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10 Things That Can Help When You're Overwhelmed
Episode 579th May 2023 • Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice • Dr. Andrea Bonior
00:00:00 00:17:58

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In today's episode, we wanted to talk about things you can do in this very moment when you're feeling overwhelmed. While we often focus on long-term self-care, at certain times it can feel futile to think about strategies that can help build up your emotional health over days, weeks, and months. So, here are ten things that you can put into practice right now to help make you feel a little bit more calm and centered.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: What does the word overwhelmed mean to you? And are you feeling it? And if you are, would it be helpful to think about something you could do right now to help manage it? Today, we're ditching thoughts about longterm strategies and focusing on the moment. If you feel like you're cycling or you're so busy or frazzled or over overwhelmed, any of these words that I'm hearing so often these days, it can be important to feel like there's something you can do to take control in this very second. Today, we're talking about ten things that could potentially do just that. You'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. Thank you for being here today. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check Mental Health talk and advice with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about why your dog keeps making that face. Okay, so let's get started. We talk a lot on this show about mental health strategies for the long term. Managing anxiety, coping with the stress response, developing new relationships with your emotions and your thoughts, having healthier relationship behaviors with human beings, stress management, all that type of stuff. We know that over time, self care, as cliche as that has gotten, is so important for keeping ourselves healthy and functioning. But when we start to feel like we're totally overwhelmed, maybe with busy schedules, with demands, with something that's happened to us, with a stressor that we keep ruminating about, sometimes the long term healthy strategies are just too much in their own right. It doesn't feel like the right time to say, well, yeah, I know I should get some exercise, or yeah, I know my sleep's been a problem. Tell me something new. So what I wanted to focus on today were some things that got away from the long term plan and maybe helped you feel a little bit more autonomous in the here and now in terms of taking control. We've done a bit of this in the past with our episodes on visuals to lessen anxiety, but I wanted to get broader today and think about all kinds of things, not just meditations, not just cognitive techniques that you could use. So of course, we should always strive to take care of ourselves over time. And like I always say, self care shouldn't be an emergency pressure release. It should be the daily, not so exciting activities that you do to set boundaries and to protect your emotional health and your physical health. But let's focus today on some things that you can do right away to reduce your stress level and to help bring a little bit more calm to your mind and body to help that threat detection system, your sympathetic nervous system, start to simmer down a little bit and remind itself that it's safe. Number one, slow your breathing. I know you've probably heard this before, but that's likely because it's pretty effective. We know that one of the classic first signs of an increased stress response is quickened, uh, shallower breathing. And we often don't realize that we're doing it. But it's very hard to keep calm when you're not getting enough oxygen. You want to focus on the inhales being slow, and through your nose, if possible, see if your belly expands so that you can really know that you're getting the deeper breaths and an even slower exhale out through your mouth. You can challenge yourself to increase the length of time you spend on each breath and watch your belly expand as you go. Let the air truly fill you. Now, there's all kinds of techniques out there with specific names. Box breathing, four, seven, eight, all these different things. The most crucial part of all of that, no matter how we count or no matter what we call it, is that the breath is being slowed. Okay? Some people, if they're told to take a deep breath, which is kind of as effective as calm down, they'll take a really sharp, deep breath that's fast and almost frantic like. But the important thing is the slowness, ironically. So even if it doesn't feel deep right away, if you're taking a slow breath, you're going to get more air. Number two, seek out something or someone who makes you laugh. We don't talk about laughter enough in the mental health space. Honestly. Its health benefits are significant. It can be a potent stress reliever. It's even incorporated into certain support groups. For folks that are struggling with terminal illnesses, the physical process of laughter can decrease blood pressure. So if we're talking about the stress response and your amygdala and your HPA axis, and your sympathetic nervous system just pulling out all the stops with sirens and alarms, anything that decreases your blood pressure in the moment is going to have a positive effect. Plus, laughter can shift your perspective. When we really think about what humor