The feeling of overwhelm is a disorienting place to find yourself in. When life changes considerably – maybe we’re moved from home or started a new job – it can be hard to find our sense of grounding, to feel our feet on the ground. Here, we’re talking through how to navigate these moments.

Overwhelm and stress is as much a physical experience as it is a cognitive one. When we’re in the midst of overwhelm, it can be hard to view situations objectively and respond to ourselves with compassionate wisdom.

But it’s important to note is that these feelings are absolutely normal, and sometimes through feeling the uncomfortable, we discover new strengths and parts of ourselves that we need to make it through recovery.

Emotions are akin to tiny little red flags letting us know what does or doesn’t feel right. They let us know if something needs to change a bit in our lives, and whether need to look into our toolbox to see if we have a self-caring action or a loved one nearby to support. Without these signals, would never securely know our place in the world.

Feeling how we feel and remembering that things pass with time supports our resilience and emotional growth, even if they do feel uncomfortable at times. As Romy, Orri’s Senior Psychotherapist & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead, often says, “change should feel uncomfortable, not intolerable.” So, go at your pace and tread gently. Whatever arises, always return to compassion.

More about stress and overwhelm…

We’ve touched upon stress and its effects on the body in a previous blog, but below is a breakdown of Polyvagal Theory, exploring the bodily responses to stress:

  • The sympathetic part of our nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” experience
  • The para-sympathetic nervous system is the calming aspect of our nervous mechanics. Here, the vagus nerve comes to the fore and works to balance the sympathetic part mentioned above
  • This third nervous system response, coined the “social engagement” system or ‘window of tolerance’, is a mixture of activation and calming. The window of tolerance is the ventral vagal part of the nervous system. When you’re in this state, you feel like you can deal with whatever’s happening in your life. You might feel stress, but it doesn’t bother you too much

Take a moment to recognise that everything comes in waves, and this is one such wave.

How to cope when feeling overwhelmed…

Once the fight-or-flight chemical reactions have begun, it can take our bodies 10–20 minutes to return to our pre-fight/pre-flight state and through long exposure to stress or trauma, we can in fact get “stuck” in this state and remain highly sensitive to external stimuli.

However, once we have an inner awareness of us shifting into this sympathetic state, we can start to work with our bodily response and gradually de-escalate from a state of panic and tension. We explore more about this, here. Essentially, take a moment to recognise that everything comes in waves, and this is one such wave.

It may sound simple but when experiencing moments of overwhelm, always return to your breath

Step away for a moment into a quiet and safe space and ground yourself. Turn your focus inwards and take deep breaths. Keep your head level and still to raise your gaze upward. Do this for a slow count of 5 breaths and then return your gaze. This activates dopamine and relaxes your face muscles, reminding your body that you are safe and ok. Your breathe is the one part of your autonomic nervous system that you can control, so by working with your breath, you can work with the other areas of your nervous system.

It can help to shift your focus and change your perspective 

Our perspective is our power, yet when our thoughts are cycling around in rumination it can be hard to clock our inner monologue.

Reframing our experience is a tool we can use to reconsider the way that we are experiencing the world. What could be helpful here is using the 3 “C‘s”:

  • Catch the thought (be aware and mindful of it)
  • Check it (what is the evidence for it/is it helpful/unhelpful) and,
  • Challenge it with an alternative thought

It’s important to know that these thoughts are just that – thoughts, and not facts. We explore what you can do when your thinking style is an obstacle in your recovery here.

Whether we hold onto them and how we respond to them is within our power and our decision. It could also help to remind yourself how far you have come along your journey. You are not the person you were yesterday, as you are forever adapting in your recovery. If you feel “lost” in your recovery, what can help in your present is mapping out where you see yourself right now compared with what you want to get to in the future – and whether your eating disorder will be part of that vision and mission.

You could also consider your:

  • Relationships
  • Work and productivity
  • Hobbies
  • Fun activities – socialising
  • Dreams and aspirations
Check your boundaries

If we’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be that something in our life is crossing our boundaries and that our sense of safety is being tested. If this is your experience, our specialist prompts may help:

  1. Give yourself permission to tune into your feelings within different settings in your life
  2. Practice self-awareness and consider your past and present experiences and how they may dictate your decisions in the now
  3. Name your limits by starting small and being direct – assertion takes practice
  4. Reach out for support and guidance from specialist therapists

Recovery is tiring work, so your energy is precious enough. Know that you have the power to say no and to have this met with understanding (including from yourself). Honouring your energy is honouring yourself.

If overwhelm turns into a relapse…

A relapse could be an indicator of stress or of something being not quite right in your life, and as such, you need an external behaviour or impulse to help self-soothe or respond to a difficult situation. Recovery is also very much about acknowledging that there are and will be difficult days. In these days, it is important to welcome understanding and compassion – and to try and not beat yourself up about what makes you human; we are not perfect, so will make mistakes.

Rather than succumb to eating disorder behaviours or *avoid these situations, we suggest you find the tools that help ground you. What tools have you found helpful in the past?

  • If you have 9 minutes to spare, you could focus on your breathing and practice mindfulness with Pippa, Orri’s Yoga and Body Awareness Therapist.
  • How about journalling? Perfectionism and black and white ways of thinking can be prevalent for people suffering with eating disorders, which is why journaling can be a great space to begin challenging some of these qualities. A time to embrace the mess of our thoughts and to step into the grey areas!
  • Going for a walk in nature and reconnecting with your surroundings could help distract you from any uncomfortable feelings around your relapse..

There is no ‘right way’ to do recovery, each person takes a different path on their journey however you should not hesitate to reach out for support.

We end with compassion. Compassion is woven into the threads that is recovery – the tapestry will unravel without it. Even if your eating disorder may tell you otherwise, you are always worthy of compassion. 

black and white man under an umbrella

Do you have any questions? Get in touch with us!