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02 November, 2021

When despair overwhelms your mind

When despair overwhelms your mind

The past eighteen months have been tough for many. The combination of traumatic circumstances alongside the impact of change and uncertainty, all experienced over an extended period of time mean that fatigue and exhaustion have added to the toll.

As is often the case, the impact has been greater for those who were already more vulnerable, already on the edge, already facing challenge.

This season of re-entry has also been more emotionally complex than many expected. As a sense of normality begins to return, our minds have allowed emotions suppressed during the lockdowns to emerge as we attempt to make sense of what has happened. Frustrations and anxieties remain, particularly as we head into an uncertain autumn and winter.

So, perhaps the biggest challenge in this season – both for ourselves and for those we lead - is around managing overwhelm.

Overwhelm is what happens when your mind is hit with a barrage of demand. Overwhelm can be contributed to by the emotional demands or distress of those around you, or even excessive busyness, change and multi-tasking.

Your mind has a limit to how much it can juggle, and when you get close to that limit it triggers a sort of emotional emergency mode, designed to get you out of whatever situation is creating this relentless challenge to your brain.

Overwhelm feels suffocating and is accompanied by what people often describe as a sense of panic or dread. The instinct that this is all too much, too impossible, too hard, feels very powerful and the mind starts to look for ways to escape. At the same time, your brain starts to bypass the rational, thinking centres, favouring quick responses over careful thinking - an ‘act now think later’ approach. This means your ability to problem solve - or even to think of possible solutions or things you could do to make things feel better - drops. Your mind starts to see the world in much simpler black and white terms - as though things were either one thing or another - either good or bad, success or failure, people either for you or against you. This emergency mode has made your mind hyper vigilant - scanning for any signs of anything else you might have to deal with - and prone to assuming the negative.

In these moments the human mind often goes rogue, unable to think of constructive ideas and struggling to reach out or share. Suicidal thoughts are often a part of these moments of desperation, and many people talk of just wanting to find a way out, or a way for it to stop. Suicidal feelings or ideation (thinking about suicide) can come out of the blue, but many experience them on and off over a period of challenge. They are much more common than most people realise, and it is important we talk about them, and recognise them for what they are: warning signs of an overloaded mind.

So how do you handle moments of overwhelm, and help those around you to do the same?

1 - Remember things are unlikely to be as bad as they feel

The one thing we know in those moments is that things are not as bad as they feel. The sense of dread and panic combined with the hopelessness that stems from your inability to think of possible solutions is really cruel, and feels real; but it is all to do with how overwhelmed your mind is. Chances are if you can drop your anxiety and stress level, things will feel better as your ability to think clearly kicks back in.

Here’s some things we probably know about your situation - whatever it is: it is not as hopeless as it feels. You are more capable than you feel. People care a lot more than it feels like they do. You are not as alone as you feel. There are people who could help you.

It is vital that you recognise that your mind is not functioning well in that moment and make sure you keep yourself safe. This is not a moment to allow your mind to make major decisions.

2 - Breathe

The next thing you need to do is something to drop your overall stress level. Think of it on a 0-10 scale - the emergency, overwhelm zone is usually about 8-10, and if life is busy you might have already been at 7, meaning a little thing could push you into panic. Its a bit like leaving the tap running in the bath with the plug in - finding a way to drain some of that pressure will help drop your mind back into a better place.

The easiest way to do this is to sing. Now, you may not feel like much of a singer. So how about humming? Humming or singing settles your breathing and helps regulate the level on your overall stress system. It also gives you something else to focus on and can help you take a moment of pause and calm.

Don’t panic if it doesn’t help at first - give yourself some time. If you can walk whilst you hum, and get outside that will help too - the change of perspective, fresh air and rhythmic activity of walking will all help calm your mind down.

3 - Release your thought flies

Ever had a fly trapped in a room you are in? It’s so annoying isn’t it?! Watching it buzz around, trapped, bouncing off the walls and becoming more and more angry and frustrated. It starts to dominate your mind, drive you crazy as you can’t take your attention off it or focus on anything else.

