Inside: Life is messy. Use these 3 powerful ways to help yourself when you’re overwhelmed by life.
I’d been navigating years of fear, crisis, trauma, and grief. In November 2021, I started a medication that gave me my brain back after post-concussion syndrome. I finally started feeling a bit more like myself but was still recalibrating, trying to find my new sustainable pace or rhythm. A healthy and joyful balance of work, rest, connection, and creativity.
But I kept overestimating my capacity. My eyes were bigger than my stomach.
We heal at the speed of safety.Linda Thai
Eager to dive back into life more fully, in March I decided to help my daughter buy her first home, update and sell a rental property that, once sold, would simplify my life and alleviate stress, and also renovate my kitchen and bathrooms at home which felt like a joyful part of my healing process – all at the same time!
Each of these choices were values-aligned but I seriously underestimated the time and amount of work they’d entail. And, I think that maybe I unconsciously threw myself into a bit of chaos because I was craving the buzz of feeling fully alive again.
The tipping point though, was that from December to July I got sick three times back to back and needed an inhaler for weeks to help my lungs heal after the second and third episodes. Not fun.
It was a lot. It would have been a lot in any season on top of healing forward from trauma and grief, being a mom, running a business, making space for my health, and marriage, and managing a home. But after years of what I’d been navigating, and going through menopause at the same time, this was too much.
I started to feel panicky as overwhelm crept in closer and closer. I knew I needed to stop but didn’t know how to extricate myself from all of the activity I’d initiated. I wasn’t in crisis or immediate danger, but I knew I was going to be in trouble if something didn’t change and since I’ve been in the valley before, I had no desire to go back there.
I was moving out of the territory of stress, out of my window of resilience, into overwhelm and burnout. When we move too far or too long out of our window of capacity, this signals unsafety to our nervous system which will then shut us down to keep us safe and alive. My body and brain told me in no uncertain terms that I had to rest quickly, or else.
Caregiving takes a significant toll on our mind-body health. But we don’t talk much about this, at least not publicly, because it can be judged or shamed by others who don’t know what they’re talking about. And, because we would never, ever want our loved one to feel like a burden. It’s a both/and situation – we love our person and want to be there for them, and also, it’s extremely hard and we need compassionate help too.Krista xo
overwhelm: we need to talk openly about hard things
In Atlas of the Heart, researcher Brené Brown tells us that we can function in stress but not in overwhelm. “We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded,” she writes. While “Overwhelm means an extreme level of stress and emotional and or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.”
We often use the terms interchangeably but the difference between stress and overwhelm matters because the difference between coping and crumbling matters – sometimes it’s a matter of life or death.
People avoid uncomfortable things. We don’t want to stop scrolling to pause and read an article on grief, depression, or menopause. But then when crisis hits we’re ill-equipped to navigate it. We end up alone, isolated in our experience, and often believe it’s our fault – we’re somehow doing life wrong.
We downplay the seriousness of how we’re feeling and functioning for many reasons. We feel shame when we can no longer keep up or we need help. We’re afraid of fear itself so avoid naming it. Even if we feel like we’re drowning, what do we about it? In this hyper-individualistic society, not many of us are anchored into healthy community anymore which means we many not have easy access to support. But the bills still need to be paid. Kids still need to fed and cared for.
When we do ask for help we may not receive it and when we go to the doctor expressing our overwhelm we may be offered an anti-depressant and sent on our way. I have nothing against anti-depressants as they help some people and save lives but as a panacea for all that ails us, this feels like one more way of communicating “shove it down and get back to work.”
We need far better education and support for the transition through perimenopause and menopause which is a time of increased risk for mental health issues and an almost 7-fold increased risk for suicidal ideation (source 1, 2, 3). We need quality (trauma-informed) grief support. And we need far better support for when we’re a caregiver for aging parents and/or a loved one who suffers with physical or mental health which falls most often on the shoulders of midlife women (source 1, 2, 3).
Learning how to talk honestly with each other about our state of wellbeing matters. Modeling emotional literacy to our kids matters. Unless we start naming and sharing our experiences and expecting better support, how will anything get better?
Not everything is for this season. Not every dream or every problem or every shiny idea needs our attention in this season. Learning to release urgency and lean into the season we’re in is a powerful way to love ourselves well, reclaim freedom and joy, and lower stress and overwhelm.Krista xo
3 powerful ways to help yourself When You’Re Overwhelmed By Life
When we feel overwhelmed, we feel disempowered, unable to function. This doesn’t always mean it’s objectively TRUE that we’re unable to function but it’s true that we feel that way.
