Navigating the flow of life can be compared to captaining a ship. Sometimes the ocean is calm and navigation doesn’t require much effort. Sometimes the ocean is vicious and navigation is difficult. Sometimes we may navigate choppy water with effortless skill, anchored by inner stillness. Sometimes we may struggle to navigate the calmest waters, feeling overwhelmed as much by storms within as waves without.
Yesterday, I couldn’t steer; I let go of the ship’s wheel, knees shaking from seasickness. I stumbled to the edge and gazed into the distance, fear rising as abruptly as the crashing of the wildest shore. What I had previously navigated suddenly overwhelmed me. I felt paralysed. Mindfulness was resigned to memory as I became preoccupied by thoughts, lost in visions of the future.
I’ve been here before. I’ve capsized, gone overboard, fought to keep my head above water. However, a selection of tools, resources and robust self-care has helped me to recover quickly. Writing hasn’t flowed recently, but what better time to approach a subject I’m sure we can all relate to to some degree?
Why not write about my experience of feeling overwhelmed, from the inside out?
Here are observations of the subtleties of mind as I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. Step by step, this is an uncensored, behind-the-scenes examination of feeling overwhelmed with life. I’m hoping this article will contain relatable experiences, helping you find an approach to manage a similar situation.
Feeling Overwhelmed With Life Started With An Energy Dip
“Tonight I’m gonna rest my chemistry.” — Interpol, Rest My Chemistry.
The first vaguely noticeable red flag was a dip in energy. Not the usual daily fluctuation, but something deeper, beyond the restoration of sleep. An essential Life Force, described as ch’i in Chinese culture, Prana in Hindu philosophy, and many other names across many centuries and cultures. I became aware of such an energy deficiency days before overwhelm hit. And… I ignored it! Even though I strive to maintain balance and understand the importance of rest, I overextended myself energetically. I didn’t take note. I didn’t switch off.
Switching off for me slowing down, taking it easy for a while. It doesn’t include relaxation techniques or meditating or socialising (important for introverts) or reading, but instead doing nothing. The type of self-indulgent, cosy nothing most of us engage in during a harmless winter cold.
Having periods where we rest and recharge is vital. But as covered in an article on time valuation, doing nothing is low value because it isn’t productive. As a result of these internalised beliefs, the dip in energy was accompanied by an inner resistance, operating outside of my awareness. I attempted to carry on as usual, rather than respect my body’s message to slow down; despite a clear reminder on my wrist…
Burnout Via Resistance
Many of us face chronic burnout due to similar resistance, ignoring the warning signs of stress. We don’t pay attention to our natural, limited energy resources, instead attempting to soldier on with an IV drip of caffeine and false-promises of slowing down at some fixed point in the future. Resistance manifests differently for everyone, but for me, it arrived in the form of emotional frustration, combined with a sense of inconvenience:
“Uhh, not now, low energy! I have things to do. Why am I tired? I shouldn’t be. This isn’t fair. How do I return to how I felt days ago?”
This string of inner-dialogue is insightful. The first section — “not now!” — is me resisting. I’m attempting to push away unwanted sensations. Essentially, I’m in denial. I then question the why of the situation, another form of resistance. Then, I indulge in unnecessary suffering and pity, spinning the narrative things “shouldn’t be” this way, that it’s “unfair”. The last section — “how can I get back to how I was” — has a different structure. This is a form of resistance manifesting as attachment to the past.
Mindfulness is attempting to be in the moment to the best of our ability. Yet here I was, wistfully indulging in what once was, craving the return of energy and creative flow. The paradox is, attachment to a previous state is one of the biggest barriers between feeling alive in the present and, ironically, experiencing the desired state again. You can’t be fully in the moment when your mind is stuck in memories of past, or imagined futures. During this stage, I was floating between two timelines while unwittingly neglecting The Now.
