What You Can Do When Life Is Overwhelming

Three ways to find stability in the midst of chaos.

Posted Feb 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Rawpixel / Shutterstock
Source: Rawpixel / Shutterstock

by A. Chris Heath, M.D.

Key Points: Stressful events and circumstances can make life feel unstable. Taking time to carefully recognize the feelings within and to seek a sense of consistency and calm can help.

Have you noticed that you get more easily upset lately? So much is going on in the world that when an additional stressor comes our way, we can find ourselves overwhelmed or irritated.

There are ways to defuse the tension inside. You may ask, "What can I do?" But the key is not actually doing a particular activity, but rather listening: Listening to what’s going on inside you will help guide you through.

1. Recognize your feelings.

Sometimes our initial reaction to events is a swirl of feelings, confusing and chaotic. Sometimes we just have one exaggerated feeling, like when anger hides sadness and hurt.

Denying these intense feelings may seem helpful at first, but denial often leaves us with a maelstrom of physical reactions leading to tension, insomnia, distraction, and impulsive decisions. In addition, denying our feelings eliminates the possibility of finding a solution. We remain stuck. We need to recognize our feelings, and acknowledge, for example, that we are hurt or angry.

Sometimes we have thoughts and emotions that we don’t like or don’t seem to make sense at first. For instance, we can be contradictorily excited by troubling imagery and then feel guilty or ashamed by that excitement. While none of us have control over our immediate, automatic internal reactions we can try to understand ourselves in a compassionate way and then decide how we want to act or behave.

A recent example is helpful. Several weeks ago, the U.S. Capitol Building was invaded by a mob. Every patient I saw over the next few days was concerned, horrified, and confused. Many were obsessively drawn to watching the news, frantically searching for signs of stability among the chaos. But one person’s story struck me because by listening to her feelings, she found an unexpected solution. Suddenly, in the midst of chaos, she felt calm when she came across a comforting image: two women from the Senate Parliamentary Office carrying a box of ballots. To protect the ballots from the attacking mob, they were carrying the antique box holding them, endangered by the invasion of the Capitol, to a safe location.

This image represented sanity to her. Contrasting with the many images of violence and chaos in the media, the image of these women carrying a traditional leather box through this historic building to a location safe from the conflict helped restore a sense of stability within herself. It reminded her of times she felt safe, and that she would be able to get through the current situation, as she had in the past.

2. Find a source of consistency.

Think about who you are. A personality is like a tapestry, woven from our biology and early experiences. It is a consistent way you see yourself, other people, and the ways you deal with change. Having a sense of your unchanging traits and values can give you a sense of stability. 

For instance, my patient who found peace in the photograph was reminded of aspects of herself important to her. She was reminded of her own courage by the women carrying the symbolic box. She also was reminded of her own attention to tradition and history represented by both the box and the process of keeping it, and its contents, safe. These aspects of herself have been important to her throughout her life.

In later sessions, she came back to her experience of the photograph. She noticed a painting behind the two women in the image—a scene of military surrender. To her, it symbolized acceptance and the end of war, and it added to her sense of peace. It was a gut-feeling experience that helped her find peace, brought to life by the photo.

Of course, the ways the photograph moved her do not belong to the photograph. The photograph simply resonated with aspects of herself, her experience, her history, and her strength. This occurred during a moment when she had lost sight of her strength. The same potential resides in every patient. A therapist cannot create strength within a person; we simply help them uncover or recover the strength within themselves.

3. Find something that you can rely on.

Look for factors external to you that you can trust. What gives you a sense of calm and stability—connecting with your partner, paying attention to the food you eat, finding time to appreciate nature? 

Another patient, during that same trying time, began going for walks outside. She didn’t have to walk for long, but if she could just see nature, the sky, or a tree, it helped her feel part of something bigger. Even if she couldn’t see family or friends, having the routine of rediscovering nature was something she could look forward to.

A. Chris Heath, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and a member of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

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