I can’t cope: dealing with overwhelm

As a house full of highly sensitive people*(see end), overwhelm is something we deal with on a daily basis. I have begun to realise that it is not just my kids’ high sensitivities that I need to be aware of in how our days go, but mine, and my husband’s too. I have noticed a pattern, one which leads to meltdowns… in all of us.

Jangling nerves, too much noise, too many competing demands, time pressure, hunger, anxiety about being good enough or getting something “right”, tiredness… I feel my blood pressure soar, my thoughts racing, my breathing tighten, my voice get shriller, my actions rougher. I need out. Now!

Ten minutes of calm to myself and I can come back to the scene with love, gentleness and a genuine caringness. But up till that point I feel myself floundering, my internal monologue yelling and yelling “I can’t cope, get me out!”

I say to my kids “shouting isn’t a nice way to deal with people” and then I do it myself. “Treat people gently” I preach, but in these moments I am rough.

I am recognising in myself, my husband, and my kids the pressure valve, the thermostat which rises to snapping point, the markers that say: Please stop the overwhelm I CAN’T COPE. I am recognising that this is essential for our happy, healthy family co-existence. It is not a sign of weakness or manipulation. It is very real: it is how we function and who we are. Pretending it is not the case, getting angry that it is, blaming others for our feelings or trying to ignore it does not work.

It is at the point of overwhelm our instincts emerge, the reptilian brain literally takes over the show – we lash out, scream, yell… now is not the time for moralising, for punishments, for anger… now is the time for de-compression.

For me I need to physically remove myself to a womb space – my bed, or a small, private dark corner of a room and curl up, preferably with a blanket, close my eyes, breathe and allow the pent up sadness, anger and frustration to emerge – with tears, with the words I wanted to say, with flailing arms and legs. And then to stay there with my breath, until the storm subsides, allowing the dominant negative thoughts to drift away and be replaced with thoughts of love and gratitude for myself and my family.

A way that I help my daughter to deal with her overwhelm, which expresses itself through tropical tantrums, is in my post “Happy Candles” at Rhythm of the Home.

My son (5) needs to be left totally alone, and HATES interaction when he feels this way. I often lovingly help him to remove himself to his own space where he can decompress by muttering, shouting, stamping and gradually he starts playing.

We all know that we can request “peace and quiet” when we feel this way. And sometimes the children will be made to have “peace and quiet” as a gentle form of time out, sitting on the bottom step, just to take a breather, get them out of overwhelm and lashing out and give them a chance to decompress.

Two specific situations have happened in recent days where I can see the real importance of being able to hold the space for them and allow them to decompress.

The first is parties. Our son is shy by nature and yet sociable. I understand this contradiction well myself. But large group events like parties are deeply stressful for him, as for many highly sensitives. First there is the anticipation, the worry of who to interact with and how to break the ice. then there is the overwhelm of noise, lots of activities large numbers of people, an unknown physical space, lots of sugary high energy foods. He throws himself body and soul into the party, but when I collect him he begins to come down and totally crashes. His system, at maximum stimulation for so long is now burnt out – he is tired, dazed, thirsty, feeling sick and often cranky. He is totally spent. Again I totally recognise this from my own experience. This does not mean I always handle it well. I have learnt, from bitter experience that then is not the time to berate him for being ungrateful that I have driven him here and there, that he shouldn’t be grouchy because he’s just had a lovely time. No, then is the time for a quiet story, a gentle DVD, perhaps a bath, some headspace, and then a gentle bedtime.

The other is times of high stress for physical reasons: doctors visits, dentists and hair washing time. All three of our children have been nigh on psychotic when having their hair washed (ahem, I have NO idea where they get THAT from!!). I have noticed that the more mindfully I can be there as I do it, the easier it is for us all. So the first part is to centre myself, and to make sure I do not add to the stress by my words or tone of voice. The stressor is discussed calmly in case any real fears need allaying. Then when the time comes I make this clear in a calm voice. I make sure that someone else can take care of the other two children or they are not needing my attention. Then I take them onto my lap (at the doctors) or lying on my chest (at the dentist, chiropractor or in the bath) and make sure they can hear my heart beat, I stroke and talk gently to them until they lie calmly and still. And then whatever the action that needs to happen, does. If I am hair washing I try to be ultra careful about water in eyes etc. All the while I am affirming that they are safe. Afterwards I affirm that they have done it, and try to finish with a massage and kisses. Again affirming afterwards what they have achieved.Right now this mama feels very overwhelmed (I wrote this post over the weekend after a FULL night’s sleep.)

Two very, very broken nights, a very demanding whingey baby wanting to breastfeed constantly day and night, and an aborted attempt to buy new clothes for myself, yes clothes without holes, in a bright, noisy, overwhelming shopping mall yesterday and we were supposed to be going on a long day trip today, me and the three bickering kidlets. I opted out of that one fast!

