I’m a psychotherapist who specializes in supporting people of color to heal from relationships, anxiety, depression, and trauma. I’m also a psychotherapist who exists in an era of political turmoil, financial upheaval, and mass tragedies.
This is all to say—it isn’t uncommon for clients to come into a session with me and say that they’re feeling extremely overwhelmed.
When we are overwhelmed, we can become agitated, struggle with decision-making and experience chronic aches and tension in our bodies.
Therapy alone can’t combat structures that oppress us. However, it can strengthen our ability to cope with immense stressors and teach us how to build safe relationships and strong community ties. In turn, this can lead us to create collective change.
However, when we are overwhelmed, we are much less helpful to others. Sometimes, we can become so paralyzed by overwhelming feelings that we can hardly help ourselves.
The good news though is that there are tools and perspectives we can employ to minimize our overwhelm and get us back on track. So, here are five of my favorite tips that I share with my clients.
Take Deep Healing Breaths
Our breath is sacred. It is what gives us life and is considered a gateway to a meditative state where insights and peace abound. This is because slow, paced breathing soothes the central nervous system.
Thus, anger is lowered, stress is minimized, and the body is relaxed. It also boosts the quality and clarity of our thought processes.
When we are overwhelmed, we can become agitated, struggle with decision-making and experience chronic aches and tension in our bodies, making the return to our breath all the more important.
My Go-To Recommendation Is the 4-7-8 Breathing Method
I love recommending breathing exercises to clients because it is something that can be done discreetly at any time. My favorite exercise is free, requires no equipment, no apps—all you have to do is remember the numbers four, seven, and eight. Aptly referred to as the 4-7-8 breathing method, it is a simple technique that you can try right now.
How to Do It
Whether you’re at work, in bed, or on the couch you can try this breathing technique. Here’s how to do it:
- Inhale for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale for eight seconds.
- Complete this for at least six cycles.
- Then take a break for a minute and breathe normally.
- Repeat steps one through five at least three times.
Pretty quickly, you’ll notice a feeling of clarity wash over you. This method is applauded for its health benefits, including improving heart rate variability and blood pressure.
If you’re having a hard time holding your breath for seven seconds, don’t worry! When working with those who get tripped up by holding their breath for so long, I simply instruct them to deepen each inhale by one second and lengthen each exhale for three seconds, repeating for a few cycles.
This can have benefits just as fruitful as 4-7-8 breathing because the whole point is to just get fresh oxygen into your body.
Have a Snack When You’re Hangry
The term hangry is a common punchline directed at people who become irritable when they’re hungry. Jokes aside, it is also a science-backed phenomenon.
The hungrier you are, the angrier you might become. Low blood glucose levels, which are a side effect of hunger, can lead to anger, impulsivity, and irritability.
A fix for this is simple—have a snack. I recommend folks keep a granola bar in their bag or car so they can reach for a quick bite when they need it. (P.S. Never have an important conversation or make a big decision while you’re hungry!)
If It Is Hysterical, It Might Be Historical—AKA Your Overwhelm Might Be a Trauma Response
Once you’ve tended to your body, it is time to dig a bit deeper into what is going on. I share the phrase, “If it is hysterical, it might be historical,” with my clients often. When we have a trigger response to a situation in our life, it can take us off guard and lead to a rush of emotions.
However, if you’re feeling heightened emotions that might veer out of control, there’s a chance something historical has been triggered.
For example, an argument with your boss might lead you to spin into a panic afterward. But, the panic could actually be about how your boss’s behavior reminds you of your verbally abusive father. Your reaction to the argument with your boss, which, don’t get me wrong, is never pleasant, can best be used as a guide towards deeper healing.
Plus, the awareness that comes when we can recognize when we’ve been triggered and why can help us move through daily stressors with ease.
What to Do
If you’re not sure where to begin, seek out the support of a therapist. Their objective perspective can help you dig deep into patterns that may be at play in your life and find a path forward.
You May Just Need to Ask for a Little Help
Often when we feel overwhelmed, it is because we are under-resourced. Calling in support can help us minimize episodes of immense overwhelm in the future. There are various forms of support to consider.
Help Comes in Many Forms
- See if your job offers mental health support: If you’re struggling at work, see if your job offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs offer a limited number of therapy services to provide you with extra support in navigating stressors in the workplace.
- Find a support group: Navigating a unique health stressor? A support group may be helpful – you’ll have the opportunity to build relationships with others who can relate to your experience.
- Just ask: Don’t overlook the power of simply asking for help. Even letting your friends know you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and need to talk can do wonders. Allow your loved ones to show up for you.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
One of the biggest topics I cover with my clients is boundaries. Feelings of overwhelm can let us know when something is out of balance. It can be simply feeling exhausted or hungry and you need a nap and a snack.
The awareness that comes when we can recognize when we’ve been triggered and why can help us move through daily stressors with ease.
Alternatively, we might be aware of longstanding patterns we’re trying to combat and may have harnessed all the support we can. If you have done all of these things and are still feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to take more substantial action.
Figure Out What’s Worth Stressing Over—and What’s Not
I like to guide folks through what I call a cost analysis. Take a look at where you’re feeling tension in your life. Consider what is within your control in the situation and what is out of your control. Then, examine whether or not the stress of the situation is worth the benefit.
For example, you may have a stressful relationship with your sibling. However, you also love your sibling quite a bit and enjoy a myriad of activities together. Because of this, you probably have no desire to cut off contact because the benefits of the relationship outweigh the annoying parts. This is where boundaries come in!
Perhaps it is limiting your time spent together or not replying to any messages past a certain time of your choosing. Keep in mind, not everyone will respond to verbal boundaries, so be prepared to follow up your words with action.
But, What If I’m Still Overwhelmed?
If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed, professional help may be useful. A common barrier to seeking therapy is finances—weekly sessions certainly aren’t cheap. But, there are options to get support regardless of your financial standing.
BIPOC folks can apply for therapy funds through Therapy for Black Girls, Inclusive Therapists, and the National Queer and Trans People of Color Network. If you find a provider you really connect with but aren’t able to pay their fee, ask if they have a sliding scale. Many therapists offer lower fee services and may be able to accommodate your needs.