Overwhelm. Nobody likes it, but if we’re honest we’ve probably all had moments of it in the last 7-10 days. Or it might feel like more of a constant companion, a kind of phantom lurking in the background ready to pounce at any moment. 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.
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 brain’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. And your experience of emotions changes too. Emotions like anger or anxiety operate on the same physiological system - remember the old ‘fight or flight’ description of this system? So 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, it tries to get you to change your circumstances to reduce the demand - so you will start to find highly stimulating situations much more difficult than usual to bear. So rooms full of noise, busy or complex conversations - even perfectly reasonable demands from people you love - all these things might feel just too much as you crave peace and escape.
Secondly, and importantly, 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. But it takes short cuts and makes assumptions to save demand, so when you’re using this system you are more likely to fall back on old habits and patterns which can be unhelpful - and trigger difficult emotions.
The other important impact of switching to the fast system is that your rational thinking brain is turned RIGHT DOWN. So your capacity to analyse rationally and problem solve decreases dramatically. In practice, this means that things start to feel very simple and binary, black or white. Which makes decisions easier but also has some unfortunate consequences. When we’re in this pattern of thinking things feel like they are either good or bad, success or failure, hero or villain - and our natural bias towards the negative means they more often feel like the worse option than the good. Of course, it isn’t that simple. And things are rarely therefore as bad as they feel.
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. The likelihood is when you can find a calmer space and your thinking brain can kick back in things will feel less bleak.
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:
Too many plates to keep spinning.
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.
In times like we are in now, change is everywhere. Many of us have lost all our normal routine. This is totally disorienting at a brain level and surprisingly stressful - even when it means that we have less to do than normal. This is why inputting routine, and trying to stick to normal things where possible can help. So you might not need to get up at a particular time anymore or get dressed, or work at set hours, or whatever it is - but it will help your brain if you can implement a predictable routine and stick to it.
Your own thoughts
Here’s one for the extraverts and external thinkers out there. Some people in particular struggle to process their thinking in their own headspace. They have a genuine need to bounce things off other people and make those thoughts external as part of the way their mind works.
The same people often thrive on stimulation and socialisation to get their drive and motivation. Personality theory would say their baseline level in the brain is low, so they love to get external triggers to push them into the best zone for them.
If that is you, this is a particularly tough time as you may well have lost a lot of your naturally stimulating and vibrant spaces. But you don’t have to just accept it - see where you can create connection, buzz and brainstorming - make good use of tools like zoom and try to form routine where you do have regular connections.
Lack of headspace
Meanwhile, some others might be expected to be thriving in this time of isolation. Introverts classically enjoy their own headspace and thrive from quiet and time alone to process. And they may indeed be much more at home with the concept of alone time and more able to fill it with reflection and activities they can continue on their own.
But spare a thought for those living in spaces which have suddenly become very busy. Kids not in school, spouses not in work, housemate all sharing the same space and locked down together - this can feel like an inescapable prison for people used to escape into their own thoughts. Introverts have a much higher baseline activation in their mind, so need a lot less stimulation - and being in situations where it is hard to find headspace and alone time can be very stressful and quickly feel overwhelming.
If this is you, try to find spaces you can get that boundaried time. Is there a room or space in your house you can turn into a den where you can escape and not be interrupted? Even telling the family you need some time in that space where they do not bother you? If you can go out for your daily exercise, do - and use the time to retreat into your mind. Don’t feel guilty about needing this - it is the way you are wired and you will support others better with this time to recharge.
Finally, 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. Limit news exposure to set times of day - listen just to the weekly briefings or a set news program once a day - so you know you are up to date, but not constantly exposed. ANd be careful around the use of social media. Again set boundaries around when and how you use it and check-in. Remember that news stories and those that circulate on SM are not always true, and even when they are self select the more dramatic or anxiety-provoking stories, so give you a biased perspective on any situation. Help yourself by not allowing it to dictate your day.
Interested in more on how to avoid overwhelm? Check out this video for some ancient wisdom and a biblical perspective.