When “Overwhelmed” Shows Up in Our Vocabulary Too Often

Aware of my nearly daily use of the word “overwhelmed” lately, as in “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” I decided to take a look at what the word means to me: when I use it and how I get through it.

Politics, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes aside, my own little world in northeastern Vermont went spinning out of control when, in far too short an order,

  1. Our septic system went kaput (and is not yet replaced). Fortunately, my closest neighbor is my mother, and she has a great claw foot tub.
  2. The water pipe that feeds the barn broke underground and needed to be replaced, which would have been easy enough but was in an area where underground electrical and telephone wires come together. To end the deluge, we had to turn off the water to my mom’s house. FOUR DAYS AGO.  Everyone has been hauling water, either for my mom or for my chickens.
  3. I lost my beloved hybrid Prius as we became a one-car family for a few years. A move which seemed smart until
  4. The date for our meat birds to go in the freezer (how’s that for a euphemism?) was moved up a week, creating unexpected havoc with the plans I had for the other parts of my life.

Writing about these things (there are more, but you get the idea), I realize how trivial they are when bracketed against the news from other parts of the world.

  • Did the people of Barbuda get off the island in time?
  • However will The Florida Keys recover?
  • Will our political leaders and Texas oil barons finally open their minds to the science behind climate change and what can be done about it TODAY?

Somehow (insert wry smile here), that last one got me thinking about the word “denial” and how it sometimes serves to soften the impact of what might otherwise feel overwhelming. Maureen Reagan, older daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, at some point between her father’s Alzheimer’s being announced and the return of her melanoma, declared, “Denial is a much underrated defense mechanism.” That’s a great way to put it, I think.

Too often we think of denial as something we must expose, expunge, or extinguish.  Today, instead, I’d like to excuse, examine, or exonerate it.  (Yes; that was fun.)

When Woody and I ran the Birch Tree Foundation and did our therapy workshops for people who stutter and the therapists who treat them, we viewed denial like the bark on a birch tree (hence the name).

As the tree sheds its bark when it is ready, so too do we shed our denial when we are ready. If we tear that denial away too soon, like the birch tree with its bark torn off too soon, we can cause damage.

Another analogy I’ve liked is that of the warm wool blanket (aka denial) that protects against the winter chill. My job as therapist was to warm up the room, allowing the client to take off the blanket when ready.

Well, that was an unexpected unprovoked digression.


With thanks to unprovokeddigression.com for this image.

Let’s get back to how we humans deal with sudden catastrophe, beyond denial.

How do we deal with this sense that our world is spinning out of control? Have you felt like that lately? 

It’s always a loss of some sort. That’s the first thing I came up with. In the case of the victims of the various weather related disasters, most have lost–even if temporarily–their possessions, their homes, their pets, their ability to work.  For me, I lost my sense of serenity.  I imagine that would apply to the others as well.

Whether it’s a leaky pipe that causes you to shut off the water for a few days or a Category 5 hurricane hurtling toward you, how we deal with the accompanying sense of overwhelm is an individual undertaking. Our attitude is everything.

Do we rally, organize, reach out to help others in our own time of distress?  There was a lot of that during both Harvey and Irma. And that can be a useful and most welcome diversion.  For me, in my distress, there was no one for me to reach out to help.

Sometimes we point fingers, blame, get angry. Anger gives us back the sense that there is something we can do, even if it’s only to scream. Sometimes when denial doesn’t work, anger is all we can muster.  And that’s OK — for the time being. The fact that anger can sometimes serve as a vent to let off a bit of built up steam is as accurate a cliche as I can think of.

It’s the acceptance of the reality that we’re striving for. And to feel the pain of that reality can be  overwhelming. When the grief finally comes, it’s a gift; but it’s a gift that can’t be forced. It can only come in its own time. And with that time, we gain perspective. With time, we gain strength.

So, we’ve gotten through denial, anger, grief, (and time) and acceptance. Shades of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross here, which was not my intent.  It’s just that what she wrote so long ago in her On Death and Dying is still relevant today. We know these stages of loss aren’t as linear as she may have presented them nearly fifty years ago. Still, they are phases we all go through at one time or another, so we might as well acknowledge them.


With thanks to www.quote-coyote.com for this meme.

People in Houston, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and Florida will be in overwhelm mode for months. People throughout the Caribbean–the list of countries affected is unbelievably long!–may be in overwhelm mode for years. How will they cope?

How would you cope?

