I tend to get overwhelmed easily. I hate this about myself—mostly because I feel in a constant state of inner conflict, wanting to be a part of every gathering, spend time with every friend, travel to every place in the world and accomplish more and more in my career—and at the same time knowing there is only so much I can handle.
There is only so much any of us can handle, but it seems sometimes like I get overwhelmed more readily than most. Too much light. Too much noise. Too many people. Weird smells. Too many notifications, too many emails and text messages—the beeping, the buzzing—all the unfinished items on my to-do list…
If you’re not easily overwhelmed, none of this bothers you all that much. You can stand lots of external stimulation and you can still stay pretty calm and centered within yourself. But if you’re like me, even a tiny bit “too much” of anything and you risk a total meltdown. Too much traffic on the highway, too much caffeine, even too much volume in someone’s voice when they are speaking to you.
You notice all the little subtleties and differences in “too much”. You notice things other people probably don’t notice.
Very often I find myself overwhelmed and wondering what to do about it.
Can you relate?
A Lesson In Staying Calm.
I’ve been taking this new yoga class and recently my instructor said something I thought was so profound. Despite the fact that I have always looked at yoga classes and thought, “oh that’s cute… they’re stretching…” I am now eating my words. Yoga is so much harder than what I was expecting.
Often in class I feel overwhelmed.
I feel overwhelmed with what is being asked of me and my body; I feel overwhelmed with the thoughts that are going through my head (“you suck at this,” “you’re an idiot,” “everyone is staring at you,” “you’re so weak!”); and I feel overwhelmed by the fact that everyone else seems to be able to do the postures with ease, while I’m wobbling all over the place, limbs flailing in the air, like an idiot.
My response in the moment is usually to, first, push myself to the point of injury to save face in front of the others who are stronger and more flexible than me. Second, to get angry with my body when it won’t comply and try even more aggressively to force myself into the postures. And then third, to burst into a sort of frustrated fit for being such a horrible failure.
It’s really cute. You should be there to see it.
But this past week at a yoga class, when my body wouldn’t comply with one of the very simple postures (or at least that’s how everyone around me made it look), I did my usual frustrated sigh and angry look, and then I heard the instructor say something I won’t soon forget. She said:
If you get overwhelmed, that’s totally normal. Just breathe. Your only real job in here is to breathe.
In fact, she said that if we needed to, we could either lay down on our backs to recollect ourselves when we are feeling overwhelmed, or we could take an easier or modified version of the pose. But no matter what, our first and most important job was/is to breathe.
I found her advice to be hugely profound for me—and I don’t just mean in the yoga studio.
Are you A Highly Sensitive Person?
There’s a book by Elaine Aron called The Highly Sensitive Person and I have to admit, the first time I picked it up, I thought to myself, “What a crock. There’s no such thing as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). That’s just a label for a bunch of losers and cry babies who aren’t strong enough to face the world like I am.”
Disclaimer: if that doesn’t give you a peek into my self-destructive and highly critical inner-voice, I don’t know what will.
But just because I’ve resisted it doesn’t make it not true. It is scientifically proven that there are some folks who are more stimulated by their environments than other people. We’re more sensitive to sights, sounds smells, loud noises, people yelling at us or raising their voices, and to changes in our environment. And I know because I am one.
Here’s what I didn’t realize about HSPs until I actually opened the book and read it:
You can be highly sensitive and also love adventures.
You can be highly sensitive and also love people.
You can be highly sensitive and also be a high achiever.
Having a sensitive nervous system is normal, a basically neutral trait. You probably inherited it. It occurs in about 15-20 percent of the population. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations. It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted in a nervous-system sort of way. Thus, being sensitive has both advantages and disadvantages. —Elaine Aron
I’m not sure why I felt so resistant for so long to admitting I was more sensitive than other people. But maybe you can relate.
What if you didn’t have to feel so overwhelmed, so often?
What would it look like if we started paying very close attention to how our bodies were responding in certain situations—and rather than measuring our “success” by how other people are responding under the same circumstances (like other people’s yoga poses) we simply said to ourselves: at least I’m here, at least I’m present, and my only job is to breathe?
This very simply lesson has helped me so much over the years. It has helped me have grace for myself in those moments when it feels like my body is betraying me because it gets exhausted. It’s helped me take the breaks I need, even if no one else needs them, because I can only measure my body against my body. It’s helped me to squelch that nasty inner-critic who sometimes likes to make me think I’m “weak” or “ineffectual” because I am not the same as everyone else.
It helps me to thank myself for showing up and remember: your only job is to breathe.
Making Space for Yourself
A few years ago I learned another lesson that would become a huge help for me as I worked to fight my own battle with overwhelm. I went away for a week-long retreat at a place here in Tennessee called Onsite. One of the things we did during this program was work with horses.
