A runaway cat, a missed work deadline and a never ending to-do list. How much is too much?
Twenty-eight-year-old Lily Andrews, an Abu Dhabi-based marketing professional, smiles ruefully as she remembers the times in her life when she felt so overwhelmed that she refused to emerge from bed for several hours. “When it rains, it pours, like the saying goes. There was one day, when everything went wrong. I missed a work deadline, got yelled at by my boss,” recalls the British expat. “I had to work late, as we had an important event to organise, and was trying to keep track of whom to call and follow up with. I came home exhausted, accidentally left the door open and then my cat ran out. So I spent the next hour running up and down the street, trying to look for her.”
Andrews now smiles and laughs at the memory, but that day, she felt so worn out that she felt rather feverish. “On days like those, I just try sleeping it off. If I can’t sleep, I just try watching something comfortable or listening to music to calm myself down. I go for a walk, and switch off from people for a while to re-center myself,” she says.
Like Andrews, all of us experience a state of overwhelm often. It’s when we feel that we have so much going on that we feel that we cannot cope with all of it. While anxiety is usually a normal response to regular stressors, it becomes a matter of concern when a person is in a perpetual state of worry. Eventually, it results in a dysfunctional way of living.
What happens when we are overwhelmed?
Being in an overwhelmed state can impact a person, physically and emotionally.
Apart from being low on energy and unable to sleep, you could feel as if you’re losing control over everything, explains Cassie Mather-Reid, a Dubai-based holistic life coach. It’s also when you feel that you are struggling to balance everyone’s expectations, along with your own relationships. “Overwhelmed is when you feel that things are just too much. It could be caused by stress, or traumatic life events, or relationship issues, or including your relationship with yourself,” the British expat says.
The reasons could differ in each person’s case, as everyone experiences a specific stressor that another might not face. “For example, something that overwhelms you, might not overwhelm me at all,” explains Girish Banwari, psychiatrist at Medcare Camali Medical Centre Jumeirah. Some people could have an extreme reaction to something that others might not react to.
When you are overwhelmed, you may feel as if you’re not able to cope with day-to-day struggles, or you begin to feel that you are not good enough. “You could feel as if you are fire-fighting, and unable to make progress with anything that you do,” she says. You tend to procrastinate and still feel guilty that you’re not able to get much done. In some cases, you can react to minor stressors, including being unable to find your car keys. These feelings need to be addressed, as the more you try to bury these emotions, the more overwhelmed you feel. Sometimes, people experience a ‘freeze’, where even the simplest tasks seem impossible.
You could feel as if you are fire-fighting, and unable to make progress with anything that you do. You tend to procrastinate and still feel guilty that you’re not able to get much done. You can react to minor stressors...
When we’re in this overwhelmed state, we experience a variety of physiological responses that can differ in each case.
The physiological response
The body then goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is a stress response triggered by our sympathetic nervous system, explains Delna Mistry Anand, a Dubai-based wellness expert. In this scenario, either the person goes ‘all guns blazing’ to ‘fight’ the problem, or they decide to avoid the situation completely. “Even a simple thought can bring about the fight or flight response in our body, causing the same physiological and psychological changes, like shortness of breath or quicker heart beats,” explains Anand.
As adrenaline is released into the bloodstream and there’s an increase of the stress hormone cortisol, the person can experience disrupted sleep patterns or even experience difficulty in digestion. You could feel disconnected with yourself, panicky, or have aches around your neck and shoulders, says Reid.
Even a simple thought can bring about the fight or flight response in our body, causing the same physiological and psychological changes, like shortness of breath or quicker heart beats...
Moreover, the person could experience, shivering, palpitations or sweating, nausea or that feeling of something being stuck in the throat. They could even have a panic attack or completely dissociate in extreme cases, adds Banwari.
How can you cope with being overwhelmed?
Systematic practice of meditation and breathing is what got Aseya Nasib, a yoga teacher through a crippling OCD (obsessive-compulsive issue) panic during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had a major OCD episode during the pandemic. The physical effects were constant panic attacks. I got through by learning how to work with my nervous system through breath practices and gentle movement. You can use those practices to help signal to the body that you’re safe and help the parasympathetic nervous system take over, allowing your body to come out of a state of stress and fear,” she says.
