“Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” – Pema Chödrön
There are times in life when we may feel overwhelmed by seemingly endless tasks, painful losses, or a sense of nonstop demands from others. These are all experiences that have the potential to become internalized, stuffed down or avoided. Intense emotions may also persuade us to lash out at others against our better judgment. Life can be unpredictable and is connected with a consistent flow of change. Potential suffering related to the inevitability of change can be remarkably eased through radical acceptance. Part of learning to develop a greater capacity to identify, manage, and respond to emotions (aspects of emotional intelligence) involves recognizing that it is possible to handle overwhelming emotions by doing what is effective.
Even if you have spent a lifetime dealing with emotions by engaging in people pleasing, denial, isolation, numbness, self-sabotage, or stoicism, you have the potential to experience gratitude and take solace in knowing that today is offerring you yet another opportunity to meet emotional challenges in healthier ways. Rather than waste precious moments of your life dwelling on the past or fretting over the future, right now is the time to make an honest and soul-searching assessment of how willing you are to slow down, become mindful, and learn how to handle overwhelming emotions with grace, acceptance, and wisdom.
Overwhelming Levels of Stress
If you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, there are many potential ways this experience can manifest itself in your physical/mental/emotional health or in your relationships with yourself and others. For example, some people may feel like life is coming at them “all at once” and feel overwhelmed and helpless by this sense of being overloaded. Others may notice physical changes or discomforts, such as headaches, difficulty breathing, or unhealthy changes in sleeping/eating habits. Relationships are often impacted by overwhelming stress – many people choose to isolate themselves from others when feeling stressed, while others may seek out help from social supports during these times.
The main point about overwhelming stress is that the mind, heart, soul, and body can only take so much. If you find yourself feeling sick, drained, irritable, depressed, anxious, numb, or simply “not like yourself,” these are all indicators that it is likely time to start taking care of yourself or seeking professional help. Once you have mindfully recognized that you are overwhelmed by stress, you are in a better position to begin to take proactive steps toward effective problem-solving, engaging in regular self-care activities, and reaching out to important people in your life for both support and to help them understand your experience and let them know you are taking steps toward healing.
Feeling Numb to Overwhelming Emotions
The experience of “numbness” in response to overwhelming or intense emotions may signify a variety of things, depending on your personal history, ways you have responded to intense emotions in the past, and your personal coping strategies. Often, the subjective experience of feeling numb to overwhelming emotions is accompanied by a sense of wanting to shut down, turn off, and disengage from an overwhelming emotional experience. When feeling a sense of numbness toward intense emotions, there may be an accompanying sense of exhaustion from the experience of “fighting” against painful emotions, or even a dissociative-like response to the intensity or overstimulation of the emotional experience. For individuals who have an especially sensitive temperamental disposition, emotional numbness can become a learned coping strategy for responding to evocative stimuli, overwhelming situations, and intense emotions.
Other people choose to numb themselves from overwhelming emotions by abusing drugs or alcohol. These behaviors may provide temporary short-term benefits such as avoiding emotional pain, but they are quite likely to cause serious long-term consequences. Another way of becoming numb to intense emotions is by engaging in other forms of impulsive and/or self-destructive behaviors, such as excessive spending, shopping, self-medicating with food, oversleeping, gambling, or engaging in other generally risky behaviors. While these temporary respites from the intensity of overwhelming emotions may provide a sense of relief – at least in the form of distraction – they ultimately serve to further disconnect you from your authentic self and to avoid effectively solving whatever the real issue/problem may be.
Learning to accurately identify, mindfully observe, manage, and effectively respond to overwhelming emotions is a process – it doesn’t happen overnight. Remember how long it is has taken you to get to where you are at this present moment in your life. Give yourself authentic praise for your successes and positive changes, even if you haven’t reached your ultimate goal just yet. The point is to learn from difficult experiences and persevere in a healthy direction that is guided by wise mind, based on your true values, and is leading you closer toward authentic connections with yourself and others.
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I look forward to exploring specific strategies (grounded in principles of DBT and narrative therapy) that can be used to effectively care for yourself when feeling overwhelmed by emotions in my next post, “Feeling Overwhelmed by Emotions & Caring for Yourself – Part Two.”
White, M. (1996). Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company, Inc.
Hall, K. (2012). The Agony of Being Emotionally Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 24, 2012, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/05/the-agony-of-being-emotionally-overwhelmed/
Featured image: Overwhelming by Ernst Vikne / CC BY-SA 2.0