The Illusion Of A Fearful Future
The energy dip began late last week, Thursday or Friday. I can’t quite remember. But after a few day’s resistance, I’d become intoxicated by the mind. Self-awareness is the ability to step back from thoughts and feelings. Yet indulging in memories of the past led to identifying strongly with thought. The stronger we identify, the harder it is to step back. Indulging in memory is a deceitful form of identification and often hard to catch. Ultimately, it’s a powerful pull from The Now, disguised as a way to diagnose present-moment pain by searching for answers in the past.
I didn’t chastise myself, as that defeats the purpose of balance and self-compassion. But it’s important to note at this point, I was struggling to step back from thinking because my reserves were low. My ch’i needed to recuperate, and I wasn’t giving it necessary space. Tiredness, hunger, illness — these challenges make mental resilience harder to harvest. I felt like I was trapped in the middle of a swarm of bees, attempting to swat one away at a time. Each thought felt tangible, real. As someone prone to depression, this is the moment a dear old friend, hopelessness, turns up for a reunion.
That’s because, as well as becoming attached to the past, I projected my current state into the future. That’s when overwhelm really kicked in. Scenario after scenario popped into my mind as I visualised myself unable to cope, catastrophising my imagined future. I can’t cope was swiftly followed by hopelessness. This worst-case-scenario projection is a breeding ground for anxiety and stress.
It can be hard to remember these are only thoughts, and we all have the resourcefulness in any given moment to step back, witness, and become The Observer. Fortunately, I soon became aware of my inner resistance and my mind’s time-travelling tendency. This is when change began.
Opening Up To The Richness Of Melancholy
“I’m going to go home, put my jogging bottoms on, and be nice to myself.” — Me. Yesterday.
I was sitting in one of my favourite cafes having finished one task for the day, with many left, struggling to ignore my lagging Life Force. Suddenly, awareness illuminated my mind. A sense of comfort glided into my consciousness like a warm hug, acknowledging my need to slow down with the loving assuredness of a caring parent. Immediately I abandoned resistance and accepted my energetic nature and sense of overwhelm.
Free from the tension of resistance, I opened up to how I was feeling in full detail. I became The Observer of thoughts, emotions and visualisations, rather than feeling infused with them.
A rich spectrum of emotion came to the forefront of my awareness, and I realised I’d been resisting a delicate sadness, a midnight-green melancholy. Selectively numbing our inner experience isn’t possible, instead we numb everything. My resistance had closed my heart to a degree; now, I cracked it open and vulnerability flourished. The humidity of numbness was pierced by rainfall of sensitivity, as the enriching aroma of petrichor enlivened my emotional landscape.
Awareness opens us to the exquisite shades of inner experience. Now the air was clear, I could see the factors contributing to my state of mind.
I noticed two voices: The Victim and The Saboteur. I needed to manage these voice to avoid indulgence and the risk of becoming stuck, which could lead to a depressive episode. I’ve discovered ways of facilitating the needs of each. Your approach might be different. Experiment, be creative, see what works for you, but keep the balance of the Middle Way in mind. Here’s my approach.
Giving The Victim The Spotlight
The Victim is the voice within that tells me life’s unfair, that things shouldn’t be this way, that I’m a victim of circumstance and someone else or something else is to blame. It’s an alluring voice, a voice resonating with me for many years. It’s a common voice, one which only serves to strip us of power and make us feel helpless. Thanks to the catalyst of awareness, I moved into The Observer role and created space from thought, allowing me to tune into this familiar thinking pattern. This allowed me to empower myself, relinquish blame and remember:
I am the only person responsible for resolving this mood.
Succumbing to The Victim mindset only makes things worse. Realising responsibility is Stage One in dealing with The Victim, but there’s another practice I find particularly effective. The Victim wants attention, it wants to be heard. So I give it the spotlight for a select period of time. I step into the role like an actor stepping on stage and consciously indulge in a self-centered, pitying rant. I feel the frustration and unfairness with the vigour of a bawling child:
“Life is so hard! It’s so unfair! Why can’t I just be allowed to live out my dream? Surely I’m working hard enough for it? Won’t someone notice me? Come along and make things easier? I never get my own way. Poor me!”
