Let’s define overwhelm.
The Merriem-webster definition is: to overpower or overcome in thought or feeling :: overwhelmed with grief; overwhelmed by terror. A sense of inadequacy overwhelmed me. Overwhelmed with guilt.
That’s the dictionary definition. It doesn’t really quite capture what I experience in my body when I feel overwhelmed.
So, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to define overwhelm as a generic, over-arching term for whatever we experience when our nervous systems are triggered into fight, flight, or freeze.
We’ll return to this in a moment. First, let’s take a look at some signs that can signal we are caught up in overwhelm.
Signs that we may be feeling overwhelmed include:
- procrastination or lack of follow through on ideas, plans, projects
- feeling scattered, forgetful, distracted
- being unable to feel our bodies, or to know what we need
- chronic exhaustion and/or chronic pain (if we live in an ongoing state of overwhelm)
- ongoing busyness but with little to show for our efforts
- difficulty making decisions
- continual mind-spin, replaying conversations, obsessing over the past, worrying about the future…
- tendency to turn to numbing behaviors – tv, social media, shopping, other addictions…
Overwhelm occurs when a combination of external pressures and internal thoughts, feelings, and sensations remind our bodies, our nervous systems, of some previous pain or trauma.
As we all have different trauma stories, what causes overwhelm for you might be quite different than what causes overwhelm for me. This can lead to feeling alone, misunderstood, and unseen which compounds the sense of overwhelm.
Some possible overwhelm triggers include:
- work or project deadlines (or our to-do lists!)
- conflict – whether internal or external
- crowds, loud noises, being touched without permission…
- attempting to play too many roles (perfectly) at once: mother, business owner, wife, friend, community organizer, volunteer…
- the news and/or social media
- painful memories surfacing
- transitions – new job, injury, marriage, divorce, baby, buying a home…
Let’s dive a little deeper into the overwhelm-trauma connection.
What happens when we become overwhelmed? Our brains shut down, clear thinking evaporates, and our sympathetic nervous system takes over sending us into fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight, flight, and freeze are all nervous system reactions that tell us that we don’t feel safe …. That something is happening that is potentially dangerous for us.
There are times when are lives truly are in danger and our nervous systems are responding appropriately through engaging the fight, flight, or freeze response. The standard example for this is encountering a tiger in the wild.
Most of the time, however, when we feel overwhelmed there is nothing truly life-threatening happening.
Rather, something is happening in our external or internal environment that reminds our nervous system of some previous, not-yet-fully-resolved trauma. Our nervous system then responds AS IF the dangerous situation is happening in this moment. And, just like that, we are triggered into overwhelm.
Overwhelm can be triggered by either our personal unresolved trauma or by the unresolved trauma that lives in our lineage.
Two examples of personal traumas:
- being in a car accident and feeling overwhelmed and panicked everything you get into a car.
- being yelled or shamed repeatedly by a caregiver when young and feeling overwhelmed and being unable to speak up or respond appropriately when your boss (or anyone really) speaks to you in a raised voice.
Overwhelm may also be triggered by unresolved trauma that lives in our ancestry and thus in our bodies/lives as well.
This is often the case when we find ourselves repeatedly overwhelmed in situations where there is no noticeable connection to our own lives.
I’ll give you a personal example here – for most of my adult life, I would become distraught when my significant other was even a couple of minutes late for something. I’d be certain he wasn’t going to show, that he was abandoning me. I would become angry, hurt, scared, unable to clearly express myself when he did arrive, etc.
I’d enter an extreme place of overwhelm even though no significant person in my life ever has abandoned me in that way. This was very confusing for me and caused all sorts of unnecessary drama and pain for both of us.
Looking at this same issue from a multigenerational perspective, I can trace a similar pattern of extreme reaction to a loved one’s lateness through my mother’s mother’s lineage – although I do not know the originating wound or trauma, I can clearly see that this pattern did not begin with me.
I’m taking the time to differentiate between the personal and ancestral traumas that live in our nervous systems because it can be relieving to know that
- even if we don’t understand why something is so overwhelming for us, there is likely a reason for it (we need to look at the issue from a multigenerational perspective); and
- it is possible to heal the underlying trauma that drives overwhelm regardless of whether the source of the trauma is personal or multigenerational – although different approaches are required.
The path forward.
In the moment when overwhelm occurs, whether it stems from personal or multigenerational trauma isn’t so important.
What is important is to notice that when we are overwhelmed we are incapable of caring for ourselves, making wise decisions, or taking effective action.
In the moment overwhelm occurs, we need a way to:
- come back to and safely feel what is happening in our bodies,
- acknowledge and allow all the stuck energy to move through in safe and appropriate ways, and from there to
- return to the situation knowing what we need and how to take effective action.
For longterm relief from overwhelm:
To fully dissolve both personal and multigenerational overwhelm, it is necessary to resolve the underlying patterns of trauma both in our bodies and in our lineages.
This is the focus of my work with private clients. Reach out and let me know how overwhelm is affecting you. I will personally respond to your email.