It’s amazing how much our work with animals can tell us about ourselves. The first time I read that dogs reflect our energy back to us, like mirrors, I joked that there was no way that was possible, since my dog is clingy, moody and a little bit codependent
Of course I knew it was more than a little bit true.
So I was excited to spend some time working with the horses because I knew it would give me some insight into myself.
The first person I watched go into the pen couldn’t get the horse to come near him. Over time, he learned to coax the horse, to woo him, and to invite him into a shared space. The second person to go into the pen somehow spooked the horse and he started bucking. She couldn’t get him to calm down; and the handler eventually explained that, again, she was going to have to control her energy a bit and invite the horse into shared space with her.
Next was my turn and my lesson came before I even entered the pen.
I walked up to the handler and she asked what I was hoping to work on that day. I told her I was feeling a little apprehensive about even going in there. I don’t know, something about a 1000 pound animal kicking his iron-clad feet in the air made me feel a little less-than-calm about sharing a space with him. Maybe even a bit overwhelmed.
She said to me something I’ll never forget. She said:
“You can always decide to leave the pen.”
She explained how, at any point, if I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious or like I was being threatened inside the pen with the horse, it was always my right to leave the pen. And suddenly it occurred to me: DUH. It is always my right to create space or distance for myself.
I never have to ask for permission or offer any kind of explanation for myself. It’s kind of me if I choose to do so, but I don’t owe it to anyone.
That single piece of advice has helped me with so many experiences in my life where I feel overwhelmed. I can always, always, take the space I need for myself, no matter what is going on. I can always breathe. I can always take a break. I can always say, “this isn’t going to work for me.” And no matter what anyone else in the room is doing, I can always lay down on my back and take a minute to breathe.
It doesn’t mean I’m a failure.
I can always leave the pen.
You Don’t Have to Do Anything Now.
Another important lesson that has helped me fight overwhelm I learned came this past summer at a conference called World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The event—in case you’ve never heard of it—is so much less threatening than it sounds. It’s basically a group of leaders gathered together to dream and talk about how to influence the tiny “worlds” we live in.
One speaker I heard at WDS who really left an impact on me was named Lissa Rankin. Lissa told a story about a time she felt overwhelmed—actually “overwhelmed” might be an understatement. She was doing her residency to become a physician, and she was sleep-deprived, starving and beyond her human capacity for functioning.
That’s when she found herself at the grocery store.
And when she was checking out, she found that the clerk was moving very slowly to count her change. She felt perturbed, but at first didn’t say anything. The longer it went on, however, the harder it became to contain her anger.
Finally, she burst out yelling, something to the effect of: “If I did my job like you did yours, there would be dead people everywhere!”
She described that moment as being one of those out-of-body experiences where you think to yourself, first, “is this really happening?” and then “who is this alien person saying these awful words to a complete stranger?” and then finally, “how did I become this woman?”
Then Lissa said something I’ll never forget. She talked about going home and trying to decide what she should do next. She talked about weighing all the options. She talked about the opportunity cost and feeling stuck and not knowing how to move forward. And then she told herself something I now say to myself all the time. She told herself:
You don’t have to do anything right now. You just have to make peace with what’s true.
And when I’m feeling overwhelmed, sometimes this is what I need most: to make peace with what is true. Maybe that’s something as simple as, “I’ve pushed myself too far” or “I cannot do everything.” Maybe the truth is, “I have a really difficult choice to make,” or “I can’t be all things to all people.”
And in those moments when I’m most overwhelmed, it helps me to know I don’t actually have to make any changes right this very minute.
My first job is to make peace with what is true. The actions I need to take will follow suit.
Practical Tips for Avoiding Overwhelm.
In addition to fighting the shame we inevitably feel in a world where Highly Sensitive People are considered “broken” or under-developed, we also live in a world that favors non-HSPs because, to put it simply, in order to thrive in our highly-connected, fast-paced world you have to get good at managing lots of input.
So how can HSPs learn to function in this world—practically speaking?
The short answer is this: we can get good at filtering out all of the unnecessary input so that we can focus on what really matters. That means we can work to control all the dinging, ringing, unnecessary background noises, TV, electronics, crowd noises, weird smells, etc that make us go insane so we can find more peace in our environment.
Here are some very practical steps I’ve taken (and still am taking) to manage the input in my life so I can still stay sane and bring my gifts to the world.
Control your technology (so it doesn’t control you)
The other night we were having dinner with a close friend who happened to be in town for a wedding. At one point, he got out his phone to show us something, and I noticed he didn’t have any applications on the face of his phone! Like almost exactly none.
He had text messages and the phone application at the bottom, but other than that, his phone seemed to be application-free.
