Last week I shared with you all my series of unfortunate events whilst travelling up to London and back, which left me feeling rather angry and irritable! Along with learning that it is always better to catch the National Express instead of the train when travelling to London(!), we learnt that anger floods the body with stress hormones. This triggers the fight-or-flight response, which if left to manifest, negatively affects not only the mind, but the physical body and our relationships as well.
The long-term effects of uncontrolled anger include anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, headache, heart attack, and decreased immune response. Thus, I spoke about how important our yoga practice is in the face of anger, by enabling us to witness these unpleasant sensations when they arise, so that we can figure out a way to deal with them instead of simply acting upon them (e.g. lashing out). We worked on bringing a little bit of balance back in to our emotional bodies, and how to use our breath to bring us back in to a state of rest and digest, rather than fight or flight.
One thing I briefly mentioned about the purpose of my trip was that it was to attend a Dharma Yoga workshop at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Sri Dharma Mittra is a Yoga master who has been teaching since 1967, and who created the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures. He is director of the Dharma Yoga Centre in New York City, and his teachings are very spiritual, based on advanced postures, the Yamas and Niyamas, and how to lead a content, simple and happy life.
To be in London in the presence of Sri Dharma Mittra, along with about 150-200 others, was quite overwhelming for a number of reasons. There were also certain aspects of the workshop itself that I found very overwhelming.
This got me thinking about this week’s intention - Yoga for when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Recently this is a sensation I have been experiencing a lot. My to-do list feels like a mile long, and the thought of ticking off even the tiniest item can make my head ache and my brow-furrow (NB: ironically, “write blog” is one of these things!!) Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel. Sometimes I feel like I am reaching the point of “burn out”. For me, this can manifest as lethargy, apathy, disinterest in regular tasks, and the sofa can become my best friend! This may relate to a few of you?!
Many of the symptoms of overwhelm are similar to that of anger - anxiety, a racing heart, not being able to catch your breath! I noticed these creeping in at various points throughout the Yoga workshop.
Just as with anger, when we are feeling overwhelmed, moving toward balance and a recalibration of your Prana (life-force energy), is key.
Here are a few things that we can do to combat feelings of overwhelm:
This is probably the most important of all.
When we are in a state of stress, we breathe at a more rapid and shallow pace, which sends signals to the brain that we are in danger. As I mentioned previously, this triggers the release of stress hormones, because the body is unable to tell the difference between a mental and a physical threat. These stress hormones are designed to help us to fight or flee when we are under emotional stress, just as they do when we are physically in danger.
By consciously slowing our breath, and breathing into our belly, we allow our body to switch from our sympathetic nervous response (fight or flight) to our parasympathetic nervous response (rest and digest). This will give us a clearer head and can help to reduce anxiety, stress and tension.
Yoga, too often, is shown as complex poses and athletic feats. The reality is that sitting and breathing, with an observant mind, is itself a transformative exercise.
That is not to say that the physical aspect of Yoga is not also important when dealing with overwhelm.
2) Go for a walk or do some gentle exercise
It may feel like we should skip our fitness routine when feeling like we have too many things to do. But taking the time to nurture and care for our bodies in this way reap so many benefits.
So get outside and move your limbs. The motion will act as a distraction against your worry, and help balance the anxious thoughts with the positive ones.
Exercise also releases those magical happy chemicals “endorphins”, which is one of the best remedies for overwhelm and stress. This will help you to think more clearly, and put you into a better, more positive state of mind. Moving also has a way of opening us up to new ideas.
Exercising when we are feeling stressed is also a great way to burn through those stress hormones the body may be producing. When we are in our “fight or flight” mode, the body will release cortisol and adrenaline. If these hormones are not used up through physical activity they can stay in the bloodstream, causing damage. Doing some physical activity will burn through these hormones, leaving us in a better state of health.
It is important to choose an activity that you genuinely enjoy, so that it does not feel like another chore. Just 15-20 minutes can be enough.
Yoga poses such as forward folds to get fresh blood to the brain; side bends to kick start anything that is stale or stagnant in the body that needs to get moving; child’s pose to rest and restore; and neck stretches and chest openers to release tension around the jaw and shoulders, can all help us to feel less overwhelmed.
3) Set an intention or do something meditative
You could sit with your back against a wall and set yourself the intention to listen to your body for ten breaths. This can give you more clarity and information about how you are doing than any rushing or busy-ness would ever do.
You could calm and focus your mind by repeating a mantra to yourself. Our minds have a subtle connection with our bodies and spirits, and by training our minds with phrases and words, we can change our outlook on life and the people around us.
Or you could colour, cook, or otherwise simply occupy your hands. Different cultures use meditation balls, mandalas or mala beads to help soothe the soul and the mind. Put something in your hands and set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes and let yourself wander off. Do not check your phone, do not look at a screen, and do not stray from the task until the timer is complete. Let the task absorb you.
4) Make A List
It seems totally obvious, but stopping the cycle of nagging thoughts that often come along with the feeling of overwhelm by writing them down on paper is a highly effective technique. It can be very easy to get caught up in “circular” thinking when feeling that there are too many things on your plate, and this only adds to the unpleasant feelings of being overwhelmed. By purposefully interrupting your thought pattern and writing all of your tasks down on paper you will be sending a message to your brain that it does not have to keep reminding you of all you have to do.
5) Take a nap
Just like exercise, it may seem counter-productive to go to sleep when you have so much to do! But when we are lacking sleep, our reasoning skills are diminished, our emotional reactions are heightened, and we are more susceptible to the feeling of being over taxed.
By getting some rest, you will be better able to handle what you have to take care of, and will have a much more stable state of mind to work with. All it takes is 20 minutes to recharge our batteries.
6) Talk to someone
We are social beings and social interaction is critical for our mental health. When we are feeling overwhelmed, it is really easy to get caught up in our thoughts and to be totally in our own heads.
Connecting with a friend or loved one will help you to see things more clearly. Even if you do not talk about your issues, you will still be getting yourself out of your negative state by changing your environment.
7) Hug someone!
Studies have shown that just 20 seconds of cuddling will encourage your body to produce oxytocin, which is the “falling in love” chemical. This will leave you feeling more capable and less frantic!
Overwhelm is no fun, but taking the time to nurture ourselves when we feel this way, can make a world of difference.
Each one of these practices is a means to connect you to your breath, awareness, mind, and the world around you. Doing any one of these when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed can help us to start to see the world as it actually is around us, not as our minds pretend it to be.
So do something really nice for yourself the next time you are feeling overwhelmed and see how it works to change your outlook.