On Overwhelm

When I was little, the holidays were always a time of extreme giggling and waking up way too early with my cousins. I remember laughing so intensely that my small body felt like it was bursting apart. It felt delicious and fun, but at times the sensation got too big for me to handle. Sometimes, after rolling around in pure merriment for too long, I would start to feel out of control. I’d feel overwhelmed.

I had a natural solution to this feeling of overwhelm. I remember this clearly. I’d pick up a soft blanket. I’d pull it over my head for a few seconds, letting it fall down gently around my face. I’d close my eyes, breathe, and silently tell myself it was alright to calm down. My cousins and sister would be screeching and bouncing all around me, but I had this one small moment of solitude in the dark. I’d feel my body come home to itself, like a houseplant responding to water. Then I’d lift the blanket up and start playing again, refreshed and regulated, ready to dive back into those large sensations.

This response to overwhelm was automatic when I was a kid. I didn’t have to think about it, or strategize in any way. I wasn’t dissecting theories about the nervous system’s response to stimulation. I hadn’t read “The Body Keeps The Score,” by Bessel Van der Kolk, or “Unbound,” by Tarana Burke. The only resource I had in that moment was my own body. And I knew what I needed. Not only that, but I was able to provide it for myself.

Let me say that again: I knew what I needed, and I was able to provide exactly that. With no outside help. In the moment. Without hesitation. Without inhibition. Without ANY THOUGHT WHATSOEVER.

Here’s my question: where, in the crevices of my childhood, (let’s include upbringing, personality, socialization, traumatization, and formal education in the “childhood” category), did I lose my ability to soothe my own overwhelm? Was it a mere forgetting, or rather a more sinister, slow unlearning? And, will it ever feel automatic again?

Overwhelm* happens frequently for me. It used to happen when I was laughing and playing a little too hard. It happens now when I’m in a really crowded public space, when I’ve been taking care of other people all day, or when too many things are demanding my attention at once. Overwhelm feels like someone suddenly opened an umbrella inside my chest (one that’s way too big to fit behind my ribs) and it’s pressing pressing pressing against my bones, my skin, my throat, my heart, threatening to take away the life inside me if I don’t do something quickly.

Overwhelm often leads to panic, and because that sensation feels so urgent, it’s almost impossible to interact with the world until I’m able to regulate again. As an adult stuck in a state of overwhelm, do I use the blanket method? The automatic childhood response to overwhelm?


Instead, I hide from my overwhelm.

I go into dorsal vagal mode, which is the shut-down method our body uses when it’s in a state of hyperarousal. I feel trapped inside of myself. My body feels numb. I start bumping into doorframes, dropping things I would normally be able hold on to, and, finally, lying in bed watching Netflix out of desperation. It takes conscious thought to invite myself out of dorsal vagal (the feeling of “I can’t”) and into sympathetic (the feeling of “I can”). Then, with a lot of effort and focus, I can spend a few minutes experiencing and “being with” that sense of panic, using non-judgmental awareness, and pull myself up into ventral vagal (the feeling of “safety”).

Through body work, therapy, close relationships with people I love, mindfulness, and dance, I’ve slowly learned that I do have the ability to self-regulate, take care of myself, and attend to my “overwhelmed-ness” when I need to. I’m developing the habit of gently delivering myself out of shut-down and into safety. But it has taken years, and will take many more years, for this sense of security and trust in myself to return.

I don’t have answers, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here for the questions – that’s what keeps me going. If overwhelm always existed, and so did my natural self-healing response to overwhelm, where did that instinctive response get suppressed along the way?

*My “overwhelm” in adulthood may show up differently from other people’s, as I have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as anxiety and depression that stem from the PTSD.

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