technique for handling overwhelming feelings

Technique for Handling Overwhelming Feelings

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by a feeling that there is nothing to do but drown in it?


Normally I can be pretty adept at intellectualizing my way through feelings. I feel it, then I think about it, and in the process I arrest the feeling sensation and silence it. This can be a fine tool to use…sometimes. But how much am I missing about my experience, about my intuition, my needs and my preferences, by letting my thinking mind save me from the less controllable wave of emotion?  

Swept Away

I know some people who are like the opposite of me. Their feeling state is primary. For these friends, there’s no escaping the feeling, no matter the circumstances. The emotion becomes the moment. If this is like you, I’d love for you to tell me more about your experience. I’ve been trying to get my pendulum to swing a little more in this direction for years. Not entirely! But more towards a center where feelings and thoughts are on a team, not silencing each other by default.  

Recently I had one of those overwhelming feeling experiences, where I couldn’t help but be in the emotion.

Now for a story…

Our kitty Fiona has had a cough for a year, and after many trips to the vet and relative certainty she had some form of treatable asthma, her X-ray showed her lungs full of something…something that might be cancer.

I nearly passed out in the vet’s office when I saw the X-ray, but used my yoga (and my long history of this kind of vasovagal nervous system reaction to overwhelming feelings) to remain conscious. In short, I put my head down, winding up in a version of child’s pose, exhaling through my mouth.  

We had more blood drawn that same day, so we left the office and entered the in-between state of not knowing any more results for a while. There was a small chance that what we were seeing was a fungal infection, but cancer seemed more likely. We wouldn’t be finding anything out for days.  

I tend to be a fatalistic person, and if I know something hard might happen I pretty much immediately start intellectually preparing for it. Getting my mind wrapped around the possibility. Staying present as best as possible but considering the various futures and how I’ll navigate them gracefully.

Drowning in it

Leaving the vet, my morning began this way. I imagine my exhausting near-faint at the vet’s office had something to do with my waning ability to think my way into silenced feeling.

I think grief is also just one of those feelings that can’t be silenced. It takes you over, it challenges even the most emotionally controlled person’s ability to shut it down. I find grief to be the acute pain of being unmistakably alive. It’s ironic, since grief is inexplicably linked to endings, to death.  

Lying in bed that night, dehydrated from crying every tear in my body, I turned to my husband and said “I don’t have any thoughts. I’m just sad.”

This is very unusual for me. In the midst of my sadness, I was grateful for the experience. To have had my mind turned off for me by my circumstances. To have the intellectualizing cease. I was simply in the feeling. No more effort required. It was sadness, but it was also a kind of mental peace.  

The next day, with the benefit of time and sleep, I was able to think more clearly about the situation, inviting the intellectualizing back in in a way that wasn’t silencing my feelings. There was space for the sadness and fear, but there was no longer overwhelm. It felt like my capacity as a mind and a body was functioning more as a whole.

Feelings are temporary

This whole experience reminded me of a technique I’ve been taught to help stay with a feeling through its course in my body.

Evidently, feelings physiologically move through the body in about 90 seconds if we let them flow without interruption or further worry. So if a feeling begins and we’re able to observe that feeling, keeping thoughts at bay, we’ll feel it rise, peak, and fall in a minute and a half. The thing is, we might interrupt the sensation, whether by numbing out and blocking it or having a thought or reaction that kicks off another feeling, which will take its own 90 second loop through us.  

This technique helps to allow the original feeling its space and time.

Here it is:

The Technique

Imagine two chairs across from one another, facing each other. When a feeling arises, imagine you’re sitting in one chair. Put the feeling in their chair across from you. Look at it. Watch it. See what it does, what it says to you. You’re separate from it, after all. You aren’t your feeling.  

The challenge of a still and quiet practice

This is a technique that helps a lot when folks are just beginning a still, quiet practice, whether it’s meditation, Yin yoga, or Restorative yoga. Without the distraction of movement, of doing, we wind up alone and quiet with ourselves for extended periods of time. This can bring up a lot of feelings and uncomfortable thoughts.

We go in with a goal of learning and practicing the deep ease of complete relaxation, but what might happen first feels like anything but. This is normal, and with time and acceptance will shift and change, if you’re inspired to continue the practice.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the right time. Sometimes we need more of a support team in place first, like a mental health therapist who can be there with us one-on-one, an island in the ocean of a lifetime’s worth of experience and a final exhaustion with treading water. I highly recommend therapy, including the text-based online apps like Talkspace, which can be a more affordable and accessible option for many people. I also highly recommend practicing stillness and silence, but only when you’re ready.  

Good news

We got the news back from the vet – it’s a fungal infection, not cancer. It’s still pretty bad, but we’ve got treatment that has a chance of clearing it. For now, Fiona Cat is doing fine.  

My love to you

My heart is with all of you who are experiencing grief right now. It’s raw, it’s overwhelming, and it’s cruelly life-affirming. It’s something we are all bound to experience. It’s so very human.