Here’s what I’m doing. I’ll break it into three phases:

1 — I must remember to breathe. My breaths come quietly, regularly, and serve as a reminder that the important things in my life (like breathing the air that keeps me alive) don’t necessarily have anything to do with what I control. I just have to remember to let them do their thing (i.e., not hold my breath).

2 — Next, rather than thinking of what I’ve lost, I focus on what I have. Some folks call it making a gratitude list. It’s a powerful antidote to dismay, despair, or depression. Just thinking, “What am I be grateful for today?” is powerful.  Psychotherapist Amy Morin has collected Seven Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude That Will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year Round and published in Forbes magazine in 2014. (Yes, just before Thanksgiving that year.)

3 — Finally, I do something that will nurture me. Do I take a bubble bath? That wasn’t in the cards this time around, like it was when I was struggling in Kazakhstan. Sometimes I take a walk deep into my woods. Sometimes I sit and read. And sometimes I just sit. Today, I moved myself outside into the sunlight to type up this blog post.

Here I am set up outside to write this post on feeling overwhelmed. I needed a particularly peaceful setting and my office, right now, is not it.


It wasn’t always easy for me to identify what I could do that would feel nurturing.  But, like so many things, it gets easier with practice.

Breath, Gratitude, Nurture

How about you? How are you coping during this time of turmoil in our world? 


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27 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Today I took a deep breath, wrote in my gratitude book, and then tackled the task of putting our house back in order after Irma swept by leaving lawn debris, a 32-hour power outtage, and hurricane fatigue (actually, a clinical diagnosis.)

    Counting my blessings developed a stutter when our tenant informed us that two downed tall pines collapsed across a neighbor’s fence, one tree damaging our garage roof. Thus, an insurance adjustor, tree surgeon, and roofer are in our future. All this in Florida. You can read about another collapse in Pennsylvania on this week’s blog post.

    You have a beautiful setting. And your nurturing words hit the spot today. Thank you, Janet!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Anything But Simple: Luci Miller’s Mennonite Life and Book GiveawayMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m so glad to hear the post hit the spot, Marian. I expected this would be a very short one today, so I was concerned the length might be off putting. I’ve not heard of hurricane fatigue, but can quickly imagine its impact. Keep nurturing yourself. (And breathing).

  2. Rona V Flynn
    | Reply

    I use the Headspace meditation app, which features ‘breathing’ a lot. I find it helpful and healing.
    I love it when I feel overwhelmed in a positive way – with nature for instance, when I’m experiencing or looking at something beautiful. The negative kind can be crushing can’t it.
    …And yes! I may also be guilty of using the word overwhelmed a little too often without realising. Then the joy of revision comes in – (and it really is a joy).

    Thank you, you made me think.. 🙂 x

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Welcome, Rona. I’m glad you’ve joined our merry little group. Thanks for the image of being “overwhelmed by nature.” Perhaps that’s what happens when I go on those long walks into my woods? I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you.

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Wonderful post, Janet! Yes, I’ve definitely been feeling overwhelmed by all the social-political events (what will dt say or do today?) and all of the recent weather-related events, even though I haven’t experienced them directly. Then there has been my own work that I’ve been overwhelmed with–trying to finish two books plus get other work done–for the past few months. I cope by taking breaks–writing a poem, going to the gym, taking time off to see a movie or a play or drink some wine. 🙂

    My daughter and son-in-law’s have had some issues with water at their house, so I understand a bit of what you’ve gone through. Not fun at all!
    Merril Smith recently posted…Tangled in History and ArtMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Merril. I know how stressful this new encyclopedia has been for you. Two books now? That I didn’t know. I hope they are soon off to their respective publishers. I can already hear that loooong, sloooow exhale. 🙂

  4. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    For OUR country I stopped watching so much news and instead of opening I glide over pilitics on Facebook(mostly). Just went thru Irma and I know how lucky I am — in Tampa we did not take a direct hit and it slowed to a 1 & 2 by the time it arrived which was stressful enough. My development did not lose anything but neighboring ones just one stoplight north and south lost power and I have friends that still don’t have it 4 days on. Some people say why didn’t you leave–and go where? The east coast which was supposed to get it suffered as much or more damage than we did and a friend that went to a posh hotel in Orlando about 25 miles from her house–the hotel lost power and water and no food for the three days they were there–when she got home she found no damage and power or water always on. How about the people that left and went to Charleston or Savannah or Jacksonville–worst flooding ever. So you never know–just make a decision and hope it is the right one. I also have friends that went to Alabama and now paying hell on the road trying to get back with the other million people that left. I am now breathing again!!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      there was a powerful hurricane heading to Chincoteague in 2003, so Woody and I packed up our two cars, towed his motor boat, and moved his sailboat into the living room! Then we drive about five or six hours north to where my mom lived at the time where the now downgraded tropical storm killed the power for two days and stopped trees too near our cars. When we finally got back home, we discovered there hadn’t even been bad flooding. Prediction is still the weak link of the weather forecasting system and your story certainly reinforces that. Wow. Thanks for marking the FB “safe” feature.

