or ‘I can’t cope with this’ as a result.
Of course sometimes it IS that we’re experiencing things that are emotional or distressing. And it doesn’t have to be in the present. Sometimes things going on NOW remind us of things in the past, and they trigger something I call echo emotions - emotions linked to the past event but experienced as if it were happening in the present.
Emotions like anger or anxiety operate on the same physiological system - remember the old ‘fight or flight’ description of this system? This means something triggering a background emotional flare raises the level on the whole system. And on top of that, when we are close to overwhelm it changes how we experience our emotional reactions to the more ordinary things of life. If your baseline is low, your emotions feel relatively stable. But the higher your stress level the more near to the surface your emotions feel - and the more easily triggered. So you might find yourself reacting disproportionately to little things, or having to deal with yourself being much more emotional than usual.
When you become close to overwhelm several things happen as your brain seeks to resolve the situation and calm things down. Firstly, as your brain is more under pressure, it has to change the way it makes decisions and processes information. You have two systems in your brain - a SLOW, ANALYTICAL processing system that uses your rational problem-solving brain, and a FAST, INSTINCTIVE system, which uses your emotional brain. The fast system makes much less demand on your brain, so if your head is already full you use this one much more. When we are in overwhelm our ability to analyse and rationalise is turned right down. This makes us more likely to react and get ourselves out of the situation - but it means our minds take short cuts.
The way this is experienced is that your thinking becomes very BINARY - one thing or another. Your mind simplifies the world as if it were black and white. Everything is either good or bad, success or failure, people are either for you or against you. Of course this isn’t true - things are rarely that simple. And when you feel bombarded and vulnerable you are more likely to assume the negative in each case. Which adds to your feeling of overwhelm.
Secondly, alongside this change in how you analyse and understand the world around us, your brain tries to get you to BAIL - to change your circumstances to reduce the demand. It does this with a powerful emotional reaction most people describe as a sense of rising panic or urgency, a need to get out or do something NOW. That rude combined with the difficulties of thinking rationally can leave us feeling powerless and hopeless, fuelling impulsive or desperate actions. And, as our overwhelmed brains seek quiet and calm, any kind of demand becomes hard. So talking to people, rooms full of noise, things that would normal feel perfectly reasonable - even demands from people or things you love - suddenly feel too much as you crave peace and escape.
The combination of all of this means that when we hit overwhelm things can feel very negative, and like there are no solutions or options except escape. It is important to remember that feeling like this is a symptom of overwhelm and not reality. Things are rarely therefore as bad as they feel. The likelihood is when you can find a calmer space and your thinking brain can kick back in things will feel less bleak. When you are overwhelmed the most important thing is to reduce demand, and to keep yourself safe in the meantime, and try to avoid reacting in ways you might regret or cannot be undone later.
Causes of overwhelm
Of course, everyone is unique and something one person finds overwhelming might not bother another at all. But here are some classic causes, together with tips for how to deal with them:
Demand, responsibility and busy seasons.
This one’s simple - the more stuff you are trying to figure out, keep going or hold in your head, the more demand on your brain. Think about when you go to the supermarket to get a list of things - and you haven’t written them down. You have to keep reciting them to yourself to keep them in your active memory. When life gets busy it is a bit like that but on a grand scale - and it is surprisingly stressful. This is why writing things down can help - it gets things out of your head and allows your mind to relax a little.
If thoughts wake you up at the moment or keep you awake try keeping a notepad by your bed so you can write down things you need to remember or get out of your head. Or proactively do this - before you go to bed try to brainstorm things you need to do or remember the next day. It may help your mind switch off.
One cause of overwhelm we often overlook is change. Routine and rhythm tell your mind what to expect. It is calming and is a surprising source of our sense of security and normality. Anything which causes change triggers stress and negative emotion as your brain tries to alert you to the change, and direct attentional capacity towards processing what this means.
One major source of overwhelm we are all exposed to is the potential for constant negative or anxiety-provoking information. Having the news on continually, or reading things on Facebook - all this may feel like a way to manage anxiety, but is actually very triggering for your mind, requiring it to constantly process, analyse and manage difficult information.
Try to limit how and when you access these spaces. Set boundaries around when and how you use social media and check-in. Help yourself by not allowing it to dictate your day, and avoid the temptation to keep checking.
Trauma comes in many forms, from the most obvious - traumatic, sudden or disturbing experiences, through grief and loss to the things that can be order to understand. Sometimes experiences are traumatic because they challenge important foundations to our lives - anchor people, places or even beliefs that we build out life around. Particularly if change is sudden or unexpected, your mind literally needs to reformat and work out what this means. That additional work to process and understand what has happened and the implications creates extra demand and may make you feel very overwhelmed.
Remember that trauma takes time to process. In the early stages overwhelm may mean you need to take time out and rest, or withdraw to safe space. Be kind to yourself. Limit who you see and what you do for a while until things settle. But remember even in the next stage of starting to figure out what this means and deal with what has happened, your mind will be working overtime. Make sure you create spaces to take time out and find release and relief from all the mental work.
Interested in more on how to avoid overwhelm? Check out this video for some ancient wisdom and a biblical perspective.
Kate Middleton, 26/04/2023