Building resilience and a sense of agency, ideally when not in crisis, but in the storm if needed, is critical. This means developing the internal and external resources required for a healthy life. It also means gently stretching (not stressing) our ‘window of capacity’ so we can more often choose our response to stressors or life situations instead of feeling at the mercy of conditioned, instinctual, self-protective responses.
1. Stop and rest
We have to slow down and rest when we’re feeling overwhelmed by life. Brené Brown says that research shows that “nothingness is the only way to really reset after overwhelm.” Yet when we feel stressed or nearing overwhelm, often the last thing we want to do is slow down. We’ll get behind. There are so many needs and expectations pulling on us. We’ll have to risk the vulnerability of asking for and receiving help and of slowing down.
My experience is that once we hit burnout, overwhelm, or crisis, it takes far more rest than we think it will, or than feels comfortable, for us to recalibrate and find our way back to our normal rhythm. And, we may need to change our thinking to make peace with a new, slower normal.
But rushing ahead in dysfunctional patterns won’t help. If we notice that we’re edging towards overwhelm, this is precisely the time to slow down, shore up leaky boundaries, let go of all extraneous mental, emotional, or physical clutter, and try a new, soul-honouring way of being in the world.
Whether this means consistently climbing into bed early for a good night’s sleep, outsourcing some tasks, asking for help, or taking sick leave for an extended time, do what you need to stay alive, safe, and healthy.
2. move at the pace of your nervous system
Like it or not, to live happy and healthy, we have to learn to live and move at the pace of our nervous system. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor and creator of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), describes overwhelm as the feeling “that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche are able to manage well.”’
This means that where we have some choice and flexibility, we need to release trying to look, sound, or be like anyone else. We stop comparing and judging ourself. And, instead we get to know our True Self and learn to honour our wiring in every season.
We can still pursue dreams and do hard things – but we do it in a soul-honouring way so that we don’t crash and burn. We allow for natural ebb and flow of energy, creativity, and output. We don’t burn the candle at both ends, and after seasons of crisis, grief, or stress we allow for extra rest and restoration.
Every new season brings unique strengths and challenges and we have to remind ourselves over and over that not everything is for THIS season! A Seasonal Living approach is a beautiful and compassionate way of being in relationship with Self and life. And whatever our circumstances or life season, the good news is that we can grow into the strength that we need for every season.
brave and compassionate community matters for health and happiness!
The Brave + Beautiful Community is a place for brave, weary, curious women in the middle season of life. We gather in warm and welcoming community to build relationship, learn and grow together, practice new skills with ongoing support, and reclaim freedom, wholeness, and joy for our lives.
3. set boundaries with yourself and others
Learning to practice a pause between impulse and response, changes our experience of life. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote, “this is where our power and freedom live.”
Learning to help yourself requires setting brave boundaries both with yourself and other people. It means pausing before taking on any new commitment, noticing when we’re taking responsibility for something that isn’t ours to carry, and even owning our struggles and limitations, shame and judgment-free.
Another boundary we may need to set is around listening to fear or the Inner Critic! Your Critic can be loud, bossy, and mean. It’s trying to protect you and gets louder when you feel vulnerable and overwhelmed by life. It may tell you that you need to do more, faster, and creates false urgency. Or it may tell you that to quit and hide under the covers. Either way, befriending your Inner Critic means hearing the fear behind the noise, but no longer letting it control your life.
We’re not robots with infinite resources. We must pick and choose wisely so that we don’t end up drowning in other people’s priorities. You can get started by decluttering these 30 things for more midlife joy. Or consider lightening your load by ‘quiet quitting’ some tasks like housework.
We don’t control everything that happens in life. We may expertly practice boundary setting, rest like a champ, take amazing care of ourselves, and practice honouring our wiring with compassion and skill. And still, we may be thrown headlong into hard or scary seasons.
We’re human in a messy world. So the most important thing to remember is that even in the darkest of seasons we can do something. We can take imperfect action when overwhelmed by life.
You matter and you have what it takes.
NOW WHAT? Joy and pain coexist in a brave and beautiful life. As we stop waiting to feel ready or for life to feel neat + tidy, and learn to show up through fear, grief, or pain, our experience of life changes. We breathe more easily, sleep better, enjoy healthier relationships, and show up to life with far more confidence, joy, and ease.