  5. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    Oops forgot to check the box

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I love your analogy:

    “…that of the warm wool blanket (aka denial) that protects against the winter chill. My job as therapist was to warm up the room, allowing the client to take off the blanket when ready.”
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Turtle BritchesMy Profile

  7. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Oh my, “breathe, gratitude and nurture” sounds like a good, solid plan to offset the tsunami of breaking news that we have to deal with these days. Slow down and do nothing –or walk away–also has an appeal. The photo of Sasha in your “office” captures it all. We are called to help our fellow man… and we will but first we must take care of ourselves. Thank you for a relevant and timely discussion, my friend. And I do hope your plumbing issue gets resolved soon!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Kathy. Slowly, the various catastrophes are getting crossed off my MUST DO list.

      I love your tsunami simile. That is how it feels sometimes.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Susan Jackson
    | Reply


  9. Ferol Drust
    | Reply

    Irma has done a number on me! I do believe in hurricane fatigue. Having lived on the outer banks of NC and stayed for all storms for 10 years I didn’t think Irma would be a problem.However being cooped up in a motel room for 3days was Bad .We left home St Augustine believing it a nice safe idea. We really should have stayed home as we usually did. I do Breath It’s my favorite Calmer So thankful to have brought my knitting! It saved me and my Grandson will appreciate his Grandma Hurricaine Afghan at Christmas. Praying also a big help

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Ferol and welcome. Ah yes, knitting. I hope you’ll post a picture of your Irma afghan on your FB page. After you give it to him, of course. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    • Ferol Drust
      | Reply

      Your thoughts and words are comforting

      • Ferol Drust
        | Reply

        Thank you Janet

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        I’m very glad.

  10. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Live this Janet, and it came just in time. I’m in it. Overwhelm that is … Thanks for your calming words! I’ll save this post and reread it everyday til things get better.
    Joan Z. Rough recently posted…Being Big When You Think You Are SmallMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m sorry you’re in the midst of overwhelm, Joan. And very glad you found the post helpful. I’m grateful you said so.

  11. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, nice post :). I understand well the feeling of being overwhelmed — particularly when it comes to the events going on around us. I’ve been doing a bit better with this as of late, although I’m not exactly sure why. I imagine it has to do with the very things you mention. Breathing, gratitude, and self-nurturing strike me as all related to the notion of being present in the here and now and focused on the things we are able to appreciate and control. Limiting my news intake also seems to help, as does staying busy. There is a balance, I think, to staying informed and engaged while taking proper care of ourselves. It’s not always easy to find . . .
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…On the Human Chains that Bind UsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Tim. Balance, moderation, shades of gray, the murky middle — all important to keep in mind, indeed. Glad you swung by.

  12. Isabelle
    | Reply

    What a beautiful post. Thank you. It gave me a warm feeling inside.

    I’m reading it long after you first published, in Yerevan, Armenia and it’s very familiar. I am constantly overwhelmed here (of course for very different reasons).
    I have a coping mechanism very similar to yours. I love the bubble bath. It gives me peace of mind. I had to find other ways since I hit the road and am still strongly attracted to the idea of just booking a hotel room with a bathtub. (Not in my budget.) My solution now is to hit the road and go into the countryside. Far away from people. A couple of days in the wild and I am all set to go back into battle.

    Also, I reduced my news intake. 😉
    Isabelle recently posted…FEARMy Profile

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hello Isabelle
      I’m so glad you’ve joined us again. Armenia, wow. I know very little of Armenia. I hope you’ll post some pictures.

      I too find great regeneration when deep out in the woods. I wonder what that is. Maybe because there’s no tv? 🙂
      Janet recently posted…How to Deal with Criticism in Five Easy StepsMy Profile

      • Isabelle
        | Reply

        Possibly! 😉 No TV makes everything better.
        Isabelle recently posted…FEARMy Profile

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