When You're Overwhelmed


by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


By the time someone comes to therapy, the person may often feel at a loss. We can feel already overwhelmed, tired, anxious, or depressed, and we often put off asking for help until we "know" we need it. All we know is that we want these stressors to end and someone to help us lift the heavy load we've been carrying for so long.


We are also often told that we are inundated with information and choices, especially in our society. With the Internet, the world is at our fingertips, and though our brains enjoy having the variety, we can become paralyzed by the sheer amount available - thinking we need to make the 'right' choice or become addicted to scrolling for "just one more article", "just one more post" to answer our questions and soothe our fears.


So, what happens after that?


Numbed by the sheer volume, let alone the emotional heaviness of the news and the pressures of our own lives, we may feel even worse, or turn to other sources of entertainment or food or substances to dull the ache.


I like to compare the feeling of being overwhelmed to the scene in Matilda, the beloved children's book by Roald Dahl (and excellent movie), where the ruthless principal, Miss Trunchbull, punishes Bruce by making him eat an entire, giant cake in front of the whole school. In horror, the children fearfully watch as he stares down the massive, soon-to-be stomachache before him. The feeling of overwhelm is imagining trying to eat that whole cake in one bite AND the imaginary pain that will result AND the anticipatory fear all at once. For awhile, we can't even move.

Two key (mental health) points you may miss in the subtext of this scene:

  1. Cake is supposed to be fun. Cake is supposed to be celebratory. We can be overwhelmed even when there are many good things going on in our lives, and we can often miss out on it when we feel like life is trying to make us consume it all at the same time.

  2. Cake is supposed to be shared. When we share our problems, or even our joys, with others, we can often feel guilty or as though we are imposing upon them. "Everyone has enough problems," we think. "I don't want to bother anybody."

No one swallows a cake whole, and none of us tackle giant problems in one fell swoop of a magic wand.

We practice and craft our skills, we cut things down to size, we fall down, and we get back up and try again.


When people come to therapy, they might think that they're going to hear something from the therapist that 'fixes' their problems. They'll get something that they don't already have. But I would argue that most of the time, most people need someone to really listen to what they're saying and feel their pain with them.


Something truly magical does happen then.


The tears fall away, the heaviness of the burden on our shoulders shifts or lifts ever so slightly, and the furrowed brow un-knits. Slowly, we can accept small changes, small steps to take, even in the next hour to let these feelings pass. We say, "I think I can try" instead of "I can't do anything".


Empathy is a powerful thing, and you don't have to be a therapist to give it. Seek it out from people you trust, even if you don't explain the whole story. Just saying, "I'm overwhelmed right now," to a person who really listens is not complaining - it's your feeling. And feelings shift when they are understood.


By the way, Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda ends up finishing that horrendous cake amid the cheers and chants of the children yelling his name. He takes it piece by piece, and he is not alone.


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