5 Tips for Surviving the Overwhelm

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A COMMON EXPERIENCE

In an earlier post, I wrote about helping my playmate Tammy and her son Trevor move. Well, last month, Trevor got sick at school and he was sent home for much of the week. Tammy, a single mom, could not afford to miss so much work. It so happened that Tammy’s family was out-of-town and she also started part-time school. Tammy was at her wits end, and as her good friend, I did not respond well.

Say, just because I’m a therapist doesn’t mean I'm always patient and stoic. Even I don't have my sh*t together all the time. But, that’s probably content for a different post.

As I debriefed the incident with Tammy, it reminded me that this is a common experience. The work project is due on the same week the in-laws are coming in, and the hot water tank failed while little Joey developed chicken pox. Some of the events were foreseeable; others were sprung on us and converged into the perfect storm. When all is said and done, one can probably laugh about it. But in the midst of the chaos, what are we to do to survive these moments?

5 Tips for the Overwhelmed

1. Ask for help yesterday

Okay, I don’t mean to sound facetious, but I am suggesting for you to ask for help before things are in dire straits. We live in a culture where people are prized for doing it all by themselves. To ask for help is to show that you don’t have it all together, that you’re not making the cut. But the thing is, we all lean on each other to get through life and others might not know that you’re drowning or might not understand the kind of help you need until you ask. Even if the ask is simply, “I don’t know what I need, but I can’t pull this off by myself!” That’s cuing the other person to problem solve with you when you don’t have the bandwidth to do so alone.

I want to emphasize asking for help early on because by the time you’re feeling desperate, any sign of rejection is taken as a slap in the face and you’re more likely to shut down and not reach out. That will often make things worse. When things haven’t hit rock bottom but you’re feeling the strain of the situation, you still have it in you to communicate about your needs and give the other person time to plan ahead. If that person is not available, others might still be.

You don’t have to wait until you’re at the end of your rope to say you need a little help along the way. Sometimes having people remove just a thing or two from your plate is enough to give you clarity about your next steps, rather than feeling stuck in the overwhelm.

2. Don’t think about the other person when asking for help

This is important enough to put in its own category. There’s a tendency to consider whether another person can give the help before we even ask. Oh, it’s the weekday, people have their lives. It’s the weekend, people are busy. I can’t ask; that person lives so far away. I know for sure they have soccer practice on Wednesday nights so I wouldn’t want to interrupt their schedule. Chances are you’re right. We’re all busy, or often times we look it because that’s another thing our society values. But, can you puh-lease let the other person decide whether they can help you, rather than deciding for them?

What if they want to help you and can bring over take-out, rather than cooking at home? What if Garret can step in to take the kids to soccer, freeing your friend up for laundry service? You don’t know what other people might decide to do when you present them with the need. By not asking or by asking during a crisis, it closes off the possibilities that are available to all of you.

3. Drop the ball on other things

I get it. I know you have a lifestyle to maintain; you still want to pack lunches, eat nutritious meals and do your exercises. You’re pissed off that expected and unexpected things are disrupting your routine. Listen: You can’t have it all. Not right now. There’s too much going on. Some things have got to give. I wouldn’t say this to you when you’re just going about your everyday predictable life. When things are not going as planned, it’s important to pivot and see what you can get off your plate, including the things that are already there before sh*t hit the fan.

This is not about giving up or giving in; it’s about being adaptable to your circumstances. If you eat frozen dinners, miss yoga and run a just good enough meeting, no one is going to die. When you’re no longer putting out fires and you have more in you, you can go back to doing you.

4. Take it a moment at a time*

So you have lots to do and you want everything to be fixed two days ago. You can’t possibly imagine how you’re going to get through the week because the more you anticipate what’s ahead, the more overwhelmed you feel. If you’re not already aware, your ability to make sound decisions goes out the window when there’s too much going on. Now is simply not the time to think about your final exam in two weeks, your kid’s birthday party in a month or your performance review coming up. There is enough on your plate you don’t need to pile on more. Now is only about how you can get through this moment without making things worse.

What do you need to do right here, right now to resolve the most pressing thing? What do you need to do the next hour to chip away at this other problem? What needs to happen tonight to plan for tomorrow morning? During periods of overwhelm, just focus on the immediate, putting one foot in front of the other. When you’re past this storm, you can look up again to see how you’ve pulled it off, hopefully with some help.

5. Do the opposite of what you want to do*

There’s a tendency to want to self-sabotage when we’re going through a hard time. Thoughts like What’s the point? No one cares. I can’t do this anymore! This is too hard. Why me? will frequent your mind at the most opportune time. Why this happens is a topic for a different post, but what’s more important is that you don’t entertain these thoughts or act on them. Instead, when you want to give up, lean in. When you don’t want to call a friend, call your friend. When you don’t want to get out of bed, get out of bed and start on whatever you know would help the situation.

Do the opposite of what you want to do so that by doing so, you might, though not guaranteed, bring on feelings of hope, relief and comfort, which is the opposite of despair, misery, and distress. Be active by acting the way you want to feel because if you wait until you feel better before you do something, that day may never come. Especially not during times of overwhelm.

EXPECT IT

All this to say, while we're still living and breathing, we'll go through rough patches. This is life. But, it doesn't mean we're helpless to our circumstances. Rather, in light of life's difficulties, how will we get through them and hopefully grow some wisdom along the way...

If you’re feeling the strain and need help, reach out. If you’re in the thick of it, now is a good time too. I specialize in couples and cancer patients and Bob works with teens and millennials. We’re here for you and we can help you get through this overwhelm.

*Borrowed from the traditions of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)


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Ada Pang is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps unhappy couples find safety and connection in their relationship. She also helps cancer thrivers and their caregivers integrate cancer into their life stories. During times of overwhelm, she finds it most helpful to reach out to her husband, eat sushi, and ask for prayers from her favorite people. She’s about getting through that day, because the next day, will be a new day. It always is.