Beyond Overwhelm- How to Get Out of the Overwhelmed Rut Using CBT (and Not Toxic Positivity)

When someone is struggling, often people think that the way to help them is with platitudes, and encouragement to just be happy and look at the positive, but this can be problematic, and honestly doesn't help. This is called toxic positivity, and one of my favorite speakers and authors, Susan David, talks a lot about why it is problematic and the harm it causes. If you want to learn more about toxic positivity, here is an interview with her on a podcast on the subject. (Transcription is included for those that can't listen.) 

But when you're overwhelmed, it can be debilitating and stop you from functioning. So how do you manage it? There are many different ways to approach it in a healthy manner. CBT is one of them. Here is how my friend Leia deals with feeling overwhelmed, based on a CBT approach. Hopefully, you'll find it helpful, because, come on, who doesn't feel overwhelmed and like everything is too much, at least sometimes?

Every time my aunt (*family member changed to protect their privacy) hears me say “Im so overwhelmed” she calls me out on it. “You aren’t overwhelmed, you have a lot to do with limited resources”.

Um, nope. I actually do feel overwhelmed. And heres a tip, never tell someone how they do or don’t feel. You’re either being insensitive or patronizing and neither of those things are kind. Feelings are an automic domain. You feel whatever you feel and that feeling is your truth.

As someone who overthinks and sees potential disasters in the simplest of circumstances, overwhelm is a pretty constant companion.

She sits on my chest and clouds my focus. And everytime she takes a seat in my brain, I want to pull the chair out from under her and see how she likes it!

I don’t like her very much, this Ms. Overwhelm. And she’s shown up again. She’s loud, she’s invasive, she brings the heat and creates panic. I have so much to do, I don’t really want to deal with her on top of it all.

After years of CBT experience, I try that angle.

Our emotions, regardless of intensity, are simply the expressions of our thoughts. If we can figure out how we’re thinking about a circumstance, we can understand why were feeling the way we do and, then we can change our thoughts. The idea is that once we change our thoughts or regain proactive control of our thoughts, then we can change how we feel. We can’t change our aunts though.

The caveat to this concept is that you have to actually believe the new thoughts. Stinks for a critic like me. Often I'm doing this mind talk double time. And I can always tell when I'm talking myself into or out of something.

When I feel like my day is a bunch of opened tabs that I have to deal with and I’m 30 seconds from freezing the system, that is overwhelm.

So I tap into my thoughts and ask my mind how else can I think about my laundry list of things I need to do with no time or resources to get them all done? I ask it and my mind automatically goes for the classics, the memes and the bumper stickers:
  • “Everything will work out for the best”. 
  • “Imagine a year from now, what will really matter?” 
  • “What lies before us and lies behind us cannot compare to what lies within us”.
They read well on social media but my critic filter wont let them pass.

My mind doesn’t believe the memes no matter how inspired my soul is by them.

Everything will work out for the best - oh come on, you and I both know that sometimes it doesn't. My mind immediately goes to all those past experiences that made me a cynic. Every time I prayed or battled or tried for a better outcome and the opposite became.

I can say the thought or write it down but this cannot be my “new thought”, it won't work because I don’t believe it.

I can tell myself “In a year from now none of these things will really matter”. Whether or not that is true, the fact is that they matter to me now. Thinking a thought that whitewashes over my experiences is not viable either.

Emerson is a literary genius and her words “what lies behind us…..” are profound and meaningful. They are true and I do believe them but they don’t engage the overwhelm.

The only thing less viable than thinking these things is hearing them from other people, by the way.

I don't need cliches, I need a thought that is true, believable and motivating. If positive and inspiring expressions don’t move me then I have swung the pendulum too far. My approach to my day or my feelings does not need to be either positive or negative, it needs to be neutral.

And in that neutral space, I can create my new thoughts, and feelings and solutions.

Let's try for a basic example before moving the discussion back to the question of overwhelm.

Suppose I look in my sink and I see dirty dishes (hey, no one told me you were coming to visit!). I think, “I should really be on top of these dishes.” I feel ashamed.

To change the shame I need to change the thought, shame is so negative, so I aim for positivity.

I can think, "Well, I’m really a great cook and have all these guests over, I should feel proud."

Except I don't, because the shame is around the dirty dishes and I don't really believe that my killer chocolate cake takes that away.

How can I think about this differently so that I don’t feel ashamed?

Lets try a more neutral thought.

I can think “I need to wash the dishes” True, believable, and motivating.

Here you try:

I need to speak at a work event. There are so many people and I am terrified of public speaking.

I feel afraid; I'm thinking “What if I totally mess this up?”.

I can replace that thought with “Oh don’t worry, you’ll be amazing” or “I have prepared well for this talk” or “I am an expert in what I am going to speak about”.

What thought propels me forward? Hint: It’s not the first one.

When I feel overwhelmed, I feel stuck and without control over factors that will impact me. Using my mind, which is always in my control is my new go to.

I don't imagine the best or the worst outcome.

I don’t whitewash the problem, I don’t hope for the best. I simplify it into true, believable, motivating thoughts.
  • True - they are not debatable
  • Believable - I personally believe these statements
  • Motivating - these statements propel me to action and solutions.
My new thought might be: 
  • “I have a lot to do” 
  • “I can keep finding solutions”
  • “There are people who may have good ideas to share with me about these challenges"
  • “I am still figuring this out”. 
I may simply tell myself 
  • "I can do hard things” 
  • “It’s ok to not get it all done”
I know the thought has “worked” when I feel the clouds parting (cue music), and my brain beginning to focus on the next best decision.

My antidote to overwhelm is not to get out of my head but to get my thoughts in line. And it’s ok if my ducks are still not in row.

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Do you try any of these techniques? Do they work for you? Or do you have another go-to that you find works for you?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal

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