We live in an era of a national opioid crisis, common suicides and mental illness, which seems to spread like wildfire. Given these concerns, and the undoubtedly stressful world we live in, it’s reasonable to ask if most of us know when we are emotionally overwhelmed. The answer, I believe, is sadly no.
Over my many years in psychiatric practice it’s become clear to me that we do not have a commonsense way of gauging when any one of us would likely be overwhelmed. So, I’ve devised a simple system for people to use as a way to examine their lives to see if it falls in the overwhelmed range.
This has nothing to do with mental illness. The system is for everyday life.
What Does It Mean To Be Overwhelmed?
Let’s begin with a definition. What exactly is being overwhelmed? It is when the things you must cope with exceed your abilities to cope. This is very straightforward on the surface but digging down can get more complicated. Simple or complicated, there are clearly times when we go over a threshold and have trouble coping. The part I have broken down is what leads to feeling overwhelmed.
Being overwhelmed may be a warning sign of a bigger problem, but is also a problem in itself. When overwhelmed we do not think as clearly, tend to be more emotional and of course, do not feel well.
Often, many of us do not realize we are overwhelmed until after we have bitten someone’s head off or have had great difficulty getting through some life demand. Other people may withdraw and stay in their room away from others.
The specifics do not matter. What matters is that someone is very emotional in a negative way and feel they can not deal with whatever is at hand for them.
The first things we usually examine when someone is having emotional difficulties are the signs and symptoms of mental illness. But I think we should begin a step earlier; namely, knowing what may have happened to overwhelm a person before these signs and symptoms appeared.
Or, put differently, can we tell beforehand when someone is likely to feel overwhelmed by her circumstances?
We all know examples of this, such as the loss of a loved one or a frightening event. But there are many times when we find ourselves emotionally inundated and do not quite know what got us there.
Can We Predict When We Might Become Overwhelmed?
For years I have used a metaphor to convey to my patients why they suddenly find themselves feeling so unsettled. I define four essential constituents of mental well-being and compare them to the poles of a tent. The four are:
This need not be perfect, but allows you to function without pain, significant disability or the imminent threat of either. A severe or terminal illness is usually the problem, but chronic disease is a common cause that is often overlooked.
These are folks who care about you and share parts of your life. Friends, family or whoever fits the bill.
3) A home
A place that is safe, comfortable and you have at least in part, a claim to. Your room may be enough. Home is a launching pad for building a life. It is a basecamp and a refuge for which there is no substitute no matter how physically adequate.
4) A way to survive
In our culture this means money. We do not hunt and gather, nor sow and reap. We get money to buy what we need.
If any one of these is suddenly absent or disturbed, you will of course be stressed. The important point is this: if more than one is absent or disturbed, you will be overwhelmed. To think of the tent; one pole suddenly not working causes problems. Two poles mean you no longer have a tent. Now you are exposed to the elements and no longer protected.
To bring home the point, imagine yourself with any two of these four compromised in your own life. Perhaps you are having marital problems and your work hours are suddenly cut. Or you are trying to cope with an illness, and you discover your insurance has not covered an expensive piece of your care. Or perhaps you are in between jobs and you will miss yet another rent/mortgage payment. Or lastly, you have been quite sick and now, a few weeks into the problem, the flow of visitors dries up.
These problems and countless others are exhaustingly common and occur right under our noses, even if you are the person in question. The reason they are missed is because most of the issues are considered normal life problems and people are thought to generally plod through them.
But our psyches need a sense that life is still basically under some control and we will not end up powerless and alone. This why we need the need these four poles.
More of the Four Poles
We all have more sophisticated psychological needs than suggested by the four poles. Things such as close relationships and a sense of meaning in life are the two most important. The four poles do not replace these. Rather, they are the foundation upon which such things are built. They are the basis of our inner sense of stability and safety in an unpredictable world. The use of this metaphor has helped me communicate to my patients the excessive weight of stress they are carrying.
Rather than severe trauma, it is often common life events that pull the poles out from our safe tents. Divorce, illness and unemployment are unfortunately common and clear examples. Anyone who has been through these knows how easily one dimension such as money or health, reaches out and wrenches away friends, funds or even our homes.
If we incorporated the tent metaphor into our thinking a few things would be suddenly obvious.
For example, all cancer patients need—at least the offer of—psychological care as part of their treatment. In addition, homelessness is not just another social problem. It undermines the psychological health needed to solve the homelessness itself, so is self-perpetuating.
Lastly, some people may need more attention, even if just from family and friends, than they usually receive. These include women who have had recent miscarriages, people without advanced training who lose their jobs, and anyone caring for a chronically sick relative.
The ability to predict when things are just too much is just as important in our psychological lives as in our physical ones. We know how far is too far to run, how much is too much to lift. It is time we know how much is too much to cope with.
Further Reading and Resources
- How to Manage When We Feel Overwhelmed
- Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress
- Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19
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