Overwhelm is a constant state of being for many of us, but it doesn’t need to be. Most of us are under a deluge of responsibilities like running errands, responding to emails, keeping up with house-chores, hurrying to meetings, and more. Though this is normal in our modern lives, our nervous system struggles to keep up. If we don’t make a conscious effort to relieve this kind of stress, our adrenals get depleted, and sometimes we get sick. Luckily overwhelm is not about how much is going on in your life, it is all about how you manage things. Let’s dissect overwhelm from a neurological perspective and explore ways to reduce its impact on our lives.
When life’s circumstances overwhelm our ability to cope or integrate, our nervous system goes into a stress response. It doesn’t need to be a life-threatening incident for the nervous system to trigger a fight, flight or collapse response. The interesting thing is that it is purely subjective. It can be as simple as a “perceived threat”, like being embarrassed in public, imagining that you will get fired for being late, or having a squirrel run in front of your car. Regardless of how big or small the incident is, our system can go into overwhelm, causing our brain to release all the stress hormones that accompany it.
Self Awareness to the Rescue
We pride ourselves in being busy. Many of us feel like something is wrong if we are tired, or feeling lazy and want to lay on the couch and stare at a wall. Actually, this is the parasympathetic, restorative nervous system that is inviting us to step out of our constant ‘go-go-go’ state so that we can unwind. Laying in the grass and looking at the clouds is actually much better for us than being on a couch staring at a wall, but we rarely make a conscious decision to do so. Instead, we collapse right in the middle of cleaning our house and then beat ourselves up for being lazy.
Humans have a very different way of coping with stress than all other primates. In order to conquer fire (a trait that has allowed humans to climb to the top of the food chain), we had to develop regions of the brain that suppress our fear so that we can overcome it. The stress hormones associated with fear are still released even if we don’t indulge them. Animals instantly discharge these hormones, but humans need to do this consciously. In other words, we have to make a choice to actively engage in practices that reset our nervous system. As we have explored in How to Relieve Stress Stored in our Bodies, this process can be a whole lot of fun and very rewarding on many levels.
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. -Clarissa Estes
We live in a time of extreme bombardment of information, along with a desire to wake up socially and address the many problems facing the world. There is no effective solution when we come from a constant state of overwhelm. Being relaxed and clear-minded is the only way to approach these seemingly insurmountable issues. This research is well documented in the Uplift article Will Humanity Choose Love or Fear? Is the information you are reading an immediate threat to your survival… Probably not.
Information overload occurs when a person is exposed to more information than the brain can process at one time. –Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D
The right hemisphere of our brains is great for creativity and spirituality, it is where we go when we ponder the eternal nature of things, yet it doesn’t comprehend time sequencing. Understanding this is paramount to taking the reigns on our overwhelm and positioning us to have greater coping skills. This unconscious, biologically-wired, stress response is explored in Get to Know Your Amygdala.
The right hemisphere processes experience differently from the left – non-verbally through body sensations, visual images, emotions, and holistically – it processes the gestalt of someone’s face or energy globally, all at once, rather than in a linear data bit by data bit mode. The right hemisphere is where we get our “gut” intuitive sense of things and the gestalt of things as a whole. The right hemisphere is the seat of the social and personal self. The right hemisphere regulates the sub-cortical limbic system and is dominant for social-emotional processing. -Linda Graham
How Do We Get Past Overwhelm?
Step One is as simple as recognizing that you are operating from a state of overwhelm. Self-awareness breaks us out of unconscious patterning, and this is central to the practice of mindfulness. Learning to check in with one’s self by pausing is also a great way to develop emotional intelligence.
Step Two is to take a few deep breathes after recognizing that you are overwhelmed. This also works if you are angry, sad, or reacting out of fear. Since the emotional response is rooted in the right hemisphere, it always feels immediate. By breathing you are helping your mind integrate the threat level into time synchronisation, which is a left-brain process that will help relax your nervous system.
Step Three is to remind yourself that you are safe, and to develop strategies to call on this sense of safety when needed. This is known as resourcing one’s self, and there are healthy ways of doing it, as well as unhealthy ways. Hint: reaching for a cigarette, or indulging in television, drugs, or junk-food is not as effective as 5 minutes of stretching, mindful breathing, or taking a moment to connect with nature.
Step Four is to help your body let go of any stress hormones that may have been released into your system at the first moment of panic/overwhelm. Shake like a dog, jump up and down or do some psoas stretches to discharge the nervous system and help you reset your physical body as well as your emotional body.
Overwhelm has a whole lot to do with our perceptions. We have the capacity to expand our mental-emotional container to be able to integrate larger and larger amounts of information without succumbing to overwhelm in the first place. The steps above will help you deal with overwhelm when it hits you, but a daily mindfulness practice will help you reduce the instances when you are thrown into overwhelm. The ability to respond without reacting, to observe without indulging, will help you increase success in your life on many levels. It will also be a valuable skill in rapidly changing times!