Almost everyone can say that they’ve felt emotionally overwhelmed over the past few years. These have been extraordinarily difficult times for many reasons–and even more difficult for business owners.
You’ve probably felt emotions related to isolation, business volatility, health challenges, and social restrictions, among other things. The emotions, such as anger, sadness, stress, and frustration and fear can sometimes become so intense as to feel unbearable.
These overwhelming emotions by their very nature can make you wonder if you’ll ever be able to manage them.
Holding emotions in is hard, but letting them–when not done constructively–can cause harm to our relationships and our businesses.
Furthermore, you may find yourself wondering, “Now that COVID is “over,” why am I still so prone to feeling overwhelmed by my emotions?”
It’s important to be aware of two things about stress:
- It accumulates: like the literal straw that broke the camel’s back, it’s not the one thing but the last of many that does you in
- It potentiates: the impact of each new stressor is amplified by the ones that came before it.
Part of what can make emotions feel so overwhelming is the impact of cumulative stress. It took two years to get to this state, and we will need some time to recuperate. Don’t worry about making up for lost time. Recover first.
Why do we get emotionally overwhelmed?
Emotions are like the check engine light in a car. They let us know it’s time to look under the hood.
The purpose of emotions is to let us know we have unmet needs. They are meant to signal that something in our lives isn’t working so we can attend to that and make changes.
Just like with the check engine light, if we keep ignoring emotions, the problem will persist until it becomes unmanageable. Then we get emotionally overwhelmed and experience consequences like:
- Short fuse
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Conflict with contractors, clients, or employees
- Emotional outbursts
- Muscle tension and pain
- Sleep problems
All of these things deplete us even further and rob us of the resilience we need to be able to attend to and care for our emotions. It’s a negative feedback loop that makes us even more emotionally overwhelmed.
When you’re emotionally overwhelmed you’re in an amygdala hijack
Amygdala hijack happens when your brain reacts to stress as if it’s physical danger. It’s the technical term for when you are emotionally overwhelmed.
The amygdalae (we have two of them in our brains) are the emotion centres, part of the limbic system responsible for emotions and behaviours.
The CEO-self is the pre-frontal cortex; it is home to skills such as reasoning, thinking, decision-making, and planning. These skills are essential for business owners and entrepreneurs.
When we get emotionally overwhelmed, the amygdalae are activated, and their messages overpower the CEO-self.
Instead of speaking and acting from the CEO-self, we respond from the amygdala, in a state of fight or flight.
When you’re emotionally overwhelmed, you react very strongly, likely saying and/or doing things you will regret later.
But there are many strategies we can use to help ourselves when we’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
What to do when you feel emotionally overwhelmed
The very first step in navigating a moment of emotional overwhelm is to acknowledge what’s going on.
That can be as simple as pausing, taking a breath, and saying to yourself, “Oh! I’m overwhelmed.”
Notice and describe sensations
One of the challenges is that telling yourself not to be upset has no impact, and sometimes it can make us feel even worse! That’s because talking to ourselves doesn’t wake up the CEO-self and bring it back online.
The noticing part of the brain (the medial pre-frontal cortex) is directly connected to the amygdala, so when we pay attention and notice what’s happening, it can calm us.
You can say something to yourself like, “I’m noticing I’m overwhelmed. I’m noticing my heart is racing. I’m noticing my muscles are tense.”
You can also use the skill of describing to further engage the noticing brain.
Describing takes us into a world of curiosity, where we are curious about what words describe our experience.
You can try saying things to yourself like, “It feels like a wave washing over me.” or “It feels like heat in my belly.” Here is a list of sensation words for inspiration.
Name the emotion
Many studies have suggested that putting feelings into words (affect labeling) helps manage negative emotional experiences.
Dr Dan Siegel says, “Name it to tame it.”
It can be particularly helpful to use this specific sentence construction, “I’m noticing something in me feels [[insert emotion here]].”
Experiment with that and compare how you feel when you say it that way compared to simply saying, “I’m [insert emotion here].”
If you want to take it a step further, you can add a soothing and validating step
At its most basic, soothing is anything that makes you exhale, soften and relax a bit–or even a lot.
One of the most powerful soothing techniques is validation.
After you’ve identified your emotion, you can then say things to yourself like: “No wonder you’re feeling [[insert emotion.]]” or “Anyone who has been through something like this would be feeling overwhelmed.”
It can help you get out from under a wave of emotion when you can find an outlet.
The fight or flight response activates the body and discharging that physical energy in the moment can be helpful: crying, yelling, laughing, running, pummelling something soft with your firsts… all of these are examples of things that can help you get that physical energy out.
Emotionally, it can help to write out the thoughts and feelings, dump them into a voice memo, or tell them to a safe listener.
Engage the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” system–the opposite of the fight/flight response. Increasing vagal tone can help you out of an overwhelmed emotional state.
Cold water on hands or face has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve. So can chanting, singing, humming, gargling and yawning, because the vocal cord muscles are connected to the vagal nerve.
Use your social engagement system
Because we are human beings who are by nature wired for connection, we can use the safety cues we get from others to help us get out of an overwhelmed state.
A hug from a friend, a warm facial expression and tender eyes, and gentle “mmmhmmm” vocalizations from others whom we trust can help you get out of amygdala hijack.
Give yourself a time out
Sometimes eliminating stimulation helps calm you.
When you are overwhelmed, it can feel like a raw wound. When a raw wound is exposed to repeated touch, for example, it gets sorer and sorer, but if you leave it alone, it can heal.
The nervous system is the same. Quiet time can be very nourishing. A huddle under a blanket, a warm cup of tea, or whatever you find comforting can enhance the alone time and give your nervous system and your emotions a chance to settle.
Be kind to yourself
All of the tips above are ways of being kind to yourself.
If you’ve done something in an amygdala hijack, when you were feeling overwhelmed, and you’re now feeling embarrassment and/or regret, the best thing to do is show yourself some kindness and understanding.
You can say things to yourself like, “I understand what happened. No wonder I did that. I was overwhelmed.”
Shame and embarrassment can also lead to amygdala hijack because they can be overwhelming too, so soothing and caring for yourself can make a big difference in the choices you make about repairing any damage done.
You can come from a more holistic and heart-centred place that gives you energy and creativity to repair and restore the relationship with others, once you’ve cared for yourself.
We are stronger with support
It’s important to be aware that if you’re really activated, it can be hard, even with these strategies, to calm down from being overwhelmed.
It takes time, and ongoing care–usually for half an hour or more, and even after you’ve calmed down it can be important to continue to use calming and soothing tools to help yourself stay on an even keel.
Because humans are wired for interpersonal connection, getting out of an overwhelmed state can be tough when you’re on your own, and if this us you, it might help to acknowledge that it simply a human characteristic, and then to ask for help, because we are stronger with support.
If you’re a woman business owner who’d like support for dealing with emotional overwhelm, why not book a free assess and recommend session to see if we’d be a good fit to work together?