How to overcome the overwhelm

Do you sometimes experience the swirling fear of the overwhelm taking over? Do you feel you might drown in the giant waves that crash all around you? Everything comes rushing in on you from all sides all at once, and you feel that you will be crushed. Is there anything you can do to stop these swirling rushes so you can take control of your life again?

How to overcome the overwhelm

Yes, there is a way to take control again. I know. I used to be frequently overwhelmed with uncontrollable grief and too many problems to handle all at once. To be honest, I still occasionally experience the overwhelm with crushing grief and/or fear that I cannot accomplish all I need to do. Fortunately, I’ve found a method to help me stop the swirling fear and the frequency of the anxiety-producing overwhelm.

My guess is that you are reading this at a moment when the overwhelm is not crashing in on you. Yet you know it will return and you want to be ready for it the next time. Am I right? What can you do?

To begin, I want you to know you have already taken the most important first step. You have acknowledged that there is this awful, fearful feeling in your life. You have come to realize you want to take control and make it stop. That is a huge step. Awareness is vital in your process of conquering the hopelessness against the overwhelm.

Notice that I called it a process. There is no magic formula that will make it all go away instantaneously or for good. However, there is a process that you can follow.

A rescue process for conquering the overwhelm

When the overwhelm rolls over you again, you can be prepared. Learn what to do. Practice the steps of the rescue process described below. Practice them often so that you can be ready to reduce both the power of the fear and the frequency of its arrival. It is essential to practice these steps several times before the overwhelm strikes again so your mind will be ready even when your emotions freak out and take over any rational thinking on your part.

  • First, become aware. The very act of acknowledging that you are overwhelmed indicates that your brain is still functioning. Being insightfully aware of your thoughts allows you to begin to take control of your thoughts and feelings instead of them controlling you.
  • Next, breathe deeply. Breathe three long, full breaths. I’m sure you have heard this before: breathing helps calm you. Breathing slowly in—followed by a long, drawn-out release of air—allows more oxygen to reach your heart and your brain. It also expels the carbon dioxide (CO2) that accumulates in your body. A buildup of CO2 can cause dizziness, restlessness, difficulty breathing, and other physical discomforts that may come with the overwhelm. 

The fear that accompanies the overwhelm puts you in panic mode where your breathing becomes shallow, and you can no longer think clearly. Combat the fear by breathing deeply. Try it now. Breathe in deeply. Exhale slowly. Push out the air for at least as long as it took you to breathe in. Counting may help. (Breathe in while counting slowly: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Pause. Breath out slowly: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Pause. Breathe in again.) Notice how calming and healing deep breathing can be. 

Doctors recommend people practice deep breathing two or three times a day. Generally, three deep breaths with slow exhalation will do it. Do not plan to breathe deeply continuously, though, unless you are running or doing intense exercising. Constant deep breathing is not good for you in normal circumstances because it can make you feel lightheaded. However, taking time to practice three deep breaths, deeply inhaling as well as slowly exhaling, a couple times each day will prepare your body to automatically know what to do the next time the overwhelm rolls in.

  • Hydrate. Staying hydrated is always a good idea. Be sure to drink adequate water daily. We were formerly taught that we need to drink 64 ounces of water every day. Further research, however, indicates that people need different amounts of water, based on their weight, physical activity, environment, and other factors. For example, going to the higher elevation of the mountains requires us to drink more water. Otherwise, we may become lightheaded, get headaches, or even worse. Find out what is best for you.

The physical symptoms that come with dehydration are similar to those that come with the overwhelm, such as dizziness or lightheadedness. Taking time to focus on drinking a class of fresh water or a calming tea will help put you in control.

  • Visualize your gratitude. The best advice I can give you is to take time for gratitude once you realize the overwhelm has come crashing in around you. It’s not easy, not easy at all, at first, but it does work. Once I discovered this strategy, the overwhelm quickly lost its control over me. The more I practiced gratitude, the weaker the overwhelm became. Let me give you some explanation and suggestions of how to make this happen for you.

Analogy of a merry-go-round. First, know that the way to keep your mind from swirling completely out of control is to switch directions. It’s like playing on a merry-go-round. When it starts going too fast, you become dizzy and the world swirls uncontrollably around you. The best way to change that is to slow the swirling down by dragging your feet—or in the case of the overwhelm, by deep breathing and/or drinking a class of water or a cup of tea. Then you need to reverse directions and calmly enjoy the view of some the things in life for which you are thankful. 

It may be difficult at first to see the good when there are so many problems pounding in on you. That’s when you need to “drag your feet” and take control. Try the quick method. Force your brain to turn to thoughts of the good in your life. If you can, look around to focus on even the smallest of objects to be thankful for. Write them down. That will help you slow it down. Or you may visualize them. Visualize them with as much detail as possible. These strategies will help slow down the merry-go-round in your brain. If that does not work and only brings more problems or more fear, then try my preferred strategy.