Anxious and overwhelmed thoughts are a bit like flies in your mind. Trapped in your own head they build up and bounce around and start to take over, making it hard to distract yourself or enjoy anything. The solution - just like with the real life flies - is to let them out. Sharing what you are feeling and the thoughts you’re fighting with may not change your circumstance, but it lets the thoughts out of your head and releases their intensity and power.

Think about who you could talk to - a friend or family member, someone at work - or call one of the various helplines that offer people a safe space to chat and share (there are some suggestions at the end of this article). Or if you can’t do that in the moment and you just need to let them out, think about some other things you can do. Can you write your thoughts down, text someone, send an email, or pray?

4 - Do some solution storming!

When you feel desperate and out of control, it might feel like your solutions are very limited. But highly likely that is just because your mind is not thinking them through very well.

So - what can you do to try to help find a better way forward? Firstly phone a friend and get someone to help - because its always good to have someone with you on this - another perspective and someone to suggest things. Secondly find a good time to do this. Hint: it won’t be in the middle of your most stressful day. Find a time when things feel calmer, safer, less pressed.

Then get a piece of paper. You’re going to storm some solutions! What this means is listing as many possible ideas or things you could try as possible. Now, many of these will feel silly, ridiculous or totally impractical - but the rule is that you can write anything down! Don’t pick your ideas apart - the aim at first is not to find the perfect solution but just to kick your analytical mind back in. So write them all down - emigrate, buy a desert island, write a best seller, whatever comes to mind!

5 - Take a first, small step

So - what are you going to actually DO? Well, once you have your list of possible solutions, the temptation will be to feel pressure to make some huge change, solve everything - and that’s going to add to your feeling overwhelmed if it’s just too much for your tired mind to take. So instead think - what is the smallest thing I could do first? What feels manageable - even easy? What little thing might change something and make it feel more possible to manage the big things?

Need to talk to the bank about some problems with paying bills? The first step might be to find their website. The second (for another day) might be to call or pop in and make an appointment. Take it one step at a time.

You are in REALLY good company …

Feeling like you’re the only person who’s ever felt like this? Think again. The Bible is full of examples of amazing people who got overwhelmed. Look in 1 Kings 19 at the story of Elijah - he was a serious man of God, and he just pulled off an amazing victory (in the previous chapter) - so you’d have expected him to be feeling GREAT - but he was exhausted and overwhelmed, and when panic hits, he flees to the desert, hides in a cave and tells God he has had enough and wants to die. Some rest and good food later and he’s back to feeling able to face the next challenge - but he needs some help to feel back to his normal self.

So let’s not imagine that feeling overwhelmed, or desperate, or even experiencing suicidal thoughts is a sign of failure or weakness. Let’s recognise that it is part of where our minds can be pushed to in extreme times - and learn how to take care of ourselves well in those moments.


Need some extra support?

The Mind and Soul Foundation are a national Christian organisation supporting people from all ages and backgrounds to manage their mental health well in life’s tough times. Check out  or their social media/youtube @mindandsouluk for resources, articles and videos.

The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 - and it is free (and won’t appear on your phone bill). You can also email jo@samaritans.org (someone will reply within 24 hours and getting your feelings out into an email might help in the meantime - sending it can feel like you have literally got things out of your head and help you calm down).

Give us a Shout are an organisation providing in the moment support for people feeling overwhelmed, especially if they are fighting suicidal thoughts. Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 and a trained volunteer will text you back.

We know that frontline staff experiencing huge pressure in this season have also struggled with the mental health impact. Our Frontline is a support service specifically for you offering phone or text support - for NHS staff, emergency services, education staff, social care and for any essential worker. Note - numbers and details are slightly different depending on which sector you work in so follow the link/check the website to find the right one.

Papyrus is a bunch of people passionate about supporting children and young people struggling with suicidal thoughts. Info and advice about how to manage suicidal thoughts plus a helpline - 0800 068 4141 for calls or 07860 039967 for texts, open 9am-10pm each weekday and 2pm-10pm weekends/bank holidays or email pat@papyrus.org

You can also check out The Mix - a site full of mental health info and support for under 25s, including 121 text and crisis support.

And Headstrong is a site aimed at teens, thinking about how to manage the challenges of life, and what real life and real faith looks like in the real world. Check out their website, or search for ‘be headstrong’ on social media.

02 November, 2021

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