Feeling chronically overwhelmed may be a trauma response. Trauma activates the flight or fight response in our bodies. This activation engages the sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic nervous system activation releases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. In the presence of danger, these hormones help us survive. When danger is not present, these hormones can cause you to feel overwhelmed and can lead to physical symptoms of stress to include increased heart rate, sweating and digestive issues. After experiencing trauma, it is possible that your sympathetic nervous system may be hyperactivated. This hyperactivation may culminate in chronically feeling stressed, on edge, hypervigilant, jumpy or on guard. It may be difficult to relax. The good news is that you can reset a hyperactivated nervous system through trauma healing.
You can heal your trauma.
If you have survived trauma, it is possible that you may have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include trouble sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks to the traumatic event, difficulty trusting others, feeling like the world is unsafe and being on guard. PTSD can only be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional. It is important to see a professional if you feel like you are experiencing these symptoms. You may also experience trauma responses such as the flight response in stressful situations or in your daily life. The flight response is associated with feeling panicked, rushed and coping by overworking.
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The good news is trauma is treatable. Traditional therapy is beneficial to help you overcome trauma. Trauma therapy is a specialized form of therapy that is available as well. Trauma therapy may include trauma specific techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help your mind and body process traumatic events. In addition to therapy, there are medications that are FDA approved to treat PTSD. There are also natural and holistic treatments like yoga, breathwork, Reiki, acupuncture and mindfulness.
Mindful breathing is an easy and effective way to heal your trauma. It is also a great technique to use when you feel overwhelmed, regardless of the trigger. Mindful breathing helps activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is associated with the rest and digest response. It is the opposite of fight or flight response that triggers sympathetic nervous symptom activation. When the rest and digest response is activated, we feel calm, grounded and safe. Paced breathing from the diaphragm or belly is a great way to activate the PNS. Engaging the PNS is a great way to help reduce hyperactivation of the sympathetic nervous system as associated stress responses.
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Schedule time to worry.
It may sound strange, but scheduling time to worry is a great way to manage anxiety that can trigger feeling overwhelmed. Anxiety is characterized by uncontrollable worries. If we allow our worries to take over, they can feel overwhelming. Scheduling a small amount of time each day to worry can make worries feel more controllable. During this time, it may be helpful to write down all of the worries you have. You may even find it cathartic to destroy the paper when you finish. Ask yourself, is there evidence to support this worry? If not, release it. If so, is the situation you are worried about within your control? If not, release it. If so, ask yourself what you can do to reduce the chances of your worry coming true. When worry time is over, give yourself permission to release those worries and to focus on what’s next.
Schedule time to rest.
Rest is an important part of self care. Sleep deprivation can increase negative emotional responses to stress, like feeling overwhelmed, and can decrease positive emotions. Sleep is also important to brain functions to include memory, attention, learning, processing daily events and regulating emotions (1). Challenges in any of these areas can certainly contribute to feeling overwhelmed. Having a regular sleep schedule is an important part of sleep hygiene. Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time each day can improve the quality of your sleep and make it easier to fall asleep at night. Scheduling time to rest is a great way to protect time to sleep if you have a lot on your plate. Rest does not always have to mean sleep. If you feel overwhelmed by a task or situation, schedule times to take breaks. Use the time to do something you enjoy or to rest.
Schedule time to be productive.
Routine is a great antidote to feeling chronically overwhelmed. Scheduling time for rest or for being productive will help you build a routine that works for you. Routines add structure, predictability and a sense of control to our daily lives. Scheduling time to be productive each day helps protect time to get important tasks done so that things do not build up, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed. It is also a reminder that we do not have to be “human doings”. We do not have to spend all of our waking hours working or being productive.
It’s ok to say no.
During Minority Mental Health Month 2022, Therapy for Black Girls reminded us that it is ok to hang up our capes. Sometimes feeling chronically overwhelmed is a result of overcommitting ourselves. Is it hard for you to say no at work or in your relationships? If so, remember, it is ok to say no. Difficulty saying no may also be a trauma response known as the fawn response. The fawn response can manifest as putting the needs of others ahead of our own, conflict avoidance and approval seeking.The fawn response can also help us be empathetic. If you experience the fawn response, practice self care by saying no, understanding that your needs are important and accepting that you are worthy of love even if you put your needs first. High functioning depression can also lead us to overcommit to seek validation or be seen as a high achiever or performer. Saying no to taking on more or to something that you simply do not want to do is a great way to hang up your cape, sis.
It’s ok to ask for what you need.
Feeling chronically overwhelmed may be a warning sign that we need more support, guidance, resources, self care or more participation from others. Do you feel that there is an unequal distribution of labor or effort with your teammates, co-workers, partner or friends? Are you unsure of how to start or how to solve a dilemma? Do you need more time to complete something or perhaps time to rest or take a break? If so, asking for what you need is a sign of strength and is a form of self advocacy. It is also a great way to hang up your cape. Asking for what we need allows us to practice being vulnerable and gives us an opportunity to practice trusting others. Both of these things can be scary, especially if you have experienced trauma or have been let down by others in the past. However, asking for what you need is a risk worth taking. In most cases, your needs will be met. If not, an opportunity is presented to re-examine your relationships or your work environment. If your loved ones or your jobs are unwilling to meet your needs, do they deserve to be in your life? The key here is willingness. Sometimes it can take time for others to learn to meet our needs. The willingness to make an effort is what is important. It is also important to reflect on our delivery. Did you communicate your needs clearly and calmly?
Feeling chronically overwhelmed may result from catastrophic thinking or negative self-talk. When you feel overwhelmed, examine your inner dialogue. Are you telling yourself that things will never work out or that you will never finish your work? Are you telling yourself that you do not have what it takes to be successful or to complete the tasks at hand? Replace these cognitive distortions with affirmations. Tell yourself that it will be ok, that you are worthy, you are safe, you are competent and capable. If you need help coming up with affirmations, consult the internet. There are also affirmation apps that you can download to your phone.
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Take Care of Your Physical Health
We have already discussed the importance of sleep to mental health and brain functioning. Sleep is also an important part of overall health. It is important to take care of your health, especially if you have experienced trauma or chronic stress in your lifetime. Trauma and chronic stress can increase your risk for chronic health issues to include high blood pressure and diabetes (2,3). Sometimes mental health issues can be triggered by underlying physical health conditions like thyroid dysfunction or vitamin deficiencies. Feeling physically unwell can be overwhelming and can make it difficult to function. Therefore, it is important to take care of your physical health. Find a primary health care professional that you can trust and keep your appointments. Choose nutritious foods, stay hydrated, engage in a form of exercise that you enjoy and rest. You deserve it sis!