is, and I can't wait to have a show about that, humor is shifting a perspective. Things are funny because they are slightly unexpected. They are a different way of looking at something. They are building a new pathway. So in very stressful situations, humor can give you a mental break and a shift in perspective. Sometimes it can help you prioritize that things just aren't maybe as dire as you think they are. Now, this is not to say use humor to hurt other people, or to minimize somebody else's stress, or to stay in denial about your own. But if you haven't laughed in a while, seeking it out right here, right now, can be really important. You might be surprised at its benefits, even if it feels a little bit forced at first. You might even embrace forcing yourself to laugh. There's some theoretical models that say that when we take on a certain facial expression or even force laughter, our emotions can follow. Number three nourish your senses. Now you're never going to hear me sponsored by aromatherapy companies. I'm hoping you're never going to hear me sponsored by anyone because honestly, I'm trying to do this in an unimpeachable way to never let any outside forces or commercial influences have any impact or make it seem like they've had any impact. But there's something to sensory experiences. And one reason why aromatherapy might be helpful is that novel smells stimulate different parts of your brain in addition to whatever you might believe about, oh, lavender truly has a calming effect, and that kind of stuff, which I'm not going to dismiss that out of hand. I do think individual variances and experiences with M smells can matter in a positive way. We don't need the smell of vanilla to do one certain thing across the board for one person. It might comfort them because it reminds them of their grandmother baking cookies. Smells are intimately connected to memories, so you can use that to your advantage if you have fond memories of somebody sauteing garlic in butter. And what that means is a sense of home and comfort and safety that's going to do something for you. So nourish, those senses smell is a great one because it's accessible, it's cheap, it's quick. But there are, of course, other senses as well. A warm, soft cuddly blanket can be really helpful. A hot bath, looking at something pretty, listening to music, experiment with all that stuff. There's probably something in your home right now that, if you allow yourself to pause when you're feeling overwhelmed, can provide a new pathway in your brain to get you out of the ruminating. Number four hug someone you love. There is a reason why cuddling and hugging are so prevalent in animals and in humans, why they've become the go to ways of expressing affection. Warm, consensual touch is comforting to most of us. And there's data that says if whatever was making you feel overwhelmed was interpersonal in nature, hugging can help boost your mood even more. When we had artist Rachel Davis on here a few episodes ago, and we talked about so many great aspects of thriving and creativity, one of the things that she mentioned that was particularly interesting was that idea of even putting your hands over your own heart when you're struggling and acknowledging that struggle, but giving yourself a sense of that human touch. So don't sleep on human connection in the physical way. This can really help when you're feeling overwhelmed. It can really help ground you. Number five accomplish one tiny thing. Sometimes part of feeling overwhelmed is just thinking that everything is too much. There's so much to do. It's helpless. You might have that amorphous blob that I talk about where there's this big project or big complication or big messy worry that you can't get a toe hold in. You don't know where to start. Things like this appear on to do lists as, like, deal with the car insurance issue or whatever it might be. If you can accomplish one tiny thing, maybe it's because you've broken that amorphous blob into specific concrete steps like we always say are helpful. Or maybe it's something else entirely. I went through a small pile of junk mail and I recycled most of it. I checked this one item off my to do list. Of course, if you need further help with any of this, there's all those antiprocrastination techniques like the Five Minute Rule. If you do a search of my name and the five Minute Rule, you'll find some articles on that. Number six help someone else. The research is very clear that helping other people generally gives us a mood boost. And of course, when you're feeling overwhelmed, helping somebody else just feels probably like too much. It might feel like the last thing you want to do when your own self is struggling so much and feeling uncared for, but performing a small, simple act of kindness. Not so you can blast it all over instagram, but just for yourself to someone else. That can help you feel more connected, help you put things in perspective more, give you that mood boost. It gives you that sense of efficacy. Hey, I'm overwhelmed with all this stuff that I don't know how to handle. But one thing I can do is maybe make a stranger smile and say thank you when I hold the door for them for a longer period of time than would normally be the case, or when I send a simple supportive text to another friend. It can be small, but the small stuff matters. If we're talking about feeling overwhelmed, that's the accumulation of lots of little small things. So when we add a little light in that accumulation