On Overwhelm

Contemplation, paper collage, 2022

I get overwhelmed easily and often. More easily and more often, perhaps, than I would like to admit. I get overwhelmed by strong emotions. I get overwhelmed from feeling my to-do list is too long. I get overwhelmed by too much stimulation (e.g., loud noises, bright lights, too much social media, too much news, and busy or chaotic environments, like, say, a mall at Christmastime). When suffering from overwhelm, I become anxious, irritable, and often short-tempered. I feel scattered and find it difficult to think clearly or at all. I also have a tendency to want lash out and quit everything, including (and especially) activities I love.

While we all get overwhelmed sometimes, it is my understanding that this experience is more common among highly sensitive people. (The best description I’ve seen of this phenomenon is “cognitive fatigue”). And, while I’ve experienced overwhelm my entire life, I didn’t learn to really acknowledge and accept it until recently. That is, for a long time, I told myself to toughen up or suck it up, which, of course, only made things worse, as working against ourselves tends to do. I find it’s much easier to acknowledge feelings of overwhelm when they manifest instead and either give them adequate time to pass or find productive ways of dealing with them.

I imagine—given that most of the folks who are reading this are writers, poets, artists, creators, and, generally, sensitive types—that you may also experience overwhelm easily and often. So, I think it’s a topic worthy of discussion. Here are some thoughts on dealing with overwhelm. 

Re-orient your perspective.

The inner experience of overwhelm, for me, is akin to drowning. I feel small, and the rest of the world feels…enormous. Engulfing, consuming, as if it’s bearing down on me with all its weight. Indeed, the volume also seems to be turned up on everything. Everything is loud. Everything is noise. Things like social media, for instance, or news, even sitting in a room (relatively quietly) with other people can feel noisy—and uncomfortably so.

When I feel this way, I find it most helpful to engage in activities that re-orient my perspective. That make me feel not-small and that make the world feel less hostile and more welcoming. Exercise is one of the best ways to do this. Running, especially, does wonders in the way of quieting my mind and rejuvenating my spirit, as does swimming. (As a side note, I’ve really been embracing cold morning runs over the past few weeks, now that temperatures have started dipping down to freezing. A wonderfully refreshing way to start the day.) Making art also helps, as does spending time in nature, meditating, or sitting quietly and listening to soft music. 

Go slowly, but don’t stop.

When I’m suffering from overwhelm, I find I repeat that phrase to myself again and again. Go slowly, but don’t stop. Break large tasks down into smaller, more manageable tasks and space them out, if need be. Not everything has to be done today. Not everything has to be perfect. Take a deep breath, and do what you can. Set a small, short-term productivity goal, and work to achieve it. Go slowly, but don’t stop. Overwhelm can be managed as long as we don’t let it paralyze us.

Don’t take your emotions too seriously. This, too, shall pass.

This is another reminder I give myself often. I don’t even want to take photographs or feed the birds anymore! I’m going to quit writing! I’m going to quit blogging! I’m going to quit everything! Except I don’t really want to quit everything—or anything, for that matter. When I feel like this, I find it most helpful to remind myself that this, too, shall pass. And resist the urge start quitting things or deleting things or lashing out in some sort of temper tantrum. In this case, I try to back away from activities that I feel might be contributing to overwhelm or that I want to quit because my emotions are running high. I also try to determine if I am putting undue pressure on myself that might be exacerbating those feelings. I find that, if I engage in other activities instead, like exercise or reading a book, it helps that wave of negative emotions pass.

17 responses to “On Overwhelm”

  1. Being overstimulated is exhausting. Maybe when I was young, it wasn’t a problem. Youth itself being full of energy. But nowadays…. I prefer a quiet room and a long walk.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing and sharing this essay. Of course, I can relate to your experience. Like your running, dancing helps ground me and helps me to release energy. Your last item, about not taking emotions too seriously reminded me of “The Four Agreements – Don’t take anything personally” (Miguel Ruiz). Not exactly the same, but it is a practice that helps me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My most sincere congratulations for the excellent work you have done throughout this year, both poetically and artistically. Merry Christmas and a very happy 2023, L. 🙂⛄🌲

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great entry. Many of the things you noted, I try to incorporate into my life when i feel overwhelmed. Often, the one that really seems to help me consistently is to keep in the forefront of my mind that “this too shall pass.” The simplicity of this truth has been such a comfort within the “complexity” of living. We often resist and fight our uncomfortable moments but if we understand the truth of their eventual passing, it can provide strength for the moments that we must endure them. Thank you for sharing…

    Liked by 1 person

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