Obviously this became a topic of conversation, because in the world we live in, that’s like a pink unicorn or something. How do you have no apps? What do you do when you need to look something up? How do you check your email? What if someone sends you an emergency email? (Big gasps).
He proceeded to explain to us his strategy with his phone, which he has turned into a glorified flip phone. He answers calls on it. He responds to text messages. But he gets no notifications. He doesn’t use it for the internet. And he doesn’t respond to emails from it.
This of course, incited another barrage of questions.
- You can TURN OFF notifications? (for the technologically challenged of us) And the answer is yes. It’s true. You can actually get those little red dots on your phone that cause you (okay me) so much stress to go away. You have control.
- How did you delete the apps that come already loaded on the iPhone and won’t go away? He told us how a friend of his found a workaround for this, and had to enter a special code, etc, but an alternative, he said, is just dropping them into a file and putting them on your third page over from your home screen. You never see them. It’s almost like they aren’t there.
- How do you do email? He told us he has a system for checking email twice each day that doesn’t involve his phone. He told us the whole system, which is too long to explain here, but which simplifies his email time down to less than two hours per day. Other than that, he just doesn’t pay attention to it. Can you imagine!?
The result is obvious, in some ways. He doesn’t waste time scroll through social media—which provides lots of input that can easily become overwhelming. He doesn’t waste time on email or lose track of emails (a major, major source of overwhelm for me). And when he’s waiting for a friend, or for the five minutes between meetings, his first response isn’t to go directly to his phone.
He creates more white space in his life for thinking, dreaming and being creative.
It’s amazing how easy it is to think that we don’t have control over our technology, that it has taken over our lives and that there is simply no going backward. This is a fallacy. We have control. We can turn our phones off, leave them at home, program them to meet our needs, and plug them in in another room for the night.
You control your technology. It doesn’t control you.
Take care of your physical body.
As I was thinking about practical ways to deal with overwhelm, I also remembered a dear friend who once told me that when she is up against feelings of overwhelm, she goes through a list of very simple questions she asks herself.
The questions go like this:
- Have you eaten?
- Have you slept?
- Have you exercised?
As it turns out, these three things—food, sleep and exercise (or being outdoors) play a profound role when it comes to mental and emotional overwhelm. In her book, Aron shows how HSPs actually need more sleep than their less sensitive counterparts. Not to mention, HSPs are more stimulated by the stimulants we put in our bodies every single day—caffeine, alcohol, sugar.
And one of the main ways we can counteract overstimulation in our life is by exercising or getting outside, reconnecting with our bodies and with nature.
More often than not, our emotional overwhelm is connected to our lack of care for our physical selves. When we can learn to take care of ourselves physically, we are also taking care of ourselves mentally and emotionally.
Create rituals and routines.
One way Aron suggests HSPs can minimize their feelings of overwhelm is to create a mostly-predictable schedule you can follow from day to day. The benefit of this is that HSPs tend to be stimulated by change. So, in other words, those who are highly sensitive might have a hard time during seasons of transition—where they don’t know what to expect next, or where plans are changing from moment-to-moment.
It’s not impossible for an HSP to deal with change, or to manage transition, but as far as it lies in your control, why not create a schedule that can minimize your feelings of change and free up space for you for to be your sensitive, creative, happy self?
Here’s an example.
Because I travel all the time, and I work for myself, it isn’t possible for my schedule to be exactly the same every day. But one thing I’ve done is to create rituals and routines I can take with me on the road.
- First thing I do every morning is stretching or yoga. Then, I drink a big glass of water while I take my vitamins.
- When I’m getting ready in the morning, I listen to This American Life or Radio Lab (or, let’s be real, sometimes I watch Netflix). But it’s this predictable thing I do everyday and its comforting.
- Before I go to bed, I make a cup of tea and watch a TV show on Netflix.
I also bring a small, travel-size candle with me when I travel. The predictable smell feels familiar and helps calm my spirit.
If overwhelm is something you struggle with and you want more resources for handling it, here are a few books, resources, etc I love and that have supported me and continue to support me on my journey toward accepting myself—sensitivity and all.
Quiet by Susan Cain—If you haven’t already read this book, you need to get your hands on it. It’s a beautiful reminder of the strength and quiet wisdom we sensitive people have to bring to the world.
Becoming Minimalist—living more simply is one thing I’ve done that has helped me majorly with my feelings of overwhelm. Imagine a life with less debt, less clutter and more freedom and open space! Ahhh! There is really no one better at helping you simplify than my friend Joshua Becker.
No Sidebar—speaking of minimizing and simplifying, if you don’t already subscribe to the newsletter at No Sidebar, it’s definitely time to do so.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron—I linked to this book earlier in the post as well, but it’s a great resource if you think you might be one of those people who is extra sensitive.