This blog is the transcript of Episode #61 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.
Thank you to everyone who sent me feedback about last week’s episode to confirm that none of us is the only one feeling fucked up right now. And of course we aren’t. So glad that permission was helpful to you! This week I am building on last week’s theme with an episode on what to do when you feel stopped in your tracks by stress, fatigue, worry, grief and emotional pain. So many people around me, including many of my clients, are having big moments of asking the question, what exactly do I do when I’m feeling this overwhelmed? If you find yourself asking that question as well, this show and the three principles I’m going to share are for you.
There’s a quote that comes to mind, source unknown, that goes something like, “Keep the company of those who seek enlightenment, but run like mad in the opposite direction from anyone who claims to have achieved it”. In the spirit of this quote, I’ll begin with the premise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to help yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed. And anyone who gives you a formula is likely not at all paying attention to the complexity of life and the endless variations of emotional needs across humans. That said, I am going to share some general principles with you that you can apply based on what you know about yourself, what works for you and the specific situations in which you may be finding yourself these days.
First and foremost I’ll state the obvious. You have to notice that you’re feeling overwhelmed in order to realize that you can do something about it. Which is so much easier than it sounds. Much of the time that you’re all fucked up, to borrow my phrase from Episode #60, your perspective has shrunk to zilch. You have none. You can’t see beyond the racing thoughts or darkening despair or burning resentment because those states are so consuming. It can seem like an impossible prospect to catch yourself when the very skill to catch yourself is the one being heavily taxed by your emotional state.
One thing I have found that can give you some chance at interrupting this spiral is the willingness on purpose in lower intensity moments to check in with your state of mind. If you regularly are tracking how you’re feeling – for example, recognizing you are feeling lighthearted one day or worried the next – this practice can come to your aid in the moment when you have no extra perspective except that which you have cultivated leading up to that moment. Put another way, when you’re all fucked up and your resources are tapped, what you have to help you is what you have been practicing every moment before then.
A good example of this happened recently when a few weeks ago during an afternoon hike, I got lost for over four hours in a vast barren logging area near our house. I’m not going to lie, it got scary in moments. What ensured I made it out to tell the tale were all of the practices that I cultivate day after day. In this case, my physical fitness, my strong nervous system and my capacity to communicate clearly with my husband who in the end, was my one-man rescue squad. More on that story another time. But the moral is that what I do every day to take care of myself in my not lost moments truly saved me when I did in fact, get very lost.
There’s a meditation teacher and musician who I follow who is super candid and funny and realistic and who summarizes this principle well. Krishna Das, who tours the world teaching chanting and meditation, says that when you get highly triggered, you’re basically fucked, it happens to everyone and in that state, you’ve really lost control. But what you can control is how long you stay there. And that is about all of the hundreds of hours of practice that came before.
So the first principle here is, since you know that at some point you’re going to be overwhelmed by life, start by tracking on a regular basis how you’re feeling in real time, including moments when you are feeling less overwhelmed. Which leads me to my next principle, which is, build in a buddy system. That’s right, we are back to Robert Fulghum’s classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was in kindergarten where I first learned about the buddy system for staying safe, like for going on field trips and keeping track of one another. Find a friend, a co-worker you trust or even a family member and plan to do regular buddy check ins. This is not about major emotional lifting or solving the other person’s problems. It’s more like a temperature check and a reminder that we’re in this together. I currently have a local buddy, she’s amazing and I hope she listens to this. We send almost daily check ins, mostly reporting on how we are doing and sending care. That’s it. It’s working. And knowing that I may be checking in with her soon, I am tracking my state of mind. Voila. Perspective.
So, let’s say you are tracking your state of heart and mind on a regular basis including checking in regularly with your buddy. And you find yourself able to identify that yes, in fact, you are totally fucked up and feeling overwhelmed. A third principle you can apply is, “Stop something and start something”. What “somethings” you choose are up to you and what you know works for you. For example, stop staring at a screen and start drinking water. Stop holding your breath and start moving your feet. Stop typing that email you may regret and just stand up. Stop isolating and start asking for help. Stop criticizing yourself and start looking in the mirror with a soft gaze. The examples are infinite and the more specific, the better. Usually if you are under the wave, it’s because one thing is in excess and a bunch of other things need to be amplified. “Stop something and start something” is a phrase you can use in those moments of relative insanity to start swimming to shore.
I recently I applied this principle in a moment of overwhelm myself, which took some time to recognize. But once I did, I realized that I needed to stop committing to so many things in my life and start immediately cancelling my upcoming commitments. The first text I sent to cancel something brought me immediate relief. I found myself taking an enormous slurp of air where I had felt suffocated during the many hours before. It really does work.
There are two parts to this week’s homework. The first is to find a buddy. If you don’t have one, write me. As soon as I get more than one request, I will pair people up. My email address is in the show notes. The second part is to create a list of the things you know that work for you when you are stressed to your breaking point. Include little and big tools and make them concrete. For example, splashing your face with water, going outside for fresh air, petting your dog, curling up with a soft blanket, playing music, texting your therapist, calling a friend, or saying a prayer. There are so many options. The act of making the list will serve like a bridge between your clear-thinking mind and your frazzled self and prepare you for the moments when you are in the grip of overwhelm. At this point, we know they are coming, so let’s do what it takes to be prepared.
The situations that are leading us to feeling overwhelmed are not going away any time soon. But, when we are able to come out of the numb state of stress and fatigue and actually see clearly and feel our bodies, we can make the kind of choices that will pave the way to the solutions we desperately need. And that’s why these tools are so important. Because ultimately, they empower us to create a world in which we are not so regularly getting taxed by more than we can handle.
As I close for this week, I invite you to take one long, deep, slow breath with me, in and out, something that we can all do, but I know it helps when we do it together. Wherever you are, imagine that I am breathing with you, that many of us are breathing these calming, grounding breaths together, and that our breathing is a lifeline to one another across the miles. I hope that helps. I’m so glad you tuned in.