Do you find yourself repeatedly taking things out on the people (or pets!) that you love? Do you struggle to get back up off the sofa, to work or to function when you're overwhelmed? Are you easily triggered by small things that at other times just wouldn't matter? Does repeated stress take its toll on your body, sleep and health? Is it sometimes hard to find energy and attention for the people and things that actually matter because you're so drained?
If you’re answering yes to any of these then you might be stuck in a loop of emotional overwhelm - but you're not the only one.
I work with lots of people who experience repeated build up of anxiety, stress, sadness, guilt and anger which ends up boiling over in ways they could do without. At other times the build-up can make people collapse under the weight of it all. This can make us feel stuck and wonder 'how did I end up here again?’.
So why does this happen?
Firstly, we all experience emotions. There are different views on exactly how many basic emotions there are, but we can probably consider nine to be about right. Some of these we tend to enjoy, such as love, joy and curiosity. Some we might sit on the fence with, like anger. Others we tend to find more uncomfortable - fear, sadness, guilt, shock and disgust. These emotions are hard wired into our DNA and no-one gets to live a life without them. Our emotions are essential to help guide us towards the things we need as a species to survive and thrive: to acquire resources such as food, to detect threat and seek safety, to reproduce and, finally, to care for others and to be cared for in return. Emotions give us energy and motivation and move us to take action. They also serve as signals that allow us to check in and know how we’re doing. Imagine for a moment a world without emotion: imagine seeing a loved one treated unfairly and feeling nothing. Imagine the birth of your baby and remaining emotionless. Clearly this would not be a great world to live in.
Our emotions are a vital part of our make up which help us to stay alive and live well. However, they do not always feel particularly enjoyable. In fact they are arguably the number one source of pain for human beings. This is particularly true of the emotions in charge of helping us detect and handle threat around us. These make us jump out the way if a car comes hurtling towards us, stop us turning up naked to work and tell us to avoid sticking our fingers in the plug sockets. Clearly, they are a pretty good idea. But these are also some of our most excruciating internal experiences: feelings of shame, fear, rage, and disgust. They both keep us safe and alive and can also cause us immense suffering in the form of anxiety, depression, self-criticism, guilt, etc.
A particularly tricky scenario which we can find ourselves in is the emotional overwhelm - guilt and shame cycle. This happens when there is a build-up of feelings over time, such as stress, sadness or anger. When we don’t find ways to respond to these feelings they can grow to a point of tension that is hard to control. Then comes the straw that breaks the camel’s back: something happens that tips us over the edge which is followed by a huge release of the pent up emotion or a breakdown of functioning. Picture collapsing in tears because you overcooked the pasta, laying into a complete stranger for some minor annoyance, yelling at your kid for leaving their jumper at school, or tumbling onto the sofa in despair and struggling to get up again. After this release or crash we can then feel terrible. We can feel ashamed, beat ourselves up and maybe even tell ourselves we’re terrible, broken, or crazy. This, of course, makes us feel even worse and even less likely to be able to cope. It also makes the whole cycle harder to step out of and recover from. Maybe we think to ourselves that we’ll push through and find a way to keep going. Only for it to occur again the next time we find ourselves brimming over or running on empty. Sound familiar?
So how do we cope with emotional overwhelm?
1. Know how common this is! I often work with people who find themselves on emotional rollercoasters that feel out of control and stuck in a loop. In fact, these loops can be such a difficult and yet such a common part of being alive. Life can be hard and knowing how to navigate it can be a minefield! Noticing this means you are very much in the same boat as most of us - and you’re certainly not crazy. You might be stuck, but you're definitely not broken. Simply knowing this can help to let go of some of the self-criticism and hopefully allow you some self-kindness instead. After all, you’re trying your best. As we all are.
2. Get to know your feelings. They are there to tell us how we are doing and what we need. While we all do things to avoid or distract ourselves from our more uncomfortable feelings (box sets and chocolate, anyone?), it's also important to have regular moments when you pay attention to how you feel. It can help to take moments every day to check in with yourself and notice how you are. If this feels new or uncomfortable, simply taking 10 seconds on a regular basis to ask yourself ‘what am I feeling right now?’ or ‘what do I need right now?’ can be a good place to start.
3. Take action to avoid emotional buildup or burnout. When you notice frequent feelings like worry, stress, mental fatigue, sadness etc., these are pointing you in the direction of things that you might need. That might look like allowing ourselves a break from something, getting more sleep, calling a friend for support, moving our bodies more, relaxing our too-high standards for ourselves, or saying ‘no’ more frequently, for example. We’ll all have our own ways of doing things, but what matters is that you listen to this inner guide and that you do something that works for you to bring you back into balance and feeling more okay more regularly.
4. Connect with others (with authenticity, kindness or love). Anyone who’s watched Inside Out will know that our emotions are also designed to communicate to others. For example, sadness is helpful for communicating distress and bringing about a caring response from others. In fact, our emotions are essential for building and maintaining social bonds. So in order to feel connected with others, to experience feelings like love, affection or empathy, we need to open up emotionally with others. This can feel extremely uncomfortable when we haven’t been brought up in a family or culture in which emotional expression is an everyday part of life. But it doesn’t take much to form a connection with others: a small gesture of kindness, a tiny act of interest in someone’s wellbeing, or a sliver of shared openness about how we really are can go a long way.
When we connect with others it triggers our internal soothing system which brings about a cascade of positive effects. This system helps us to feel grounded, calm and able to rest. It also moves us away from feeling anxious, angry and critical and towards feeling supportive, non-judgemental and understanding of others - and ourselves. When we are facing difficulties or suffering, our social connections and soothing system help us to feel calmer, more able to cope and more in balance overall.
5. Treat yourself as you would treat someone you love. It is a hard but clear fact that we will all suffer at points in our lives: we’ll experience things like rejection, illness, failure, and bereavement and these can be very hard to cope with. Another fact is that we spend more time with ourselves than we do with any other person in our lifetimes. In fact, if you add up the amount of time spent with others it isn’t even near the amount of time you spend in a relationship with yourself. The problem is that we’re usually taught how to ‘be’ with other people: kind, understanding, caring. But we’re not often taught how to be in a healthy and supportive relationship with ourselves. In fact, many of us blame ourselves for the difficulties that we experience rather than showing ourselves the strength, understanding and kindness that we can show others in the face of their difficulties. But don’t despair - the great news is that we can learn how to be more self-compassionate! If this is something you’re struggling with, when you next notice those uncomfortable emotions building up, or even boiling over or crashing down on you, try this: ask yourself, ‘how would I treat a really good friend in this position? What would I say to them? What would I offer them? What would I want for them?’. Notice the feeling of your desire to behave compassionately towards your loved one. Then see if you can direct some of that feeling - and with it the understanding and kindness - towards yourself. Not only can this help us to cope in times of trouble, but it also helps us to side-step out of that loop of overwhelm by soothing or eliminating the shame and guilt and allowing us to take whatever helpful action we actually need, instead.
Emotions are a vital part of human experience that none of us get to dodge. They allow us to stay safe, connect with others, and to find meaning in the things we do. Sometimes they can feel really uncomfortable and even leave us feeling stuck and out of control. The more we can get to know our emotions, take action when needed, and connect with others and ourselves with understanding and care, the less of a rollercoaster things can feel and the more calm and in balance we can be. Hopefully the steps above will be helpful for you. But if things are feeling tough or you’re considering starting some therapy then let’s talk. Drop me an email or book yourself a no-obligation, free 20 minute call today.