On Monday morning, I saw online videos of horrific flash floods sending water roaring down the main street of Ellicott City, Maryland. Cars were crashing into other cars, and everything untethered was being carried downstream by the rushing brown water. The force of that torrent overwhelmed anything not tied down or firmly rooted in the earth.
Overwhelmed. Do you ever use that word to describe how you feel? The experience in its extreme form can feel much like being carried along by a powerful, rushing force over which we seemingly have no control. It’s interesting that some of the history of the word “overwhelm” dates back to the mid-15thcentury at which time the word conveyed the sense of being washed over or overturned by a big wave.
We can feel powerless to resist when the experience of overwhelm washes over us, as we try to “keep our heads above water.” Probably most of us have had this experience at least once, and for some of us it happens quite often.
Overwhelm is a fairly common occurrence for folks with ADHD. The fast pace of life offers innumerable distractions that can feel overwhelming when we’re trying to focus on just one thing. When we are faced with several necessary tasks, they all tend to look equally important, so we have difficulty prioritizing and can’t decide where to start. Some of us tend to be people pleasers; with numerous people we want to please, it can be overwhelming and anxiety producing to figure out what we want to do.
Here are a few ideas that might help:
The videos I saw of the raging water in Ellicott City were taken by someone who was looking down from an upper level window onto the street. That person could see the turbulence from a distance that provided a sense of safety and perspective. He or she had the presence of mind to film the flash flood, and had enough elevation to be able to see a wider perspective than could anyone closer to the rush of water.
That provides a clue for one way to deal with overwhelm. We can try to gain a little “elevation,” a different perspective on the situation, to change our sense of what is really going on. We can imagine that we are looking down at our situation from an upper level window or from a hot air balloon or whatever suits our fancy.
No analogy is perfect. The flash flood in Maryland was a force of nature and could not be stopped once it was underway. It may be the case that in our lives some forces are also unstoppable, but most of the time if we elevate our view of what is overwhelming us and gain a little perspective, we can see ways to make things simpler and less stressful.
Gaining perspective is hard to do without using another tool we’ve talked about previously – pausing. You can’t gain perspective without stopping for a moment and then stepping back – or up. A pause to notice what is happening in the present moment provides the avenue through which you can move to higher ground.
When you are overwhelmed, you tend to protect yourself in reaction to the flood of issues you are dealing with. As a result, your breathing is likely to be rapid and shallow. But, if you are able to become attuned to what is happening in the present, you can breathe more deeply and consciously. As you look at your options from the place of greater calm created by deep, slow breathing, you will be better able to choose a first step to allow you to move forward.
While you are pausing and breathing, you might take notice of some of the thoughts that are still echoing in your brain from the experience of overwhelm. Most likely some of them are negative messages that your brain has a habit of replaying over and over again.
You may notice that these thoughts, which have a tendency to feel true because they are so familiar, really are not serving you well. Such a thought could be something like, “I am such an idiot! I can’t do anything right.”
While you are pausing and noticing, you might consider editing that thought. Since it is not helpful, why not change it and the story behind it to something that will serve you better – something that is uplifting and encouraging. What can you think of to replace your negative self-talk that will help you see a challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than a calamity?
Gaining perspective, pausing, and noticing negative self-talk are all ways of caring for ourselves. A daily routine (remember last week’s HINT about rituals?) can help us avoid overwhelm, and it can also put us in a better position to rise above overwhelm when it threatens to pull us under.