What to do when you’re overwhelmed 

Many parents struggle with feeling overwhelmed at the best of times, so the additional challenges of a global pandemic has now left many families feeling like it really is all too much.

Overwhelm can result in changes in our mood and behaviour, but doesn’t look the same for every person.  Sometimes we can shut down, which can lead to increased procrastination or avoiding tasks, feelings of hopelessness, lacking motivation and joy. Other times, we can lash out and experience increased irritability, agitation, frustration, and lower tolerance of noise and mess.

It is normal to be overwhelmed when there is uncertainty and change. A pandemic can increase stress levels due to feeling a lack of control and requirements to change behaviours. Both of these symptoms – lashing out and shutting down – can also be signs of more significant mental health concerns including anxiety and depression. If your mood is affecting your life, or you are worried about yourself or someone around you, please seek help from your healthcare provider.

Even without mental health concerns, it is useful to open up your emotional toolkit to manage overwhelm when you feel the pressure rising. My top two tips for managing overwhelm seemingly oppose each other, but when used together they are grounding and calming. So let’s examine how we can ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to find some peace amidst the chaos.

Zoom In

“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find that you have crossed the mountain.” [unknown]

What I love about the above quote is the idea that when we try to tackle everything at once, it is easy to get overwhelmed, and to stumble over something small.  Similarly, when we look at a task, it can feel so huge that it can paralyse us, and make it feel impossible. 

So, my first tip for managing when feeling overwhelmed is to zoom in

Pick a stone.  For example, when it was announced that we were going into a 6-week lockdown because of the pandemic, it was easy to start thinking – how am I going to survive SIX WEEKS of this? SIX WEEKS of being stuck at home, with no support, with no help, working from home, trying to educate the children and entertain them.  There is no way I can do this for six weeks.  But I didn’t have to survive it for six weeks. I only had to survive it for one moment.  One moment.  That is all you ever have to survive. 

One moment.

And then the next one moment.

And then the next one moment.

You can make that moment as small as it needs to be – whether it’s a day, or an hour, or a breath.

All you have to do is get through that moment. 

I talk about this idea a lot in the space of infant-parent sleep. It is so easy to get overwhelmed with the prospect of a frequently waking baby. How am I going to cope with my baby waking so much when I go back to work?  I can’t do this for another moment let alone several months.

But you only ever need to cope right now, in this moment.  What do you need, right now, to get through THIS moment?

This isn’t about pretending that actions don’t have consequences, or that what we do now doesn’t impact on the future. But so often, we can become so fixated on solving the imagined problems of our future self that we sacrifice the needs of our current self.  When the reality is that babies grow and change so quickly that we can invest huge amounts of effort attempting to control an uncontrollable future, rather than managing the only space we actually influence – the present. 

One psychological tool we can use to do this is present moment awareness.  Let yourself drop into the present moment and unhook all the rememberings of an unchangeable past, and all the imaginings of an uncontrollable future.  What is happening right now? Right here in this moment?  Take a moment to step out of your mind and into your body. Notice your breath. Pay attention to the sensations in the room – what can you see, hear, smell? Feel the weight of your body and notice where it connects to the world – perhaps your back leaning onto a chair, or your weight on your bed, or noticing your feet pressing into the floor.

Zoom Out

Now go back to that idea of the mountain for my second tip to manage overwhelm. When you are standing at the base of the mountain, it is massive and can feel insurmountable.  But if we can step back, way back, often we realise that what feels like a mountain in the early days of parenting is actually a small part of the greater landscape. 

Our internal threat system (our sympathetic nervous system) is a bit like a smoke alarm – it goes off just as loud when the house is ablaze as it does when we burn a piece of toast.  It just screams “PROBLEM, PROBLEM, PROBLEM”.

We need a different part of our brain to help us step back (or zoom out) so that we can respond appropriately to that alarm. 

One of the things we can do is ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Is this a real problem or an imagined problem? For example, imagining the judgmental thoughts of others when breastfeeding your baby in public.
  2. Is this a current problem or a future problem? For example, worrying about your 3yo “respecting” you because you are imagining her as a teenager sneaking out of home.
  3. Is this a permanent problem or a temporary problem? For example, worrying about bedsharing with a young child and fearing they will never learn to sleep independently.
  4. Is this a big problem or a small problem?

Another tool we can use to help zoom out is mental time travel. If I was to look back at this time in 5 years, or 10 years time, will it be that important? What will I remember of this time? What are the things that actually matter?

When we are right in the thick of a situation, it can feel like everything is so important. That every moment is pivotal, and every small decision and action matters. And yet, when we step further away in time, we can begin to see that often, there is a lot more room for flexible problem-solving and reducing the feeling that you need to get every little thing “right”.

So the next time you are feeling overwhelmed, try zooming in – “what’s my stone?” – or zooming out – “how important is this overall?” – to help contain and reduce those feelings of shutting down or lashing out.  

Contributed by Amanda Donnet, Clinical Psychologist at Spilt Milk Psychology, Little Sparklers Director 

Image credit: Vida Images 

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