A few months ago, after decades of solo entrepreneurship, I took a job as a freelance writer.
I knew there would be an uphill learning curve, but I believed that a certain amount of stress would be good for me. In fact, studies show that some amount of stress is healthy, for many reasons.
Fast forward to a snapshot of me at the end of day one of my new job: I was camped out on the couch, so completely wiped out that I could not muster the energy to get up and make myself a cup of tea. My mind was a puddle.
A conversation between my husband and me went a little like this:
“What do you want for dinner?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Whatever.”
“Would you like a glass of wine?”
“Red or white?”
“Um, I don’t know.”
“Are you okay?”
I wasn’t okay. And I wasn’t just stressed out after a busy day. I was completely overwhelmed. I sat immobile for several hours, presumably watching television, but not really seeing anything. I felt frozen, mute, and completely checked out from the family activities going on around me.
I had been excited about the opportunity to learn and grow, and I’ve never minded getting in a little over my head. But I’d taken in far more than I could digest for one day. Perhaps there should be a condition called “mental indigestion”, for that describes how I felt.
Overtime, I got the hang of this job, and the overwhelm shifted to something more manageable—something that I would simply label “stress.” In that state, I was able to make good decisions, know what I needed, ask for help, and communicate it all with effectiveness and clarity.
But overwhelm is a whole different ball game. You can’t “positive self-talk” your way out of this state. And you can’t follow through with any of the usual advice that applies when we’re stressed, such as delegate, prioritize, ask for help, or set boundaries.When you’re overwhelmed, you might also feel:
- Unable to make decisions
- Unable to think/see clearly
- Disconnected from your intuition and heart center
When you’re overwhelmed, your mind is like a kite flying loose in the air, handle and all. Telling yourself to “calm down” or “do something” or whatever else you might say to yourself is akin to demanding the kite fly in a straight line.
There doesn’t seem like much you can do but hope that circumstances change. But, if you can at least find the wherewithal to identify that you’re in an overwhelmed state, you can bring that kite—and your mind—back down to earth.
Here’s how to start.
1. Create a safe space
First, know that a state of overwhelm is not the time to make important decisions about things that matter, like relationships, or jobs, or opportunities. It’s also not a good time to set boundaries, or speak your truth to someone. This is because overwhelm separates our minds from our bodies. Thus, any decisions you make or words you say will be disconnected from your heart and gut. You might very well come to regret them later.
Instead, it’s time to create a safe space for yourself, just as you would for an out-of-control toddler. One way to do this is to create self-care bookends that become unbreakable habits.
By self-care bookends, I mean establishing a fixed morning and evening routine. They do not need to be long, fancy, or complicated. They just need to be repeated regularly, no matter what happens during the day.
- Begin each morning with a gratitude practice (list out things you’re grateful for). In the evening, spend 15-minutes doing mindful breathing.
- Start your day with gentle stretching. End each day with a relaxation practice.
- Journal your intentions for the day each morning. Close your day by listening to some calming music.
(If you’re in a state of overwhelm and choosing from those three is too much to ask, do the last one.)
The idea is that even when you’re in a state of overwhelm during the day, there’s a place and time when it all comes to a stop. Now, your mind cannot travel any further away from your body. You just might find that you’ll be able to reach up and grab that handle.
When is the best time to create self-care bookends? Ideally, when you’re not in a state of overwhelm. That way, even when you’re zoned out from overwhelm, you simply move through your routine, as habitually as you would brush your teeth.
2. Use the Ayurvedic principle of “opposites heal”
According to Ayurveda, the science of self-healing, overwhelm is a symptom of an unbalanced Vata dosha. Vata dosha is made up of the elements of Air and Ether, and as such is cool, light, and dry by nature.
To bring yourself back into balance, you can use the principle of Opposites Heal. This means that you bring in the qualities of warm, heavy, and moist. Think root vegetables, warm soups, a soft blanket, hot bath, or sitting by a fire. These choices will have the desired effect of warming and grounding your mind.
“The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about your circumstances.” ―Andrew Bernstein
3. Reduce sensory input
Overwhelm is a state of being “overloaded”—too much sensory input and not enough time to digest it all. We are not computers; we are not meant to simply store information. We need time to digest and rest.
When you’re overwhelmed, it’s time to reduce the input through all five senses. Some examples:
- Taste: Choose simple foods and meals over complex tastes
- Sight: Turn down the lights
- Sound: Move away from noisy, chaotic environments
- Smell: Use essential oils in the bath, or even a favorite scented candle or lotion
- Touch: Slip into comfortable clothing or curl under a pile of warm blankets
4. Let someone take care of you
For those of us who consider ourselves strong and capable, it’s hard to ask for help. But now more than ever you would benefit from letting someone else take over for you—whether it’s ordering or making dinner, canceling an appointment on your behalf, or checking off some other small task to lighten the load.
5. Be gentle and patient with yourself
When you’re in a state of overwhelm, be extra gentle with yourself. Don’t criticize yourself for not being able to make decisions, or for needing help. The very nature of being overwhelmed makes it nearly impossible to settle into your body—particularly the heart, gut, and emotional centers—where the best decisions and boundaries are known and can be communicated clearly and effectively.
You might not be able to motivate your way out of a state of overwhelm. But you can take your power back by creating self-care boundaries, using the Ayurvedic principle of Opposites Heal, reducing sensory input, letting others help you, and generally being patient and gentle with yourself.
Day by day, you will start to notice that you can think more clearly, and you will soon know what decisions and boundaries need to be made and set in order to reduce the overwhelm you experience over time.