Leaning In to Emotional Overwhelm


Overwhelm is an invitation to turn lovingly towards yourself, to care for your body, to tend to your emotional needs, and to change unhealthy habitual thoughts and self-talk.

A common reaction to overwhelm is to brace against it, turn away from it, and distract our selves in an effort to cope and feel better. But, problems are rarely solved by pretending they aren’t there.

If you turn toward your emotions and lean in to your true experience, you can sort out what’s going on inside and figure out what you need.

Turning toward gives you the ability to respond instead of react. Leaning in, you can examine things with enough detail to create solutions, you can ask for help, and you can organize yourself inside. The brave curiosity of leaning in puts you in control – at least of yourself – and allows you to use your personal power to effect change.

What is emotional overwhelm?

Overwhelm is an anxiety response. We feel overwhelmed when we not only have difficult emotions and situations to sort out, but we also fear there is too much to handle.  The human nervous system has some basic responses to fear – fight, flight and freeze – which are effective in dire emergencies but not so great in solving our day-to-day challenges.

At the most basic level, emotional overwhelm is fear of our own feelings.

If you are in a fear response, your system is operating in survival mode and not in your higher functions. Acknowledge your fear as oneof the emotions you are having, and then allow yourself to explore the other emotions that are also present in you alongside of or below fear.

Here’s a Three Step process to transform emotional overwhelm into an action plan.

Step One: Tune in to your body.

First of all, bring conscious awareness to your body and the sensations you are having. Notice any discomfort, numbness, heat, cold, pressure, tightness, tingling, posture or anything else you may be feeling in your body. Also notice any and all places in your body that feel calm or normal and do not seem to be part of the physical experience of overwhelm.

What are you experiencing in your belly, chest, throat, head, or elsewhere? Describe the sensations that are present during this episode of overwhelm.  Consider what would support your body in feeling calm. Slow deep breathing, going for a walk, stretching, or having a cry are all examples of helping the body to restore calm.

Going to the body is like applying first aid – first we look at the physical symptoms and bring support to the body. What would immediately be helpful? What might help your body to feel more relaxed or stabilized?

Step Two: Identify what emotions you are feeling and call them by name.

Emotions are here to serve: they are trying to inform you. Even the difficult ones hold many gifts if you can learn to welcome and explore them to see what they have to teach you.

Make friends with your emotions. Get to know them and call them by name: sadness, anger, fear, grief, abandonment, loss, loneliness, frustration, shame, joy, hope, love, tenderness.

The antidote for overwhelm is not to feel less, but to feel more accurately.Can you tell the difference between excitement and fear? Many emotions feel fairly similar in the body.

Our emotions are a brilliant internal guidance system. Naming the emotions you are experiencing, you begin to see what emotional needs are going unmet.  Sadness has a different need than shame. Abandonment has a different need than frustration. How can you begin to get what you need?We can only discover our emotional needs if we are able to understand what it is we actually feel.

 Step Three: Notice your thoughts and self-talk.

Next, notice the thoughts you are having. You might have some like “I can’t handle this” or “I’m going to fail” or “I hate the way this feels.” Just notice your thoughts. There may be several themes or repeating thought cycles.  Do your thoughts frighten you? Depress you? Devalue you? Insult you?

Speak the dominant unhealthy thoughts out loud so you can hear them with your own ears. Write them down so you can see them with your own eyes. Many of our self-critical or self-frightening thoughts go unchallenged in the privacy of our minds. Speaking them aloud and writing them down allows us to experience them differently, and to see what old beliefs we may want to discard and replace with healthier beliefs.

Thought habits can absolutely be changed. What are the unhealthy thoughts or beliefs you have about yourself that are contributing to your emotional distress? What healthy thoughts and self-talk would you like to replace them with or make more prominent instead?

You can provide calm, wise leadership inside yourself.

 Leaning in to your inner world, you can understand who you are and what you value, and you can make changes that feel right for the life you want to live. Instead of simply coping with difficult emotions and overwhelm, you can learn to lovingly care for yourself and grow your confidence in your ability to be your own strong and wise leader.

Leaning in, you step out of helplessness and step into your personal power. You discover your own wisdom, compassion and ability to overcome difficulties and lead a happier, more authentic life.


*This column is not a substitute for mental health counseling. If you are experiencing severe overwhelm or emotional distress, please seek additional help from a therapist, coach, trusted elder, or clergy member.









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