Understanding & Managing Overwhelm (Part 2 of 3)

Disrupting Overwhelm

Last week I wrote about trying to understand overwhelm and what usually leads to it, so that we can start to notice it when it begins, and we can try to pivot out of it earlier rather than later. Today, I’m going to write about how we can actually make that pivot once we’ve realised we’re beginning to feel that overwhelm.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

To recap, it can be great to focus on how the brain processes information so that we can begin to use that to our advantage. The brain uses a kind of pyramid structure in how we do this, starting with sensory information, followed by feelings and connections, resulting in logic and conscious problem-solving. If we want to begin to pivot ourselves out of an overwhelming situation, we must, therefore, begin with our breathing.

Breathing techniques can be an amazing toolset when it comes to physiological control. They help us to actionably release physical tension and they begin to give us a sense of control. It’s this sense of control that is important (remember the perception I spoke about in my previous article) because we then use this to piggyback our recovery from.

When we’re overwhelmed, we tend to spend our time thinking in circles and not actually achieving anything for it — which in turn becomes a negative feedback loop as this thinking turns to overthinking and we start to feel even worse. By focusing on a more basic and controllable bodily function, we can break this loop and start to get some clarity of what to do next.

A relaxation-focused breathing technique is great for this. Have you ever wondered why meditation is becoming more mainstream these days? That’s because most meditations involve techniques like this, especially the mindfulness ones (arguably the more popular at the moment). I won’t go too much into meditation, but that can be a worthwhile thing for you to pursue if you find this technique useful.

A great example of one of these breathing techniques is a simple 6-in-6-out. All you have to do is breathe in to a count of 6, followed by breathing out to a count of 6. And when do you stop? When you feel better and can think a little clearer. In my experience and my own research, I’ve found this to be very beneficial for quickly calming down, whether I’m angry, frustrated or even stressed about something in the middle of my day. There are many different variations of this, but the basic premise is to control the breath as best you can. Because it’s so versatile, this technique works for just about anyone if you give it enough time.

Grouping this with actively releasing physical tension in the body can be a deadly combination towards overwhelm, anxiety or stress. This only compounds the calming effects of your breathing. This is also a technique that is heavily used in meditations, and is more commonly known as visualisation training: by visualising physical stress leaving the body, we often feel the real effects of it.

Another great technique to help relax using your breath, but isn’t as complicated as counting while doing it, is to speak while breathing. You can do this externally or internally, whichever is easier. You can say something like “in” when you breathe in, followed by “out” or “release” when you breathe out. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it can really help. The basic premise with this is that you’re being repetitive, which helps to create a rhythm. The body likes rhythm.

The best part about using breathing techniques is that you’re using a tool that you will always have at your disposal, no matter where you are. It might seem overly simple, but centuries of meditation have shown how useful this is, across generations and cultures.

Take Stock of Your Emotions

The human being is primed to pay more attention to feelings of negativity and loss and amplifies these over positive ones. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, these emotions are amplified even more. This is what is known as negativity bias; or, alternatively, loss aversion. Do you recall how great you felt the last time you earned R100? What about R1000? Now, do you recall how you felt when you lost that R100 or R1000? If you’re part of the general population, then more than likely you recall the negative feelings of the loss way more than the positive feelings of the gain. It’s natural. Another great example is whether you remember the last time you went through a series of green lights one after another. You may have noticed it, but how did you feel? Now, do you remember how you felt when you went through a series of red lights one after another? My point exactly.

Goodluck avoiding this little conundrum, however, because we actually have about 5x more fear-based circuits in our brains than reward-based ones. This is evolutionary if you’re willing to look at it a little deeper. Fear can be an incredible motivator. The chemicals released in our bodies during a fearful state allow us to be more alert to the given situation and act quicker (incorrectly or not), instincts human beings have used to survive harsh environments for millennia.

This means that we often react slower to positive and neutral things. It also affects how we perceive threats. Even perceived threats — real or not — can, therefore, limit our cognitive abilities relating to creativity and collaboration.

