I’ve been working as a psychologist for more than 40 years, and I often get asked how I deal with difficult thoughts and feelings. After all, I have spent so much time helping people get better that I surely must be a paragon of mental health – a prime example of someone who deals nearly perfectly with life’s inevitable challenges. Unfortunately, as much as I would like this to be true, people who know me personally could assure you that this is just not so.
The disappointing reality is that despite my knowledge and experience, I still continue to struggle. I still get caught up in my own head when I worry too much about the future. I still have emotional outbursts when life seems unfair and unjust. And when I’m highly stressed, I still say things that afterwards I wish I could take back (or have said differently). I’ve been researching and applying techniques from Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) for many decades, and yet – at times – I still struggle with overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
It took me a while to come to terms with this reality myself: no matter what I do, I will continue to struggle. This may sound depressing at first, but it actually contains a bittersweet reassurance. It means that struggling is a part of the normal human experience. And it means that your continuous gripes and grievances are not just because you “haven’t figured it out” or because you are inherently “broken,” but because you are a living, breathing person.
This is not to say that you have no choice in the matter, or that you cannot make a difference. With regular practice, you can learn to deal more effectively with difficult thoughts and feelings, so that you get stuck less often and can re-focus on what matters to you much more quickly. It’s a matter of learning specific techniques – like the one I will teach you further down below –, and then applying them regularly. I have practiced ACT for years, and when I now start feeling overwhelmed, I can rely on a range of strategies that help me respond.
I’m still nowhere near perfect at applying ACT in my own life (and expecting this from myself would be foolish), but I have gotten better over the years. With that being said, here is my go-to formula you can use when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Step #1 Notice
When the world seems to come crashing down, it’s hard to think straight, which is why the first step is straightforward and simple. You don’t need to do anything other than noticing that this is currently hard for you. It can be as simple as having a quick moment of clarity while you are experiencing an emotional outburst. This may sound easy enough, but it requires some practice, because it’s almost always even easier to “lose yourself” in the commotion of your thoughts and feelings. If you practice the skill of noticing, you will be able to catch your experiences as they unfold in the present moment, allowing you to make a conscious decision of what you want to do next.
Step #2 Feel
The next step is trickier. When overwhelming thoughts and feelings get a hold of you, they might convince you that you are not okay. And the only way for you to become “okay” again, is by getting rid of these thoughts and feelings, making you resort to old habits in an effort to feel better. You might lash out, stuff yourself with comfort food, smoke a cigarette or two, disappear in social media, or use any other means of escapism. And it works… at least for a moment, until you find yourself overwhelmed again, leading you to repeat the cycle.
What you might not realize in those situations, is that you still have a choice. And rather than running away from your experience, you can learn to simply be with it. This means taking a moment to actually get inside your body: what can you feel right now? And where do you feel it? Actually take a few seconds, maybe even a minute or two, and explore what you can notice internally. Where can you notice commotion? Is what you are feeling steady? Or is it moving? What else can you notice? Practice being curious about your own experience.
This can be scary, especially if you have a history of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. However, you don’t need to go all the way right from the start. You can start small and simple, for instance by just focusing on what you can feel in your right index finger. From here, you can explore your sensations in your other fingers, then your full hand, your arm, your chest, your stomach, and so on. Make sure to do it in a way where you know on a gut level that you will be okay – with kindness, patience, and care.
Step #3 Move
The next and final step is to focus outward. After all, aren’t there things in life that matter more to you than feeling overwhelmed?! You may care about showing up for your loved ones. Or maybe you want to achieve certain goals at work, or just improve your self-care. Whatever it may be, take a moment to move towards a valued direction. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; a small step already suffices. It can be as simple as drinking a glass of water, writing a quick text to a loved one, taking a short walk in the sun, or giving your dog some well-deserved belly rubs. The possibilities are endless. What matters is that you take a small action in the direction of what gives your life purpose and meaning.
Whenever you find yourself struggling with feeling overwhelmed, follow this simple three-step formula: Notice that this is hard for you, feel inside your body, and move in a valued direction. No, this will not eliminate all feelings of overwhelm, nor is it supposed to. Instead, the aim of this technique is to help you practice the skill of psychological flexibility, so you can have difficult thoughts and feelings, while still doing whatever enriches and empowers your life. Even though they can be uncomfortable, your thoughts and feelings can never harm you. And even though at times it may not feel like it, you are going to be okay. You are a whole person having a human experience. You will still continue feeling overwhelmed, but with practice you will also have the skills to recenter yourself quickly, and then refocus your life on what you actually care about.