This is similar to the inner-dialogue I used to cleanse my mind. Try it — it’s cathartic! The key is doing it with awareness. We can call this purposeful self-ranting, its aim to satisfy and quieten The Victim. Putting pen to paper and writing this string of dialogue is just as, if not more, effective.
Having purged The Victim, the voice dimmed. Now The Saboteur came to the forefront (personified as The Matrix‘s Agent Smith). The Saboteur knows what’s good for me and actively tries to encourage me to do the complete opposite. Thanks Agent Smith.
This time, The Saboteur was encouraging me to binge-eat, to binge-drink, to stop going to the gym, to stop writing, to abandon MindThatEgo, to sabotage relationships, to sink into the murkiness of the ocean while waving the white flag and throwing in the towel.
Silencing The Saboteur
The Saboteur is an interesting part of my psyche because I know the depths it can take me. I feel its presence, and acting against it can take a great effort. The sooner it’s managed, the better.
When I woke this morning I felt better, but The Saboteur was still there. “Don’t get out of bed,” it said, “you’re tired, you don’t have energy.” It was telling me there was no point in going to the gym. This isn’t a voice to pay attention to. Indeed sometimes my body does need to rest, or I do need more sleep. But thinking processes courtesy of The Saboteur arrive in narrative form; not intuition or sensation from the body. The latter is worth paying attention to.
Knowing its nature, I deal with The Saboteur differently than The Victim. I’ll give in a little, feeding its needs in a way I know won’t cause harm. Then…
I tell it to fuck off.
Seriously. Try it. Having recharged yesterday my resilience returned, and I was having none of it. I was regaining control and aside from tenderness, The Saboteur was my biggest challenge. Noticing its attempt to prevent me from starting my day, I knew I had the choice to listen, or to fight. So I stood in the mirror, stared deeply into my eyes, and channelled my warrior.
Carrying this mindset into the gym, each rep became act of defiance. Evidencing how effective weight training is in managing my mental health, I could feel The Saboteur retreat. It knew its place, it knew I wasn’t playing games.
As a side note, it’s interesting to witness the balancing of feminine and masculine energies throughout this process. I needed to cultivate a feminine energy to open up to vulnerability and sensitivity. Once I’d accepted and processed my emotions, it took a cultivation of masculine energy to overcome The Saboteur; a perfect illustration of the duality of yin and yang.
I suspect the depletion of my Life Force arose from an imbalance that needed to be addressed.
A Summary Of Overcoming Overwhelm
“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” — Rocky Balboa
As I write, I feel lighter. Seasickness subsided. Knees no longer wobble. More space, more flow. Past and future have less pull, present. I’m aware I still need rest, but the change is noticeable. In the past this would have lasted much, much longer. Best of all, I’m ready to get back behind the wheel, to steer the ship through challenging waters. However, I’m also aware I need time to adjust to my usual pace.
I’ll end by summarising my approach to dealing with overwhelm. The initial step is relinquishing resistance and denial of how I am truly feeling: physically; emotionally; cognitively; energetically. I pay attention to the tendency of my mind to indulge in the past, or project fearfully into the future. Then I open up to my full experience, allowing myself to be vulnerable. If sadness arises, I allow it to wash over me, and experience it with self-compassion and curiosity. This allows other contributing factors to surface.
On this occasion these were the voices of The Victim and The Saboteur. Each needed to be managed in their own way, allowing me to clear the mind and to re-focus on the here and now, while respecting the need to adjust back to my usual pace, to find balance.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling to navigate, I hope these techniques help you find your sea legs. Remember: this too shall pass. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel. In no time, you’ll be back behind the wheel.