Positive moments, however, if they are strong enough, have the power to break the negative state we are in. And the more we notice these things, all the positive things happening around us, the more we develop our optimistic outlooks on life and the situation we’re in. More specifically, they replenish that brainpower and ability to think creatively and problem-solve, and can be just enough to clear the fog to consider a more helpful approach.

You can do this simply by shifting your attention to things or people that you’re grateful for, or things you’re looking forward to in the near (or distant) future. When you begin to visualise these things, you can start to feel those overwhelming effects dissipate, and the fog starts to clear as you’re reminded about why you’re there in the first place.

Practising this kind of visualisation, or meditation can make it easier to do it in those trying moments when we need those precious resources. Doing them regularly can help you to see patterned results, which reinforce the practice. It can, therefore, be helpful to plan these kinds of meditations into your schedule if you’re more prone to overwhelm than usual.

A great way to make this a more regular practice is by a technique called habit-stacking, which I first learned about in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. For example, instead of carving out time to specifically visualise these things, do it while enjoying your morning cup of coffee or in your evening shower or bath. You can even be more active and go for a walk, all the while doing these visualisations. Just pay some attention to where you’re walking as well, of course.

Another great positive trigger can be a song that always puts you in a great mood or state of mind. Be careful, though. You don’t want to overdo this. We’ve all heard enough jokes on the internet around overplaying music to know not to mess with this too much. Save it for special occasions perhaps.

Perspective Is Everything

When it comes to our perspectives, often the words we use have power over us and have more of an impact on how we feel than we give them credit for. I always remember this one time at band camp — just kidding, it wasn’t band camp — where a good friend of mine told me the power of the word unfortunately. When we say something like unfortunately, we give the impression that we have no control over whatever it is that is unfortunate. Yes, there are unfortunate things that happen all the time, but some things are not unfortunate, they just are. As soon as we become conscious of using the word, we start to take it out of our mouths. When I started doing this, I immediately felt more powerful in my speech, and suddenly I felt I had far more control over the situation or the information than I originally thought. Sometimes, just shifting our tone and how we talk — even to ourselves — can have lasting effects on our internal (and external) states and emotions.

This is because the words we use have energy associated with them. With unfortunately, there is the energy of helplessness attached to it, which plays out when we use it. Here are a few examples of simple tone shifts when we’re feeling overwhelmed:

  • “I’m feeling very overwhelmed” can shift to “I’m feeling really challenged by this”
  • “I’m really stressed out” can shift to “I’m going through a difficult experience”
  • “I’m really busy” can shift to “I have a lot on the go at the moment”

The first statements have a sense of permanence to them and are often said in a negative tone — have you ever seen someone say they were stressed out with glee? This can make us subconsciously feel like we have no control or that they’re a part of who we are — “I am…”

These situations, being stressed out, busy or overwhelmed are short-term circumstances and emotions. We only give them permanence and more debilitating power when we use these tones to express them. They are real, yes, but they don’t have to be permanent. When we give them this power, we only teach ourselves that overwhelm is a chronic condition, when it doesn’t have to be.

The tricky part about this is that we do it all the time without realising it. But, as soon as we start to pay attention to what we say and how we say it, we can begin to shift that energy into a more positive direction. We can take a ‘threatening’ perspective and shift it to a ‘challenging’ one. One is limiting and the other makes room for potential.

A great exercise to help with this, if you struggle with making these shifts in the moment, is to use a trigger-tamer list. The triggers are words that we use that can cause overwhelm, and the tamers are more creative and positive ways to say the same thing. The ‘threatening to challenging’ shift I made reference to in the previous paragraph is a good example of this in action. Once you start to notice where these words come up and what they look like, you can start to change them; and the more we do this, the less likely we are to fall into an overwhelm trap.

The important thing to note, however, is that these shifts don’t minimise the legitimacy of these experiences. All they do is help to train our minds to be more flexible and to view them in a more positive light in the future. This way, we have a greater opportunity to change them. That’s what we’re working towards, aren’t we?

These experiences will still happen. You can’t always avoid them. But, consistent practice is key, because the more we practice, the more these techniques become ingrained in us and we no longer have to think about them so consciously. And the less we think about things consciously, the quicker we can act. It’s all a process, but it has to start somewhere. That somewhere is you.

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Zachary Styles

Zachary Styles

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.