of dark, it can make a difference. Number seven write your feelings down. I've talked at length on baggage check about how labeling our emotions tends to make them easier to manage. The data backs us up on this, and this is part of why confiding in others about what you're going through can be helpful. But even if you're not involving somebody else, merely labeling your feelings by writing them down, typing them out, drawing a picture, it can often give you perspective, make you see things more clearly, make things more manageable. And this is why journaling can be so helpful. This is why some people rely on lists just to get a sense of control. And again, you're not trying to overly take control of things that can't be controlled, but you're trying to give yourself the perspective that things have a shape, they have a structure, they're manageable that you can move through them. And the stuff that feels totally unmanageable, you can at least acknowledge your emotions about it. Number eight express gratitude. We've talked about gratitude here before and how there are myths about gratitude. But when you take a stance of gratitude even when it feels like the universe is raining on your parade. Perhaps especially when it feels like the universe is raining on your parade, that can improve your emotional well being. Go back to our gratitude episode if you want to hear a deeper dive into this. I know it might feel hokey to summon feelings of thankfulness when you're really upset and things are awful that are happening to you. But as we've talked about, gratitude need not mean that you're glad that everything bad has happened. Instead, it's about being willing to see that whole picture, to recognize that the light coexists with the dark, to embrace the beauty in the mess and recognize that even though you wish this thing wouldn't have happened, you can lean in. Because that's part of having a full life. You can show up for it, because that's the gratitude for life in general, being willing to embrace it all. Number nine visualize your safe place. If your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert, it can be hard to convince your body that you need to relax. But one potential way to do so is to visualize a place that feels safe and calming to you, even if it's a fantasy place where you've never actually set foot there. This helps our parasympathetic nervous system do its job of calming down the stress response. If you can close your eyes and place yourself mentally in this safe space. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? How would you describe it? Slow your breathing. This can really help remind your body that you are safe. And this is not woo woo type of hippy dippy stuff. No offense to the hippies out there. I have plenty in common with you. But this is part of trauma treatment too. Because when the body goes into a post traumatic response, like we see in folks suffering from PTSD, the body really convinces itself that it's still there, or that it's returned there. It's that visceral memory, that automatic nature of going back to the trauma, that intrusive flashback, that is very, very physiological too. So on a smaller scale, when your body is feeling under threat, the idea of convincing it that it is safe, reminding it that it's safe, can be helped along by visualizing a safe place truly. And finally, number ten get some fresh air. Or some nature or some sunlight. I know this seems like something that you've heard a million times before, but getting outside, even for just a five minute walk, can make a difference. It's a sensory shift. It helps you press the mental reset button because suddenly you have new stimulation. The connection with sunlight and fresh air brings us something valuable in terms of that connection we naturally have with nature, helping us feel better. If you have any symptoms of the seasonal subtype of depression, which we've talked about on here, in terms of winter blues, you're particularly prone to the damaging mental effects of a lack of sunlight. And this is why daylight is crucial for you. But even for most of us, connecting with nature. And I'm not saying you're going to hike the Appalachian Trail tomorrow, but I am saying getting some fresh air, smelling a proverbial flower, there's a reason why that saying about stopping and smelling the roses got into our vernacular. Soaking up the sun for just a couple of minutes, or maybe even just smelling the rain, that can provide a mood lift. We know that it can. And greenery, as I've said on here before, even in the form of house plants, has been shown to have a calming effect. So if you're feeling overwhelmed right now, you're not alone. But I hope that these ten things gave you a starting place to think about what you can do. Remember, the mind and the body are working interchangeably. So whatever cognitive techniques you are using, look out for how your body is feeling as well. And whatever physical techniques you're doing, try to observe your thoughts in a non, um, judgmental way. Try to label them. I'm having the thought that this is helpless. I'm having the thought that this is just too much. Being compassionate to yourself and focusing on your senses, it's a great place to start when you're feeling overwhelmed. So here's to a bit of a pause for you today. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Daniel Merity, and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.




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