OVERWHELMED: How To Clear Nervous System “Clutter” and Get Things Done

One in three people report being so stressed that they feel overwhelmed almost daily. I used to be one of them, every day of my life, and advice like “just breathe” and “talk about it” wasn’t helping.

Almost everyone has lost some of their focus during the last decade. For many, it’s become harder to feel alert, peaceful and productive. You try and try, yet your day slips away. You’re full of potential and you want to be working on the things that matter, but you keep filling up with overwhelm—too much going on, too many demands on your attention, too many hardships. You could call this “nervous system clutter.” When that happens, it’s easy to feel exhausted and hopeless that anything can change. Don’t worry, that’s the overwhelm talking.
 

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When people with past trauma get stressed or overstimulated, it’s worse than for normal people. We have a bigger stress response that triggers neurological dysregulation. Then mistakes made while dysregulated compound the original problems. Your mind and your life can feel overwhelmingly “cluttered,” mentally and physically.

Dysregulation is when your nervous system (which shapes your thoughts and feelings and governs your whole body) can’t keep up with all the stimuli. For instance, when you hear a big noise and your nervous system goes slightly out of whack, that’s dysregulation. Or you might space out, feel numb, emotionally overreact to people, or find thoughts flying through your mind at 90 miles a minute. You might even go into fight-or-flight mode just from hurrying to work because rushing can be a trigger for traumatized people.

When something stressful happens—for example, someone raises their voice, or you lose your job—dysregulation can “turn on” like flipping a switch. You can almost feel it come over you like a wave. Your powers of perception get cluttered. You can’t tell if someone has harmed you or if you’re overreacting. Your emotions go into overdrive, you say things you don’t mean or you just go blank. In this state, you can make mistakes like losing your boundaries or your focus. Your physical energy also drops when you need it most. There’s too much hectic input and you feel drained.

Overwhelm can also lead you to go to extremes. You get frantically productive, then crash. You blow up at people and then fill with despair. In your body, the stress response goes and goes, running you into the ground. This is why trauma is correlated with just about every health problem including back pain, migraines, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders. Your thoughts, feelings and body are chronically overwhelmed and can’t do what they’re meant to do.

You probably didn’t know about dysregulation and thought you struggled because you failed to handle life like everyone else. Well, we’re not like everyone else. We get dysregulated easily; sometimes we feel it happening and sometimes we don’t. No wonder having too much going on or too much stimulation overwhelms us. The people who tried to help me years ago showed me what worked for them, but assumed I was being difficult, dense or crazy when it didn’t work for me. They didn’t know, because nobody knew until recently, that many people with trauma are prone to dysregulation. Even when life’s easy, we get overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed too much of the time makes life hard. You end up with health, family, work and money problems—and then these problems make your overwhelm worse.

Just recognizing that you’re overwhelmed can take the pressure off, and less pressure makes room for positive steps to get your life back on track.

What are the signs of overwhelm?

  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty solving problems and completing tasks
  • Excessive anger, from snapping at people to raging
  • Sense of urgency even when there isn’t any
  • ADHD-like symptoms; can’t focus, can’t complete tasks
  • Always “putting out fires” while not seeing the big picture
  • Chronically amped up, feeling the adrenaline
  • Alternatively, can’t get off the couch
  • Procrastination and avoidance
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Feeling defeated, hopeless
  • Digestive distress
  • Headaches and chronic pain with no known origin
  • Getting sick easily
  • Attempting to escape through unhealthy self-soothing behaviors
  • Surrendering boundaries easily
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Dark thoughts, pessimism
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Growing sense of shame about your overwhelmed behaviors

Dysregulation can overwhelm virtually every part of you, but the silver lining is that you can begin anywhere, wherever you see an opportunity. You don’t have to solve things in a certain order, and you don’t have to solve it all at once. You also don’t have to love yourself, lose weight, find a job, feel better or see a therapist first. You can start emerging from overwhelm now, from right where you are. Here are some ways to calm overwhelm:

  1. Acknowledge it. Think of all the inputs or stimuli that can feel like too much for your senses. Is it going to parties? Loud noises? Too many people talking at once? You don’t have to avoid these triggers. Just acknowledging them can help you remember, “Yeah, all this noise is making me overwhelmed.” Sometimes it’s enough just to notice it, then the overwhelm begins to subside.
  2. When you’re overstimulated, take a break from sensory input. Put on comfortable clothes, dim the lights, turn off sounds and don’t look at your phone. You can extend this a full hour, or even take a full day’s “fast” from your input load. Try not listening to music or podcasts when driving and see if it helps you stay calmer. When you’re walking don’t use headphones to stay stimulated. The walk is stimulation enough and the world lights up when you don’t have extra noise competing for your awareness. Walks are calming when you don’t add inputs. When meditating, try focusing on breath or using a mantra instead of recorded music or guided meditations. Those are fine when you’re in a good state, but when you’re overwhelmed, they can be too much.
  3. Try not speaking your agitated thoughts. Talking about trauma and things that make you angry or sad can be triggering. Feeling supported and connected doesn’t depend on voicing distress in detail. When I talk about what’s upsetting me while I’m overwhelmed I can get very negative, almost as if hypnotized. This works against coming back into the present time, where I can feel myself, see options and take action.
  4. Try the Daily Practice. This is a specific, structured way to express and release the distress in your mind, then give your nervous system rest in meditation. Often people with trauma find meditation hard because our minds are so chattery. In Daily Practice, you write before meditation, which releases some of the chatter so you get more peace. Writing helps meditation, and the meditation helps you write regularly, because you heal the rough spots you release by writing. You can try the Daily Practice for free here.

Staying regulated and reducing overwhelm is more a way of life than a quick fix, but there are benefits you can feel today even from small actions. You’ll start feeling better and the little changes add up over time. It may seem that your problems are so big that it doesn’t matter what little things you do. But when your nervous system is more often regulated, fewer problems get into your life. You’ll start to see people’s red flags before you let them in. You won’t be putting out fires because you’re not starting them anymore. Every day, life gets easier, and when it’s easier, you’re able to go further in your healing, solving problems, taking next right actions, growing your connections with others, and finding the power to be yourself and bring to the world what only you can.

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