What does being overwhelmed feel like? For me it’s sitting down to work in my home office and having my husband yell from the kitchen, “Where’s that tea maker thingy?” and knowing it's probably sitting right in front of him on the counter. This is followed by my daughter, full of 7 a.m. vitality and singing happily at the top of her lungs, dropping head long into equally loud exclamations of frustration when she can’t find her shoes for school. Now the dog throws up on the only nice carpet we own, a deep red Persian number it took me months to find. At this point, I want to start screaming. But I don’t. Not until I am backing out of our driveway onto the road and a passing driver lays on his horn.
That’s when I start screaming, “It’s my driveway, you @#$%&!!!” I have reached critical mass, I am overwhelmed. We all go through it sometimes and through yoga practices, we can overcome it. (Read more in The R.A.I.N. Technique For Mindfulness.)
Ways We Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed
There are two main ways we react when we feel overwhelmed. The first is to begin to shut down, to eliminate commitments and obligations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From the standpoint of self-preservation, it serves a purpose. If things are getting to be too much, it makes sense to pair them down. It’s a natural way to cope with the feeling of being stretched too thin.
The second way we deal with feeling overloaded is to retreat inwardly. The problem with retreating in this way is that we begin to isolate ourselves from other human beings, an action that is known to worsen the situation, as we are social creatures that need interaction with others to feel complete. In these situations, we actually need others to act as a normalizing force. If we become hermits, isolating ourselves in a metaphorical cave, we tend to fall deeper into our own despair. By disconnecting from others, by pushing away, we inflate the size of our problems, making them seem insurmountable. In these times, we need to meet with others who share in our feelings. This helps us recognize on a fundamental level that we are not alone, nor are our problems uniquely ours. In fact, we begin to realize that many others struggle with the same problems, the same issues, the same challenges and morning meltdowns.
I know a lot of us are experiencing this feeling. So, when I went to my local Zen Center for group practice recently, it came as no surprise that the focus for the day was "overwhelm." After our meditation practice, our teacher read a quote from Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of "The Heart Sutra." (Learn about The Benefits of Group Meditation.)
“Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming. As overwhelming is caused by you, there is no overwhelming that is separate from you.”
Feeling Overwhelmed Is a State of Mind
This is to say that the state of feeling overwhelmed is self-created. It does not exist independently outside of our own mind. It arises as a result of certain thoughts and emotions converging. Because it is mind-made, it can also be mind un-made. Some of the thoughts that give rise to feeling overwhelmed are “I can’t do it all”; “Everything is out of control”; and “It’s all hopelessness.”
The irony is that most of the obligations we believe we are beholden to are actually self-imposed. For the most part, there is no one outside our self that is forcing us to take on these commitments. We choose them ourselves. When we believe that things are out of our control, we create a feeling of panic, which intensifies the sense of overwhelm. In reality, control is an illusion. We are never in control, there is no such thing as control. Of course, marketers will tell us, "Buy our product and regain control over your life," which is funny if you stop to think about it. They are trying to sell us -- and in many situations, successfully selling us -- an illusion of safety. The nature of life is constant flux. The idea that we can hold onto a fixed point, that we can more our boats to a permanent safe haven, is one of the greatest human illusions. The truth of the matter is that what is, simply is. (Read on in The How and Why of Strengthening the Mind.)
Only the Present Moment Is Reality
"Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming." There is no real escape from the present moment. We are not living in the future where all our fears come true, nor are we in the past, able to change what has already occurred. The best course of action, then, is to sit with the thoughts and emotions that arise as a result of feeling overwhelmed. To sit still right in the middle of it, without trying to change the situation or to escape it. Realizing that in this present moment, nothing is wrong and nothing is missing. (Read on for 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)