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Understanding Overwhelm

If overwhelm is an all too frequent visitor, you likely find yourself withdrawing and trying to arrange conditions to be as quiet and peaceful as possible.  When conditions are just right, you might get a short respite, but overwhelm seems to return no matter what you do.

The conditions, schedules, and company you keep in life are important of course.  You set them up to support a thriving life, yet these things are only one aspect of thriving.  It's essential to look at how your internal workings do or do not contribute to a thriving life.

As you examine the inner workings of overwhelm, you will likely find two major internal triggers - disconnect from choice & unintegrated trauma.  When you are disconnected from your sense of choice, life seems like a pressure cooker.  The responsibilities and commitments you've chosen seem to come at you faster than you can meet them.  Interrupting this onslaught requires a reconnection with choice.  Here are a few ways that may help you reconnect with your choice:

  • Find resource in the energy of the needs.  Name and connect with the needs you had hoped to meet when you initially chose a given responsibility or commitment.

  • Get grounded in what's actually happening.  Overwhelm will have you thinking that your every action is life or death.  Unless you are actually in a crisis situation*, you can mindfully notice that people around you are basically okay, there is no crisis, and it doesn't all depend on you.

  • Find cheerleaders for your choice.  "You can authentically choose what's right for you."  This is a mantra a student asked the whole group to say to her in a class recently.  You may simply need compassionate cheerleaders to remind you that you get to choose, that's it's a good thing for everyone if you choose exactly what's right for you.  The ability to authentically choose is often connected to a sense of worthiness or goodness, i.e., you are worthy of a choice that supports your thriving.  See this gem for more on that:

The second major internal trigger for overwhelm is typically unintegrated or unhealed trauma.  Trauma leaves in its wake a hypersensitive nervous system.  In psychology we call this hyperarousal.  This means that your nervous system is responding with a red alert to things or people in your environment that don't need your attention and aren't a threat.  Symptoms of a hypersensitive nervous system include a high startle response, sweaty palms, racing heart rate, shutting down (fuzzy mind and/or numbness), shallow breathing, freezing, and withdrawing.  Fortunately the healing world has come a long way in its understanding and treatment of trauma.  Body based methods for the treatment of trauma have been shown to be incredibly effective and can allow healing and integration without having to re-live or even remember the initial traumatizing events.  Somatic experiencing as founded by Peter Levine and EMDR as founded by Francine Shapiro are two well developed modalities.

Understanding these two triggers is helpful only insofar as you bring compassion with understanding.  Compassion for your experience is the basis of all healing work.  Every moment of overwhelm is an opportunity to engage in compassionate witnessing of your experience.  For example, "I am feeling overwhelmed.  It's difficult place to be.  I long for peace.  It's okay for overwhelm to be here, I can be with it in compassion."


Take a moment to review the practices listed above.  Choose one.  Create a specific do-able request about how you will engage that practice.

*I want to acknowledge the fact of actual crisis for many living beings in our world, humans, animals, and entire ecosystems.  Overwhelm from connection to these crises requires, at the very least, a balance of grieving and wise action to contribute.

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6 Responses

  1. Aug 18, 2016
    Pam in Minnesota

    LaShelle, thank you so very much for this gem. It comes at just the right time for me and I am grateful for the understanding and hope it has brought me.

  2. Aug 18, 2016
    Pam in Minnesota

    I also have a request - I would love to read more about responding in a crisis with grieving and contributing, as you mention in the footnote to this gem.

  3. Aug 18, 2016

    Recently I've been studying the concept of "resilience", which is about developing a larger capacity to handle overwhelming circumstances, especially those things you can't change. I find it to be a distinct discipline that is different than healing past hurts, and can be a more empowering response than constantly grieving unmet needs. I still think grieving is important, just this resilience piece was missing for me before and I've found it quite helpful.

  4. Aug 19, 2016

    Thanks Pam, I will see if I can write a gem relevant to your request. Thanks for your comment.

    Emma, I wonder if you have a favorite resilience reference you could post? I agree, such an important piece.

  5. Aug 19, 2016

    To be honest I more just sat with the concept for a long time; the idea that I can be stronger than my circumstances, whatever they are. It was like an internal decision about what story I wanted to tell to myself about myself in relation to the world. Like that I wasn't just healing from the past, I was growing my capacity to handle whatever was on my path in the present and future. And then I just started tracking it more, my sense of resilience, where it was from day to day, and what helped maintain it and what helped it get stronger. So, I developed a relationship with it as a quality in itself.

    I also connected it to privilege and how having privilege and living in a bubble can start insulating you from life's challenges that others don't have the privilege to not have to deal with. And to work for social justice you have to go in the opposite direction, toward taking on more discomfort and expand your capacity to be with pain and struggle without needing to retreat so much. So it was also about what values I wanted to live in the world, and the integrity of being part of fighting injustice on behalf of others even though I don't have to personally experience it.

    So for me it was mostly an internal process, but there are two books I think are good on the topic, "The Resilience Breakthrough: 27 Tools for Turning Adversity into Action" which is a step by step self-help kind of book, and "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl which is a memoir of someone who was a concentration camp survivor.

  6. Sep 02, 2016

    Thanks so much for this offering. I am appreciating your insight and dedication to growth and resiliency.

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