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How to handle stressful times when you feel overwhelmed

There’s no way of putting it politely – 2020 was a shitshow and most of us are still feeling the hangover now. So how do you self-regulate, function and just stay SANE when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted or powerless?





On the face of it, this sounds like a horrible idea – ‘why would I pay attention to anything that is making me feel bad, Alice? What an idiotic idea.’ I’ll let you off of your cheekiness because you’re feeling rough. But understanding the root of our unhappiness can help us to deal with it.


And I don’t mean identifying the possible causes (in the interest of time, I’m just going to drop the word ‘pandemic’ in here as more than enough justification for why we might be feeling awful.)


I mean what is going in our bodies? Why are we reacting so violently to stressors? Why are things that don’t normally phase us rattling us so much?


The short explanation is that our natural survival response is being agitated on a daily basis. It only takes something marginally uncomfortable to make us feel anxious, tired, scared or vulnerable.


Maybe a colleague sending you a dicky email is enough to make you cry, or a boring meeting is enough to make you want to quite your job and run away.


This is all normal, especially during Covid.


Our survival response (more commonly known as the fight/ flight/ freeze / fawn response) is hardwired into a very ancient part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This activates your sympathetic nervous system which, contrary to the name, is actually pretty brutal.[1]


Back in our early evolution, this response was really useful for surviving genuinely threatening situations. But today, this stress response can be overkill for what we actually need in the moment.


The result is an over-stimulated response which drains our energy and can make us feel more tired than we think the situation calls for.


This leads to that recognisable feeling of wondering why you’re so tired when there’s no logical reason for it.



Suffice it to say there’s actually more than enough justification right now.


Even if your circumstances haven’t been negatively impacted by the pandemic, you’re smack bang in the middle of a community, in a society and on a planet that has been – it would be almost impossible not to be impacted by that.


Our baseline stress levels are higher and a lot of our usual coping mechanisms are not available to us right now. So, how can we handle things when we’re already overwhelmed?




It’s natural for us to get annoyed by this over-active stress response. But ultimately, it’s our mind and body trying to keep us safe, and there’s a part of us that should feel grateful for that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that we’re conditioned to over-react to stimuli. We live in a very noisy, capitalist society that’s consistently telling us we’re not good enough, successful enough, wealthy enough, thin enough and anything-else-enough. We’re brought up in a world stimulating our survival response at every turn.



Psychologist Allen Tanner says “Too often, psychology over-individualizes social problems. In so doing, we end up blaming the victim… while ignoring the huge corporate culture that’s invading so much of our lives.”[2]


What I’m trying to say is that none of this is your fault. You’ve been trained to feel threatened your whole life, and when there is a genuine health threat at the door, of course you react to it.


Instead of judging yourself, try telling yourself some soothing and very mature affirmations:


“Of course I’m stressed; it’s a fucking pandemic.”

“I am not to blame for Covid.”

“My brain is trying to keep me safe. I am grateful for it’s overly-dramatic ways.”


Alright, I’m kidding about the affirmations, but being good to yourself is a smart idea.


One tip is to give yourself the same advice you would give to a friend.



If a friend came to you feeling upset, you wouldn’t tell them to stop being ridiculous and to get on with it (I hope.) More likely, you would tell them not to be so hard on themselves, to take into account how difficult the circumstances are and to treat themselves kindly.





Think of a car with three passengers; two in the front and one in the back.


When you’re in a perceptively threatening situation, Survival Mode is driving the car. They’re driving erratically, weaving in and out of traffic or slamming on the breaks and having a panic attack. Depends what mood they’re in.


Steady-Mode is navigating. They’re trying to talk to Survival and tell them where to go, but Survival is too much in control to pay attention.


The only way to keep driving safely is to get another driver; Solving Mode, who is sitting quietly on the back seat. The trouble is, Survival is too busy screaming at the motorway to pay attention to them either.


What we need is an opportunity for Solving Mode to get into the driving seat. It can’t be done on the motorway, but Steady and Solving can plan to stop at a service station and switch around then.



If you’re following this metaphor, this means that once we recognise we are in survival mode, we can take a step back and decide to switch tack.


This is why mindfulness practices such as meditation can be so beneficial. Any opportunity to find pockets of quiet in our lives presents us with an opportunity to observe our reactions and to change our behaviours. A metaphorical rest break for our brains to activate the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system.


This is where Steady Mode comes in. Steady Mode helps us stop and assess. Unfortunately though, nothing will get done if we stay in a contemplative, inactive state; we still need to move to action but in a less chaotic ‘Oh-my-god-everything-is-on-fire’ way. Enter Solving Mode.


Solving Mode comes from a newer part of our brain, the neocortex – a part that evolved many thousands of years later and as such is a little slow off the mark some days.[3] But when it’s in charge, everything feels a bit more manageable.


The important thing is to engineer those moments of quiet to allow it to intercept:


– go for a walk

– have regular breaks away from your laptop

– put your phone on ‘do not disturb’ in the evening

– have a social media detox

– call a friend

– meditate, do yoga or journal – whatever helps you feel mindful and present to observe how you’re feeling





All of the above is easy to say but hard to do. Our survival instinct is deeply ingrained and very strong, so just knowing about it isn’t always enough to keep it under control.


But just because times are difficult and we’re feeling stressed, doesn’t mean we have to feel overwhelmed by the situation forever. Looking at how much we all came through last year, we have to recognise and celebrate how god damn resilient we all are. If you’re reading this, you’re stronger than you probably give yourself credit for.


I’m not going to pretend this shit is easy, but I will insist that you’re capable of handling it.




For a pep-talk-on-demand that you can listen to on repeat, have a listen to episode 76 of the Dark Coffee Podcast: ‘How to handle difficult times when you feel powerless.’



[2] Quoted in ‘Consumerism and its’ Discontents by Tori DeAngelis, published in the American Psychologists Association Journal:

[3] Evolution of the neocortex: perspective from developmental biology: Pasko Rakic, 2009. Published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience,