THE Two Responses to Overwhelm

As the holiday season descends upon us, it’s not really hard to imagine the things that potentially push us off kilter when faced with being thrown into or left out of the hustle and bustle all around.

On the one hand there might be considerable pressure to do everything; attend every party, buy the perfect gifts, cook for a zillion people and still maintain the usual responsibilities with work and relationships. And on the other hand one might find her or himself faced with loss for the first time or repetitive absence in some form or another. Add anxiety and depression into the mix and you can find yourself faced with an increased challenge just to get through the day.

As tempting as it may be sometimes to wait for something to change externally, you may find it helpful to know that there are some things you can try doing to get your brain back online and functioning the way you’d like it to.

You might already know this, but there are two typical ways that our bodies behave in overwhelm.

One is a state of increased agitation and the other is a state of feeling shut-down. Both can present on a continuum and can even be experienced together at one time.

In our brains, the vertical processing system is at play here: bottom-up and top-down, where information is taken in at the brain stem, sent through a series of channels up to the pre-frontal cortex (where we have the ability for rational thought) and sent back down.

Think of it this way:

Bottom-Up processing goes from Physical Sensations → Emotions → Thoughts.

Top-Down processing goes from  Thoughts → Emotions → Physical Sensations.

In the absence of overwhelm, this process is smooth and mostly unnoticeable as we take information in, establish that everything is reasonable and that we know how to respond, processing goes back down and we go about our day as usual.

But in overwhelm, complex chemical reactions disrupt this process as information is perceived as dangerous and gets “stuck,” making top-down processing incomplete – which might leave you feeling unproductive or even paralyzed.

In agitation mode, information stops at the pre-frontal cortex and physical sensations and emotion remain highly activated. The best approach here is to start cognitive, taking a top-down approach. Go outward rather than inward to make sense of the environment. It may help to make lists or read emails – try journaling or talking to someone who can help you understand. Not a good time to make important decisions. Not a good time to listen to moody music. Stay cognitive until emotions and physical sensations start to calm down and feel connected in a safe way again.

In shut-down mode it’s even worse where information stops before reaching the pre-frontal cortex and physical sensations, emotion and thoughts all remain highly activated (I know that this may look opposite, as shut-down can feel numbing and maybe even feel safe in some way). The important thing to know is that in this scenario you will be better off taking a bottom-up approach to get back online. Start with small body movements, connect with tactile sensations like knitting or making artwork, try tossing a ball or doing yoga, go for a walk. This is the time to listen to moody music or watch movies that feel empathic in some way. Eventually cognitive access will return.

And if it seems like both forms of overwhelm are happening, you’ll have to check in to see what part of you is more activated and start there.

At the extremes of either continuum, you might need help from professionals – a therapist, a psychiatrist, etc. But if you’re able to have some awareness of what’s happening, it can’t hurt to try these approaches to see what shifts you can make on your own.

And this time of year, you might even be able to get back to enjoying all – or at least some of – the great things the holiday season has to offer once again.

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in anxiety, depression and eating disorders. 

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