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The looming presence of Overwhelm

It was World Mental Health day yesterday and, though I didn't manage to find time to write about it at the time, reading and seeing everyone else's posts and responses to the day got me thinking about the state of my own mental health. I'm currently in the process of undertaking a course, learning all the tools and information about how to monitor and maintain good mental health, as well as administering Mental Health First Aid. One of the most powerful things I have learned so far is that mental health disorders are generally much more extreme and demanding than we have cause to believe, predominantly because we mislabel emotions and feelings. We downplay and label things as making us feel 'depressed' when we are actually just dismayed, for example, or we describe ourselves as 'a bit OCD' if we like things done in a particular way. These sorts of comments stigmatise mental health and undermine the extreme effects that mental health disorders can have on the lives of the people who suffer from them. It also means that we are out of touch with our own feelings, perhaps missing the signs of our own mental poor health, in comparison to the extreme mental disorders that we see as being poor mental health.

Perhaps as a reaction to the fact that we are unaware of what low mental health looks like in the modern age, we seem to have settled ourselves into thinking that a constant state of poor mental health is normal. Despite not labelling it as such. Particularly in Britain, the 'stiff upper lip' mentality is hindering our ability to notice when we are suffering and causing us to push our mental well-being to its limits. We sit in overwhelm, at high levels of stress, on a near daily basis and it causes our minds and bodies to suffer.

I've noticed lately that there is a bit of a sense of flapping and rushing about in the air. We are all like squirrels frantically rushing about trying to get our acorns planted (that we will later forget where we put them because we've planted so many), fuelled by the leftover energy from the summer, and the slight panic of facing increasingly dark and cold days.

This is a very good recipe for hitting that overwhelm button hard. But the modern world is so acclimatised to it that we don't often stop to notice that's how we're feeling. Overwhelm is a state of poor mental health; a sign that we are not taking proper care of ourselves, that we are not coping with our mental load. It is something important to keep an eye out for, so that we can get on top of it before it descends into something more sinister.

Here are some of my top ways of noticing when I'm feeling overwhelmed and a few ways of helping to rebalance the stress bucket and get things back into balance:

  1. Everything makes you cry.

If you're like me, it may feel like everything always makes you cry, because you eternally exist with your feelings bubbling on the surface of your skin. But see if you can tune in and notice the difference between feeling emotionally alert and overwhelmed. When you are in overwhelm, someone asking if you're ok or reminding you to look after yourself could trigger tears in a way that it ordinarily wouldn't. Or even a hug might make you feel extremely emotional.

If you notice this happening, try to tune into the reason behind your tears. What is it about what's been said or witnessed that has brought out your emotion, and what is the feeling behind that emotion? Are you feeling unworthy? Are you lonely? Are you struggling to cope with a growing workload and not telling anyone about it? Dive underneath the emotional reaction and see if you can explore what the root of that reaction is.

2. You feel angry and are frequently snapping or being irritable over small things

We all snap occasionally, and we all have moments where we let ourselves get caught up in the moment and unleash our inner frustrations on a poor unsuspecting stranger, or an unyielding washing machine or even another motorist when caught up in traffic. But if you are finding it harder and harder to contain your feelings, you are feeling irritable over issues that would usually not bother you and you can't always pinpoint why you are feeling so frustrated, this could be a sign of overwhelm. The best thing to do when you feel this happening is to talk to someone and explain how you've been feeling. You may find as you begin to explain your underlying feelings of frustration, that the root cause becomes clear. Even if it doesn't, just knowing that someone else understands and can relate to your feelings can often help them to dissipate.

3. Stopping or sitting still feels difficult.

We all often struggle to justify the moments of stillness in our days, because we live in a culture that rewards activity. When was the last time you made a cup of tea and actually drank the whole thing while it was still warm? Are you that person who is the last to sit down at the dinner table because you keep getting up to grab bits and pieces? Do you struggle and fidget when you are lying in Savasana, with what feels like a million thoughts buzzing around your brain? If you are finding it hard to prioritise proper rest, perhaps you need to start with active types of rest and then ease into full rest once your body is feeling tired. Rest by taking yourself out for a walk in nature, without your phone. Rest by taking a more vigorous yoga class. Rest by going for a wild dip in your local river or sea (cold water swimming is particularly invigorating at this time of year and has all sorts of physical benefits for the mind and body... but more on that in another post!). Once you have burned off the excess cortisol that is pumping through your system, then you might feel more able to stop and rest with a warm cup of tea or sit for a few moments in meditation.

Remember that not all poor mental health looks like a mental health diagnosis and it certainly doesn't look like someone who is visibly sad on the outside. Check on your friends - especially the bubbly, loud, smiley ones - and check on yourself. We all need love and support now and then. We are not super humans, much as we strive to be, and it is not a weakness to ask for help or to say that you are not coping.

Remember that the more honest and open we are with others, the more this in turn enables others to be more open and honest with themselves.

Sending you all love through the screen, and remember:

You are a super human, but you aren't superhuman. You don't need to do it all and it takes immense strength to ask for help.


P.S. If you are struggling and you feel you would like to reach out for some professional help but don't know where to start, heading to the Mind website is a great place to start: