With everything going on in the world – pandemic, politics, wars and so much uncertainty – feeling overwhelmed by life events seems like a natural, or even expected, reaction. Crisis fatigue can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, rage and despair. Finding ways to simplify communication – within ourselves and in dialogue with others – about feelings and needs can be crucial to calm the mind and body and bring about better relationships.
When we engage with others in ways that make us feel seen and heard, it takes us out of the fight-flight-freeze response. It also helps to regulate the nervous system. This supports immune function, coping and resiliency. Additionally, it improves the ability to manage moods, experiences and demands.
This sounds simple but it’s actually quite challenging. When feeling overwhelmed, the very state of being overloaded itself makes it difficult to organize emotions, prioritize how to best problem solve or know how to ask for what we need.
The following strategy builds insight and self-awareness. It starts by turning towards healthy communication internally, within our own mind-body system. Naming and containing emotions can help calm the mind and lead to more flexibility, openness and hope.
Step 1: When overwhelmed or feeling intense emotions, identify self-talk at it’s core level. This starts the process of organizing and giving perspective to the experience.
Begin by taking a pause and a breath.
Next, take a minute to track your thoughts and feelings. Do this without managing them. Just observe them as though taking note of some data points or imagine those thoughts contained by clouds moving past you in the sky. This allows for a broader view of what’s going on and it can reduce some of the “heat” from the tangle of thoughts and emotions. It can also lessen the intensity of the feelings of overwhelm.
Step 2: Notice the statements you are making to yourself and others. They may create a fixed system of limiting beliefs. Feeling trapped, including by thoughts and emotions, deepens the perception of feeling overwhelmed.
We often don’t recognize our own automated self-talk and how it anchors us in rigid and painful narratives from the past or about the future. Classical mindfulness, through the step of labeling, directs awareness to how we sometimes identify ourselves with our emotions. Left uncorrected, without realizing we are doing so, we take ourselves out of the present moment and instead stay locked in closed sets of beliefs.
For example, “I am sad,” or “I can’t do this,” correlates “I” with the emotion or the experience. It’s essentially saying, “I equals sad.” With the statement, “I am sad,” sad becomes a fixed identity for the self (the “I”). Similarly, the statement, “I can’t do this,” seems quite final.
Classical mindfulness instead advocates shifting these kinds of statements by observing the process of what’s happening in the present moment. “I am sad,” would become something like, “I am feeling sad;” “I can’t do this,” might be, “I’m thinking that I can’t do this.” When we change to highlight our process like this, we have the opportunity to recognize the temporariness of the experience. It gives perspective and a feeling of context and manageability.
Step 3: Re-frame your self-talk statements into questions. Curiosity in communication helps to calm the mind and create better relationships with ourselves and with others.
Think about times when you have been feeling overwhelmed or stuck or have witnessed others who seem unreachable in their thinking. I’ve seen many individuals, couples and family members over the years in my psychology practice. When conflict arises or people get into a rut, invariably each of the persons has made up their mind that they KNOW all of the choices, options, motivations or ways that the other person (or organization or job or universe!) thinks or feels.
Once we have identified our own internal dialogue and underlying stories, we can also redirect ourselves to become curious. We can ask ourselves questions. As soon as we do this, we free ourselves from the binds that trap us in the current experience or leave us feeling of overwhelmed.
Some examples of productive and transformational questions might be:
- What would you (or the other person) actually like to have happen?
- What’s at the heart of your motivations in the situation and what’s at the heart of others in this situation? Ask this question of yourself and others rather than assuming that you know. Really listen. You might be surprised.
- How can everyone get at least part of their needs met?
- Think of another challenging situation that you’ve gone through in which you feel proud of how you handled it. Could you apply some of those principles to the current dynamic? Does thinking about that calm your mind?
These simple steps can begin the process of organization and cohesiveness between what’s happening inside our selves and in our immediate and greater environments and relationships. When we gain insight and curiosity and stay in the temporariness of the present moment, we can re-frame our self-talk to diffuse feelings of overwhelm. Doing so brings about a sense of empowerment, choice, joy and hope.
Featured image by BullRun for adobe
Blog has previously appeared on www.drdyan.com on May 18, 2022