Last week I was feeling particularly overwhelmed- a deadline for the book was looming, we have a new dog and my schedule had to change to accommodate her a bit better, the kids were not quite back in the school groove, I had a looong list of tiny thing that weren’t getting done, and an important connection that just could not be made. And the feeling of overwhelm set it. I was stressed to the gills and I started to crack.
You know that feeling right? I feel like overwhelm is some kind of monster in most of our lives. Some of us have it come visit from time to time, some of us are living with it every day. It’s a beast, right? It’s heavy, demanding, cranky, judgmental, and requires every ounce of energy you have as proof that you’re still committed. It’s tiring and never quits; it’s an ugly creature.
Mid-life is a time when overwhelm becomes particularly difficult. Many of us are sandwiched between caring for kids (or pets or people we love) and taking care of parents or other folks. We’re trying our damndest to work and stay employed (and I know some of you love your jobs and some of you are just there for the paycheck or the benefits). Dealing with our own health and that of those we care for. Trying to get through the day without hating ourselves by the end of the day for all we didn’t get to.
If you add hormone shifts to the mix, you can start to feel like maybe your entire mental health is preparing to leave the building. Short-term memory fading, hot flashes at the wrong moment, no nerves left for people to stand on (and yet, they dare to), sleep going all wonky, and barely any time for yourself. And what about the Sex Surge amidst all this? Ha ha ha! Juggling all the mid-life overwhelm plus the desire to fuck the bejesus out of a few folks. I laugh at the same time the tears form in my eyes for a good cry.
So, what the fuck are we going to do about this? Well, I’m going to tell you that we should absolutely revolt until the whole system gets better and the vast resources available are shared more equally so no one has to break themselves in order to take care of those they love. But I know we’re all so tired we’ve no energy to revolt. Short of revolution, I offer these tools:
Breathe. I know it sometimes sounds like the dumbest thing ever, but breathing really helps. Here is what I recommend when overwhelm is hitting your system.
Find a place to have a few minutes to yourself, even if it’s the Lady’s Room. Sit down, feet flat on the floor, arms resting at your sides or in your lap. Take a good few deep breaths. Five or six- in through the nose, out through the mouth. Get centered back in your body.
This is not going to change what you have on your plate, but it is going to stop the flow of stress-related hormones in your body and help move it back towards ‘neutral.’ If you can, I recommend thinking of some place nice for a few minutes or just breathing normally and staying centered in your body. (If you have any kind of anxiety or trauma history where ‘being in your body’ is difficult, just focus on breathing only.)
Once you feel more settled, remind yourself that you’re still alive and you’ve survived every day up until now and you’re gonna get through this. One way or another. Because you will (I know it; you always do).
Find the deeper connection. In my experience, overwhelm happens when we get bogged down with details that have to be completed and there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get it all done. (Often there are big issues underpinning the small stuff, but it’s really the details that are pushing us over the edge.)
One way to get things in perspective is to connect with the deeper value that is important to you. If you need to get a bunch of stuff done for the project at work but you’d rather just yell “FUCK!” and leave, try connecting to what matters in that project. Maybe it’s important to your vision of your work, maybe it’s super valuable to the company right now, maybe you just need to remember your paycheck is coming because of this work. Whatever it is, find the deeper connection and it may help the overwhelm step back a few feet so you can find the space to get some stuff done without as much stress and pressure.
Take space. I know that when we’re overwhelmed it can seem like the last possible thing to take some space for ourself, but if you can find a way- do it. As noted above, sometimes ‘taking space’ is just going to the car and screaming “FUCK!!!” 27 times until we’ve expressed our frustration adequately. But if you can find a quiet 20-60 minutes for yourself, take it. Maybe you can remind the kids they are actually capable of doing the dishes (or go for paper plates) and take a long, hot shower before bed. It might not be ‘Instagram-worthy’ self-care, but it’s real space just for you and that’s all you need. And I promise that when you take this counter-intuitive step the overwhelm will back off for a while and you’ll feel like you got your brain back.
Overwhelm is a part of life, for sure. And I don’t know that it gets any easier to deal with at mid-life. I hope we have better tools, but life is just so damn complicated sometimes maybe we can’t use what we’ve got. But I know this- you can always take two minutes to breathe. And hopefully that will give you enough space to remember that the overwhelm monster is not trying to kill you, it’s just there because you really care about everything that’s on your plate and in your life. But in order to love it all back, you’ve got to breathe, get a bit of distance, and come back into your sense of yourself. Once you’re back to you, all the things will weigh less and you’ll find a way forward.