I am in overwhelm. I need a womb space. I need to curl up. I need quiet. I need out… and for one or two moments, whilst posting this blog, my www-womb surrounds me, I have headspace, no one is touching me, I have discovered another tool for dealing with overwhelm in the midst of family life. I worry that it leads to a lack of being present, the opposite of mindfulness. But for me, I realise, that in order to be present I need to retreat first. In order to be mindful I first have to be able to reconnect with my voice, my self which gets lost in the maelstrom of my family battering me with their needs. Ahhhh! Decompressing…

*What is a highly sensitive person anyway?

According to author, Elaine Aron, 15-20% of children can be classified as Highly Sensitive (HSC), such children share a large number of the following characteristics, though not all individuals will have all of them, indicators include children who:

  • are labelled shy, fussy, faddy, colicky
  • startle easily and hate loud noises
  • are hesitant in new situations
  • are overwhelmed in large groups.
  • have issues with food- intolerance or fussiness
  • problems sleeping
  • fussing when get dressed with clothes that are too tight or with scratchy labels
  • are aware of others unspoken feelings, to the point of being pained by them.

Being highly sensitive is not odd or bad in any way, nor is it changeable, it is a character temperament as real as being born with red hair. Highly sensitive people are just that: highly sensitive to their surroundings. Because of this they can experience sensory overload more frequently than other. This happens when the nervous system becomes stressed and overwhelmed by all the incoming information that they just cannot cope.

If you or your child are “highly sensitive” and recognise yourselves in this, do get your hands on Elaine Aron’s wonderful books- I have found them invaluable.

If you liked this, you might like
Me and my girl – how I learnt to bond with my tropical daughter
The Watchful Buddha boy – learning to parent a highly sensitive child
Happy Candles – a gentle way of dealing with tantrums
The waves and the shore – a reflection on the oceanic feelings of motherhood
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  1. mrs green @ littlegreenblog.com
    mrs green @ littlegreenblog.com04-26-2011

    Gosh I can relate to so much of this. How do you find the energy to go that extra mile for your kids though when you’re spent out? that’s the bit I struggle with.

    If my needs have been met (curling up on a feather cushion like you indicated and plenty of ‘me time’) then I can be the most compassionate, loving, patient mum in the world.

    But if I’M stressed then I just can’t do it and I’m horrible to my daughter – I’m inconsiderate, I berate her and basically act like an inner child sparring with her. I hate this aspect of myself but have never figured it out.

  2. Dreamingaloudnet

    That’s me right now Mrs G! Husband, dear husband is cleaning the house around me, having clear space helps me feel less growly. Kids are fed and watered so they are being less demanding, and I have had some screen time so am feeling a bit more human…

    Like the idea of the inner child sparring, interesting… (well obviously don’t LIKE it, but you know what I mean, I appreciate the insight!) As always Mrs G, a pleasure to have contact with you.

  3. Amyvix

    I must get hold of those books! I find I’m so hypersensitive to the hurricaines I have as kids that even an hour in a dark cosy space isn’t enough to centre myself!
    And they themselves are hypersensitive too!
    Oh Lucy, I hope you find your space xxx

  4. laangel

    I love this Lucy, I’m right there with you. I too need to have ‘me’ time, or I get resentful of having to give so much of myself. I very often feel so pulled about and torn that I do need to rememeber to be as gentle myself (and forgiving when I can’t be with the kids). Sorry we didn’t get to see you today, but I totally understand why. We’ll catch up again soon x x

  5. Motherfunker

    “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right, do it wrong or do it right, it’s all right, it’s all right….”…. so sang John Lennon…..

    I know all about escaping from the noise and bad weather in the house. It will pass. At least its out in the open. You’ve all got outlets.

    Think about the yin and yang. No pleasure without pain. No joy without sorrow. No order without disorder. No absolute stillness without absolute pandemonium. Sun and rain. Earth and sky. It all passes.

    Hold on.


  6. teresa

    I can so relate and I have only one person constantly touching me…
    I agree with the wisdom of retreating and coming back ready to be centered and loving. I think it’s a great skill to model for your children.
    I know my daughter (and husband and myself) is sensitive, but I don’t know about “highly sensitive”. I think I’ll read the books anyway. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Monica

    yes, as a HSP I fully get it. I need moments of quiet, and solitude if possible, to recharge. Husband isn’t sensitive and that helps. I can’t imagine all of us like that. But it does make you more in tune with the needs.

  8. granola catholic
    granola catholic05-12-2011

    You just described me and my 10 year old. While considering a field trip 2 hours away I am opting to drive myself instead of take the bus. I know I will need time to decompress and so will my kids. being on a noisy bus full of Jr. High Students will not help any of us.

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