Why do we become Overwhelmed?

08 Sep 2015Jennifer VanWyck

Feeling overwhelmed is a very common psychological issue, affecting up to 1 in 4 adults at some point during their lifetimes.  It is “feeling completely overcome in mind or emotion,” according to Marla W. Deibler.  And for many people, it is simply a part of life. Kathleen Nadeau describes this common reality:

Overwhelm results from families with two working parents managing a household and raising kids. Or from trying to work full-time while earning a degree in our “spare time.” Overwhelm happens when workplace environments keep piling on expectations with little regard for whether those expectations can be met within a 40-hour week. Overwhelm can come from being a parent trying to run a household and hold down a full-time job. Overwhelm is a natural response after being “on” 24/7 through mobile phones, social media and the availability of movies and TV series on demand.

But for some people, the feeling of being overwhelmed comes from a much more personal reality.

Highly sensitive empath

Called highly sensitive empaths, some people experience life differently from the average person. Their sympathetic nervous system makes them walking antennae, perceiving and absorbing the emotional states of those they come in contact with. If you are highly sensitive, your brain is more “open,” and you actually have more nerve endings than the average person does. This open structure means that the highly sensitive empath absorbs or internalizes much more information than the average person, particularly emotional information.

In some ways, this sensitivity is like an emotional superpower.  I call it “having massive ears,” and it works much like sonar hearing in dogs.  A dog’s ears are designed to pick up sounds that human ears cannot. In the same way, because you’re highly sensitive, you pick up more emotional information than the average person. And this sensitivity has many benefits. “Highly sensitive empaths…tend to be creative, imaginative, individualistic and we can understand complex ideas, situations and people.”  The highly sensitive empath experiences emotions intensely, both joy and pain. And like Superman hearing someone who needs help from far away, highly sensitive empaths pick up on other people’s emotions and want to help. They have big hearts. They sense other’s emotional states and connect with them, feeling their emotions right along with them.

Of course, being highly sensitive presents one very significant drawback. While they’re very good at hearing people, highly sensitive empaths often struggle with too much emotional information coming at them all the time. This abundance of emotional stimuli can leave them feeling overwhelmed. In a more practical sense, it’s like having your boss give you five stacks of paperwork to complete in a single day when everyone else only has one stack. As a highly sensitive empath, you may struggle to cope with “the intensity of your feelings, and of those around you.” The result is that we can feel overcome by emotion.

Unfortunately, many highly sensitive empaths lack a good way to handle that overwhelm. Some people shut down. They are completely cut off and numb. As Deborah Ward comments, “Sometimes our sensitivity to the feelings of others can be so overwhelming that instead of jumping in we want to run away and avoid relationships altogether.”  Others drown in other people’s feelings of sadness and despair.

Neither of these responses is healthy or effective. But there is a better way.  And it starts by accepting who you are and adapting your life around you.

How to overcome overwhelm

Stop trying to be something you’re not. Accept that it might take you longer to process things and make sure you give yourself that time. Maybe it means making sure you have a lot of alone time so that you can go through all that extra paperwork of information. Sometimes it means simply asking people if you can get back to them when they ask you to do something. This gives you time to think about if you really do want to do that thing.  Or perhaps it means making sure you have a job that doesn’t stress you out too much, or which has a purpose that you really believe in.

Most important of all, when you feel overwhelmed regardless of the reason, it’s essential that you take some time for yourself to energize and comfort yourself, and then you break up your concern into small bite-size pieces. Maybe that means instead of thinking of all the things you have to do, just thinking of the most important thing you have to do and focusing on the first step of that.

Overwhelm comes from trying to do too much at once. It’s like eating a whole baguette and choking instead of just breaking off a bite. Take it one step at a time, and be compassionate towards yourself!

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