Everyone at some point in their life (or their day) will feel overwhelmed.  There will be too much input, too much emotion, too much expected, too much….  When overwhelm happens we react.  Being a deer in the headlights is a reaction, it’s just not an active one. 🙂  I have always found it interesting that people with brain trauma sleep huge amounts. It’s not only because they are healing, but they report that it is because they have no filters, no means of defending themselves from the overwhelming stimuli of life, so they literally shut down.  When they can’t take in any more their internal knowingness shuts them off.  They go into sleep where they can process everything that’s happened and when they are ready to face some more they come back to wakefulness.  This isn’t unique to brain injuries either.  Kids do it spontaneously and adults do it as self-defense.  Usually they know that’s the case like after a bad breakup, a divorce, or a loss in the family.  Strong emotions are overwhelming and we can only take so much before we need to shut down and take a break.

Overwhelm happens.  It’s like gravity, it’s something that is part of the physics of life.  Interestingly we don’t often see it that way.  There’s a great deal of warrior mythos in our culture specifically around overwhelming situations.  We admire and elevate those who can go into overwhelming situations and continue to function normally or perform acts of bravery/necessity. But in doing so we create an us vs. them separation.  Heroes are able to perform in overwhelming situations, regular ol’ us can’t.  So overwhelming situations should be avoided at all costs for the rest of us because we aren’t heroes and if we were in that situation we would…well, we would be overwhelmed.  And then we’d die or end up with a pie in our face or soup in our hair or something awful.  In fact we might…*gulp*…lose control and do something we aren’t controlling and in complete control of.  Doh!

And yet, overwhelm happens.  It’s inevitable.  In fact, it’s normal.  It’s a usual part of any new situation.  Going into a new job on the first day, learning a new sport, the first time being in the driver seat of a car, going on a first date, trying to navigate through Comcast customer service…these are all things that can take us to a state of overwhelm.  Everything is new, we’re bombarded by the unknown, and we can’t know how to react, that’s kinda the point.  All that new and unknown stuff.  But there is one thing we can know, we can know ourselves.  We can know how we feel when we are overwhelmed.  We can know what our goto reaction is when overwhelm is happening and in that knowing we can choose.  We can choose to support ourselves, not be trying to stop the overwhelm, but supporting ourselves through it.  Instead of putting food in to stop having the emotions, we can listen to what the emotions are truly telling us because the remedy to them, the message they are trying to impart, is in the feeling of them.  We learn to recognize when our anxiety is taking over and what works to help us calm down so we can move forward.  It’s not about being brave or even being present.  Sometimes it’s about taking a breath or a small break so we can get our feet under us again.

When we see overwhelm as a feature of life and not something to be avoided we can unfold to a surprising truth, that overwhelming situations are often so because of how much they have to teach us.  They are like condensed events, all happening in one small nugget of time.  The wisdom and experience we gain from them will be exponential if we are willing to gentle our way through them with the grace to realize we’re not in control, but we are going to survive and even thrive.