Tazeen Jafri, a Pakistani PR consultant in Sharjah utilises the method of activating her five senses, by smelling her favourite fragrances, drinking water or listening to background sounds, like footsteps or people talking. Touching fabrics, or something which provides comfort, calms her down too.
On the other hand, Sunil Kumar, a consultant and martial arts enthusiast, learned the art of meditation and deep breathing during his training sessions, which helped him keep anxiety and stress under control. It helped to keep his mind calm and alert and helped boost his confidence, as he says.
Breathing exercises and meditation seem central to overcoming the state of overwhelm, as the experts say in consensus. However, before practising meditation or any form of breathwork, the first step is to acknowledging and accepting that you’re in an overwhelmed state, says Banwari. “Just acknowledging that we are feeling helpless and lacking control, can be therapeutic,” he says. “The next step is to try and understand why is it happening,” he adds. Many times these thoughts emerge from a state of fear and seem irrational, and can result in blame games with oneself. A person tends to go with the flow of these thoughts and make false assumptions about themselves. These assumptions about a person’s life tends to flood the person’s thought processes, till they’re unable to think clearly.
Just acknowledging that we are feeling helpless and lacking control, can be therapeutic. The next step is to try and understand why is it happening. You can reach out to someone in your support system and if you don’t wish to do that, you can just write it down...
Overwhelm robs us of the present moment, so the best way to overcome it is to focus on the present moment, says Kira Jean, a success coach and founder of The Dreamwork Collective publishing house. "You can do this by taking a moment to understand the what, when, who, and where of your overwhelm. Ask yourself: What is causing me to feel overwhelmed? When have I felt this way before? Who can support me through this? Where can I go right now to take a moment to reset?"
If you experience persistent triggers of overwhelm, it's important to prioritise low-impact physical activities that can help your nervous system get back to rest mode, she adds. "You can try breathwork exercises, vagal nerve exercises such as singing or gargling water, or somatic relaxation exercises of which there are many YouTube videos. Although difficult during the summer months, my favorite way to reset my nervous system is by taking a long, slow walk," says Jean.
If you experience persistent triggers of overwhelm, it's important to prioritise low-impact physical activities that can help your nervous system get back to rest mode. You can try breathwork exercises, vagal nerve exercises such as singing or gargling water, or somatic relaxation exercises....
You can reach out to someone in your support system and if you don’t wish to do that, you can just write it down, even if it is a random flow of thoughts. It does help to see the stressors more clearly, says Banwari. Once you jot down your feelings, you can also have a better understanding of what can be done, rather than just focusing on having a problem itself. Following this, you will also learn to prioritise and not add too much to an overflowing plate.
Here are the strategies you can follow:
• Breathing exercises: Take deep breaths, let it flow into your stomach as deeply as possible, without trying to force it. Breathe in through your nose, and breathe in and out gently, and do this for five minutes. Any sort of mindfulness, slowing down or just temporarily removing yourself from the triggering situation is beneficial.
• Take a walk: It will help you organise your day. It doesn’t have to be a long one, it will just help you find gratitude in things around you, says Reid.
• Plan better: Break down your tasks, so that your day doesn’t seem so overwhelming. “Don’t delay the difficult tasks till later and do only the simpler ones first, as that itself can cause anxiety,” she says.
• Grounding yourself: Grounding helps emotional and physiological response, which could mean something like getting in touch with Nature. It could mean just being aware of your surroundings, explains Banwari.
• Learn to say no, and prioritise yourself more
• Inducing the dopamine ‘happy hormones’: These activities could include anything that make a person feel comfortable, like listening to music, or watching a film, trying to do something on your list that you haven’t done, eating a good meal, or just spending time with friends. These activities could release chemicals that counter the ones that are released when you feel stressed, explained Banwari.
• Look for peace and quiet: Just sit with yourself and stay in the moment, and don’t use it as a planning time.