Managing Emotional Overload When You Can't Seem to Get Your Life Together
Updated: Aug 17
I like things to be neat and organized. A messy room was not a problem for me as a kid. Messes in general aren't really my scene. If I could have everything neatly wrapped up in a nice little package with a bow on it I would, so you can imagine this poses some challenges for young family life with a toddler who delights in the undoing of things. Hello, daily life lesson.
There are times where it all just seems like too much. Everything is a mess- the schedule, the budget, the refrigerator, the kids, your hair. It feels like all we do is drop the ball and life in the moment is unmanageable. You're being pummeled by wave after wave and can't catch a breath. Why can't I just keep it together over here?
First, take heart. Even on these days, you're not crazy. You're probably not even a little emotionally unstable. But in the midst of the mess, it helps to initiate a few game-changers to manage the emotional overload.
Don't Give Your Emotions Too Much Power
To be able to feel is a gift, a gauge of your emotional state, a response to what you're experiencing. The problem is when the measurement tool (the gauge) becomes the compass, acting as our guide.
Feelings are real, but they're not reliable. They are fleeting and change as swiftly as the direction of the wind sometimes. I've never seen this more vividly displayed as I do now, living life with a toddler. Wild giggling can shift to an angry outburst in 0.25 seconds. A minor injury triggers gut-wrenching sobs that suddenly cease when Daddy walks through the door. Truly, as his mother can attest to, it can be easy to fall victim to the choppy current of emotions.
In today's culture, we are in grave danger of buying into the idea that feelings are enough. The follow-your-heart-Disney mentality is your internal guide to the life you want and deserve. This is faulty thinking. After all, we are told our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) and need to be guarded fiercely (Proverbs 4:23.) We can become so over-concerned with how we feel that we trade in facts and instead choose personal experience and how we feel in the moment over truth. Emotions are a thermometer for your life, not the thermostat- put them in their place!
Examine Your Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who helped develop the theory of Emotional Intelligence, identified 5 key aspects: self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, motivation, and social skills. We'll go into more detail another time, but here's a brief overview.
Which areas are strengths of yours? Where do you see room for growth? Improving overall emotional intelligence can enhance relational, professional, and personal well-being, not to mention help you manage emotional overload. For a helpful guide, check out this resource.
Gain Healthy Responses to Your Feelings
I've shared the leaf analogy before, but a great strategy when inundated with negative feelings is to picture each thought as a leaf floating down the river. You take it in for a moment, acknowledge it, and allow it to float on its way. This trains your mind to accept feelings as they come, but not allow them to take over.
Remember that often times your feelings are communicating something to you. Just like in Anxiety Hijack, we learn that emotions can be an emergency signal for change. What is contributing to my feeling of being overwhelmed today? Why did I just snap at my husband? What could be some underlying causes of my foggy brain at work right now? Transition from innocent bystander bearing down for another emotional overload to sharp investigator, using your feelings as presenting evidence.
Response to feelings is key, not repression. It may be tempting to push unpleasant feelings away but this might backfire in the end. A mood journal could help with this, letting it all out to a trusted friend, or distracting yourself in a healthy way. Mindfulness is a great technique to practice when you're rocked by strong emotions. Trying things like yoga, reading, or listening to music may help you. I used to have a couple go-to funny TV shows I would put on to offer distraction and comic relief when upset. Podcasts are a frequent method of choice now. Talking out loud, whether to a friend or yourself, might also be helpful as a means of "airing things out" or processing feelings. If you're comforted by scripture, here's a list of some great references to coincide with what you may be feeling.
Recognize Your Resilience
Your "stuff" today, whatever it is, seems unmanageable in a moment but this, too, will pass. As my husband reminded me the other night, we are more resilient than we think. The American Psychological Association says this about resilience:
"Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth."
I love that last bit about "profound personal growth." We as human beings are already created with the incredible ability to adapt to things that may seem unfathomable. As we're told, "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." (1 Timothy 1:7, NIV).
The APA goes on to discuss some basic principles of building resilience, including "...prioritizing relationships," fostering wellness, embracing a healthy way of thinking, and seeking help when necessary. One of the most helpful tools shared with struggling clients is to have them think back on things they've survived in the past. Standing at the bottom of an enormous mountain, we forget all the mountains that have been conquered in the past.
Call Out Those Facts
I used to be more of an idealist than a realist. A little bit of life experience has provided more balance in this department, but even so, I have a tendency to get caught up in the emotions of a hopeful event or a certain pretty picture of the future. Life could feel like a mess right now, but some things remain unshaken no matter how tumultuous the circumstances. This is why knowing the facts is so important.
Here are some of my facts. In marriage, I fall back on the foundation of our faith, the covenant we made, the fact that we are two imperfect people learning to navigate life together. This helps move past a difficult moment and allow feelings to settle. In faith, I am reminded that people are going to fail and disappoint me sometimes, but the church is not why I follow Jesus; I follow Jesus because He has never left or forsaken me, just as He promises. In parenting, or career, or anything else I'm doing, I revert to the truth that I have a Helper and with that there is grace regardless of what the feelings in the moment say.
What are your facts, the solid foundation you rest upon even if feelings say otherwise? Even when you're in the midst of emotional overload, wondering when you'll get your life together, know that there is grace, growth, and hey, nobody really has it all together anyway.