Preferred strategy: Close your eyes, if it safe to do so. If you practice this often enough you can do it any time with your eyes open as well. Run through a list of gratitude of ten to twenty items you have prepared ahead of time. You will need to create this list now so you can be ready when you need it. Run through it several times each day. First of all, do it because this simple act will make your life calmer, richer, and more joy-filled. But also visualize it over and over until you have memorized it and it comes to you more easily when overwhelm strikes. 

Your list does not have to be limited to blessings that you have already received. It can also include items and dreams you would like to have. However, they must be tangible items that connect with you, personally. For example, don’t dream of world without hunger. While that might be nice, it is not personal and so would not work effectively in your gratitude. 

Include items in your list that you can visualize. For example, I wanted to lose 20 pounds, but I could not visualize that. Instead, I visualized myself in a pair of skinny jeans. Another example is that I wanted my back to heal. Again, I could not exactly visualize that. What I could visualize was climbing out of bed, walking, and sitting completely at ease with no pain in my back.  (Note: I began visualizing each of these years ago. I received the blessing of both fitting into skinny jeans and of having no more back pain. I took the skinny jeans vision out of my list and replaced it with something else. However, the pain-free back vision is still on my list because I am so deeply grateful every day for the freedom of movement, which I had once lost, but gradually regained.)

Once you have completed your list, repeat it over and over until you memorize it. Some people create a kind of video in their mind where the visual images run through in a series like a short video. This would be most convenient. I am more of a word-oriented person, though, so I found it more effective to number each item, give it a title, and allow the visualized image or idea to pop up with each number as I count through in my mind.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Run through your list of gratitude at least once or twice a day. You can add to or take away from the list any time you wish. Just have a gratitude list ready that is easy and natural to access in your mind if and when the overwhelm comes swirling in the next time.

Additional steps in the rescue process

  • Take charge. The next step in this process is to figure out how to take charge of all those problems and issues that are swirling around in your head. Maybe you could create an image somewhat like the one below in order to let your overwhelm know that you are consciously aware of it, and that you are ready to take back control.

Write down all the objects or actions that are swirling around in your head. This sends two important messages:

  • First, you let the overwhelm know you have a way to take charge. You are going to break it down into smaller chunks that you can handle more effectively one at a time.
  • Secondly, by writing down all those swirling parts that create the overwhelm, you will take the fear out of your head and pin it to a piece of paper. This indicates that you are now in control. The problems may not yet be resolved, but you, rather than fear, are in control.

Choose one of the easier problems from the list and address it. Fix the problem. Resolve the issue. That will be one less fear to nag at you. Sure, there are plenty more coming out of the overwhelm, but you are now in control of at least one of them. Ignore the others for the time being. You need a win, and a win will help you feel in control. It will send the overwhelm spiraling away for now. Hopefully, you can tackle a few more of the items on the list before the fear returns.

  • Finally, devise a plan. Once you have the overwhelm under control, at least for the time being, go through the list of problems and fear issues that you wrote down. Look at them one at a time. Determine how, one by one, you can resolve each issue. Choose another issue on that list. Address it. Fix it. Tomorrow, choose another issue. Address it. Fix it. Soon that list will shrink and the problems will no longer go swirling out of control.

  • Return to gratitude. Always hold on to the good in your life. Count your blessings is not just an old saying. It’s a way to help you remember the joy in your life. Let the positives of the gifts given to you be the stronger focus in your thoughts and emotions. Allow yourself to feel the Joy of the gifts you have. They will give you strength to defeat the fear of the overwhelm. 

Practice, practice, practice. Spend a few moments every day, several times a day, if possible, to count your blessings. Either write down or visualize your gratitude. Be sure to make a conscious effort to reflect on the good in your life. I always cringe when people say disasters come in threes. If you believe that, then you look for the second and the third disaster. That makes you focus far too much on the negatives in your life and neglect the good. In contrast, when you spend more time being thankful for the good in your life, more good seems to magically appear. 

Which would you rather have: fear of the overwhelm or a life filled with joy?  It’s your choice. God, the Universe, your thoughts (or however you want to think of it) will provide more and more of what you are looking for. You do not always receive exactly what you want, but the gifts that come are often better than what you asked for. But that is a topic for another day. 

For now, learn the rescue process for overcoming the overwhelm. Practice the steps and remember your gratitude so you are ready when and if fear and the overwhelm comes again. Be sure to become insightfully aware of your thoughts in ways that will allow you to transform your time and space on earth into a life that is healthy and joy-filled!