What To Do When Feelings and Thoughts Overwhelm You
Sometimes Thoughts and Feelings Seem to Take Over
Much of the work that I do centers around changing relationships to unwelcome and problematic thoughts and feelings. Often these are negative thoughts that "sneak" into your brain – you don’t really notice them that quickly but they begin to crowd your brain and affect your behavior and your mood. Sometimes you may have subtle challenging feelings as well: a slight sense of unease, a feeling of jumpiness, a minor irritation that leads to a shift in behavior that you don't like. These more subtle thoughts and feelings can often limit your flexibility in dealing with your life, your relationships, etc.
But other times, the unwelcomed thoughts and feelings are overwhelming. I’m talking about a mind full of racing thoughts that take over your brain and crowd out everything else. Gigantic feelings like rage and panic that flood you and incapacitate you. What about those? When these are happening it feels like you've completely lost control, you're drowning, and you can’t breathe. Even worse, these overwhelming thoughts and feelings can revisit you over and over, even after the triggering event is finished. Just ask anyone who has panic attacks or anger issues.
You don't like flying. You have to travel for work and you dread every single trip. The anxiety starts days before the trip and it seems like a low hum of fear starts building to the minute you leave for the airport. Sometimes you do OK on the plane and other times you find yourself in a panic. Your breathing gets rapid and shallow and your heart races. Your mind races too, thinking of a million things that can possibly go wrong - catastrophic thinking times ten. Fear doesn't even begin to describe what you feel - you are flooded and overwhelmed. It feels hard to maintain control of yourself.
When feelings and thoughts get this overwhelming, it helps to ground yourself in the present moment.
Get in Contact with the Present Moment
Here’s how it works:
Start by breathing in and out as slowly as feels comfortable. Try for three full breaths and more if you need them.
Then, slowly notice what is going on with each of your senses. Right now, here in this present moment.
What do you smell right now?
What is it like? How do you describe it? Is it strong or subtle? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Sweet, sour, floral, stinky? Can you smell anything else? Are there any other, more faint scents that you can notice?
What do you see right now?
Start with the actual objects that you can see but then break them down into colors, textures, and shapes. What kinds of patterns are you seeing? After noticing obvious objects, can you notice other, smaller objects? What colors, textures and shapes are you seeing now?
What do you hear right now?
Listen for immediately present sounds. Describe them. Loud or soft? High or low sounds? Now listen again. Do you hear other, quieter sounds? What are those like? Pleasant? Unpleasant?
What do you taste right now?
Perhaps you aren’t eating or drinking anything but can you notice anything regarding what you are tasting right now. If you are eating or drinking, describe the taste and see if you can notice various levels to the flavor. Many tastes become more complex once you pay attention to them. Is it salty, bitter, or sweet? Strong or faint? Do you like what you are tasting?
What do you feel in your body right now?
What is the temperature like against your skin? What do your clothes feel like? How does it feel where your body is coming in contact with the floor, a chair, a bed, etc.? Do you notice any aches, irritations, or other body sensations?
Check in with yourself. Where are your thoughts and feelings after you do this exercise? Coming into contact with the present moment can allow your mind and body to “reboot” and create some space between you and overwhelming thoughts and feelings. It is a good exercise to practice anytime you want to reorient yourself to the present moment but it is especially good when you feel overwhelmed or flooded with feelings and thoughts.
Give it a try the next time you feel overwhelmed or just want to feel more centered in the present moment.