‘I Just Can’t Take It Anymore!’ Stopping the Cycle of Overwhelm

Rear view of person with short hair in pants and sweater walking in field at sunsetOne of the hardest things about stress and anxiety is that it often leads to overwhelm. Because of this, it is tempting to implement strategies that manage the discomfort but fail to offer lasting change. For example, many people choose to avoid situations that trigger anxiety, but they rarely address the sensations, feelings, and thoughts associated with it. It is natural to want to avoid feeling anxious. However, quick fixes don’t tend to bring long-term recovery. An integrative approach that includes both short- and long-term solutions is usually needed.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Overwhelm feels more convincing than your ability to change it.
  2. When you are immersed in overwhelm, short-term strategies become necessary for immediate relief before being able to consider long-term solutions.

While psychotherapy, social support, a nutrient-dense diet, spending time in nature, and exercise are important to prevent overwhelm, three key ingredients are necessary: expanding your window of tolerance, mindfulness, and self-compassion.

Becoming Aware of Your Window of Tolerance

One of the most important aspects for reducing overwhelm is to become increasingly aware of signals that you are about to “flip out” or “shut down” (known in psychotherapy as hyperarousal and hypoarousal). The space between flipping out and shutting down is the zone in which you function most effectively. In this space, you can think clearly, communicate well, engage respectfully, and work effectively. In other words, you are in your window of tolerance.

As you might imagine, everyone’s window of tolerance is different. Understanding your baseline window of tolerance and how to expand it contributes to long-term well-being because it offers you the chance to change your relationship to difficult emotions.

You might wonder how you can come to know and expand your window of tolerance. One of the more effective ways is through mindfulness and self-compassion.

Expanding the Window of Tolerance with Mindfulness

Expanding your window of tolerance helps you navigate increasingly difficult experiences without becoming so easily overwhelmed. To expand the window, you must learn to notice when you are “triggered” or “hooked” into a negative reaction. Mindfulness helps you to tune into subtle messages in your body/mind, giving you insight about where and when you are triggered.

Mindfulness simultaneously offers immediate relief and long-term benefits. It is often described as the state of being intentionally aware of what is happening, as it is happening, without judgment. Psychiatrist and educator Dr. Dan Siegel describes it as “waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken to moment-by-moment experience.” In other words, mindfulness gives us what psychotherapist Linda Graham calls “choice points” or opportunities where change becomes possible.

Mindfulness teaches you to be an observer of sensations in the body and the feelings associated with them. In this shift from immersion to observation, you can tolerate painful feelings as they arise and access your thinking mind with more clarity.

Change becomes possible because mindfulness prevents over-identification. When you are triggered, you are immersed in the experience and accompanying sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Mindfulness teaches you to be an observer of sensations in the body and the feelings associated with them. In this shift from immersion to observation, you can tolerate painful feelings as they arise and access your thinking mind with more clarity.

According to meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach, mindful awareness has two qualities: seeing what is true and holding with love what is seen. You can ask two simple questions to create mindful awareness.

  • What is happening right now? Seeing what is true is noticing the thoughts, feelings, and/or sensations arising in the moment from the observer’s point of view.
  • Can I just let it be? Holding whatever arises with love means gently noticing each thought, feeling, and/or sensation with as much self-compassion as you would for your best friend. It’s one thing to get some distance on the patterns leading to overwhelm, but holding yourself and the part of you that is overwhelmed with compassion will make or break your ability to calm yourself.

Continuing to Expand the Window of Tolerance with Self-Compassion

If there is one thing I’d like you to take away from this article, it is to know every moment of suffering is an opportunity to give yourself love and compassion.

Self-compassion helps transform overwhelm and other difficult feelings by teaching us to cultivate kind, connected presence for ourselves. Kristin Neff, researcher of self-compassion and co-creator of the Mindful Self-Compassion program, says there are three main ways to initiate self-compassion:

  1. Kind words
  2. Caring tone of voice
  3. Soothing gestures

Self-compassion increases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and, in turn, amplifies feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. A key thing to remember, however, is that self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. If you use self-compassion practices only to try to make bad feelings go away, you create the requirement that receiving compassion is valuable only if it removes the pain of life. Continue the practice of giving and receiving loving kindness without conditions, even when the pain doesn’t go away. By doing so, you create the habit of approaching yourself and others with kindness. You may feel more positive emotions as a result, but treat them more like a wonderful side effect than a goal. The long-term goal is to cultivate mindful self-compassion in as many situations as possible, and this takes time.

One of the most important points about this approach is to fully receive the compassion you offer yourself. This means to give yourself permission to get into it! This may be challenging at first because you are likely used to spending your energy on avoiding or managing overwhelm. If you shift your focus from avoidance to being compassionate with the part of you that is overwhelmed, you may be surprised how much you are able to expand your window of tolerance.

Reference:

Neff, K. (2011, June 27). The chemicals of care: How self-compassion manifests in our bodies. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-neff/self-compassion_b_884665.html

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tamara Thebert, MFT | Berkeley Women's Psychotherapy, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Gerry

    Gerry

    June 6th, 2018 at 2:02 PM

    I think my Window of Tolerance is very small. :( I wish that I had what it took to be more “resilient” but I don’t think I was born with that ability unfortunately.

  • Tamara Thebert, MFT

    Tamara Thebert, MFT

    June 6th, 2018 at 9:17 PM

    Hi Gerry, Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Many of us start out with a small window of tolerance. That’s exactly why we feel overwhelmed. The good news is that you have already demonstrated mindfulness in that you notice your window of tolerance. If you apply compassion to the part of you that feels upset that you weren’t born with the ability to be resilient, that would be one small step toward expanding that window. Use a kind tone, a caring phrase, and most of all, a gesture like the hand over the heart. When you do this, see if you can get quiet and notice more closely what you feel when caring for yourself in this way. What do you notice when you do this?

  • deborah y.

    deborah y.

    June 9th, 2018 at 3:40 PM

    I liked the article. I found it informative and really nicely written. The idea that self compassion is not synonymous with the elimination of pain was a good reminder that we can unconditionally love ourselves. I also really appreciated you making a distinction between the elimination of symptoms (quick fix) and longer term healing and recovery. Thank you for your good work and positive contribution to our lives. Deborah

  • Tamara Thebert, MFT

    Tamara Thebert, MFT

    June 10th, 2018 at 2:48 PM

    I’m glad you found it helpful Deborah. I appreciate you pointing out that self-compassion is not the same as getting rid of pain… that it is being compassionate just for the sake of loving ourselves. I often find that even though reducing painful feelings is not the goal, it can be the “bonus” of the practice! There’s something that relaxes upon hearing my own voice encouraging or soothing myself while going through something difficult. It sounds like you have some experience with self-compassion. If so, how do you show yourself compassion?

  • Kal

    Kal

    December 9th, 2018 at 6:12 PM

    This was helpful. I’m wondering how the sudden crashing wave of emotion that comes when things catch you completely off guard can be dealt with without loosing it in a sudden response? When I’m prepared, I’m Okay. When something unexpected happens, I’m not, and everyone is left feeling terrible afterwards.

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