5 Tips for Navigating Overwhelming Emotions

The last 30 days have been challenging to say the least. Between me and the kiddos, we have experienced walking pneumonia, a 3:30 am ER visit for croup, a fall down the stairs, road burn and a sprained wrist from falling off the back of a golf cart, a double ear infection, an upper respiratory infection, 3 weeks of crutches for a bone bruise below my osteoarthritic knee, a PRP treatment, and a broken ankle. And those are just the physical stressors.

Through all of this, one of my favorite coping strategies--weightlifting--has not been an option. 

By Thursday evening of last week, I was in psychological shock. I felt numb. And overwhelmed. Friday morning I felt buffeted by life. Friday night, in grief, I felt like my heart was going to collapse on itself. 

I felt disassociated most of the weekend. And by yesterday, my body hurt all over and I felt like I might be getting a stomach bug.

I was talking to a friend about my weekend this morning and she asked me if I was able to access the tools in my toolbox--meditation, gratitude, exercise, nature, connection, etc.--as I navigated the weekend. 

And the honest to goodness truth is that no, I wasn’t. Gratefully, a couple of dear friends reached out to check on me. But I still resisted the desire to reach out and ask for help. I am still a work in progress after all. 

So what do we do when we are in psychological shock? Well, our body sends us into fight, flight or freeze. As part of this process, we experience physical symptoms

The hallmark symptom of shock is feeling a surge of adrenaline.  

  • You may feel jittery or physically sick, like you're going to vomit or have diarrhea.

  • Your mind will likely feel very foggy, or like you can't think straight.

  • You may feel out of body.

  • Your chest may feel tight.

  • You may feel a disconnection from what's happening, like you're watching a movie of events unfolding rather than actually being there.

  • You may feel intense anger and want to scream or yell—for example, if your child is injured while someone else is supposed to be watching them.

  • You may feel like you want to run.

When we reach this space, our brain is saying FIX THIS NOW. But unless we are actually in imminent danger, what we are tempted to do is often the very last thing we should do for our own well-being.

Fight--maybe we pick a fight with our spouse, or our boss, or a friend 

Flight--maybe we decide to quit our job, get a divorce or end a relationship

Freeze--maybe we shut down completely and can barely function--which can send us into difficult headspace, particularly when we are focused on all we think we should be DOING

Contrary to our instincts, when we are in the middle of fight, flight or freeze, one of the most powerful, life giving things we can do is to BE STILL and do nothing. We can give ourselves permission to feel how we feel without reacting to how we feel. I encourage my clients all the time not to make any big decisions when they are in the midst of overwhelming emotions which often trigger our fight, flight or freeze response. 

Here’s the thing. If a decision needs to be made and we are actually in non-life-threatening circumstances, it can be made later; after these feelings, and the psychological and physiological processes that are taking over, pass. And they will pass. I promise. 

For me, when I start to feel overwhelming emotions, there is some part of me that is drawn to self-sabotaging behaviors--drinking too much alcohol, eating junk food, staying up too late, etc. Many of our “go to” coping strategies, when we are feeling things we don’t want to feel, are strategies that are actually more harmful than helpful. Even as I felt numb and disconnected and overwhelmed and grief-stricken, I was able to do no harm

So, if I were to describe my “wins” in navigating this weekend they would be: 

  1. Staying in touch with how I was feeling, even as how I was feeling actually felt “numb” at times.

  2. Not panicking or buying into any potential self-talk that might say I was going to feel this way forever or send me deeper into a spiral.

  3. Looking at each day as a “new” day, even if it didn’t feel new, yet.

  4. Being kind and gentle with myself; including choosing not to devolve into self-sabotaging behaviors.

  5. Being honest about how I was feeling with people in my support system. 

When you find yourself awash in emotions or in psychological shock, be gentle, be kind, be still. Nurture yourself as you can, reach out for support as you can, but most of all, know that your body knows how to recover from psychological shock and overwhelming emotions. Give it time. Give it space. Do no harm.  

booth kammann