I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately. We’re living through some overwhelming times. There’s just so much going on globally, nationally, locally, and not to mention in each of our personal lives. We’re constantly bombarded by social media, text messages, emails, and the never ending to-do list. This sense of constantly being overwhelmed can be paralyzing. Personally, I feel like a ton of baggage just landed on my shoulders and everyone is yelling at me to start running a marathon that I haven’t trained for while being weighed down by daily tasks, projects, and national and global crises.
I recently had one of those mornings when I looked at my growing to-do list and a wave of anxiety rushed over me. I couldn’t move, breathe, and was disoriented. How was it possible to accomplish my big goals when I had a pile of papers to grade from three classes, laundry to do, dinner to plan, go to Target, catch up on the emails from the weekend, and solve climate change. I just couldn’t think. I couldn’t make a simple decision of what to have for breakfast that morning.
I was feeling a lump in my throat. Awww, yes I knew this physical sensation. All my fears and anxiety were welling up in my throat. I noticed that my breath was not flowing in its usual pattern. I pushed myself away from the kitchen table, grabbed the dog leash, and started the day with an hour long walk with Zoé. Yes, I had so much to do that it seemed unwise to take a long walk, but I knew that if I didn’t reconnect with my body, with nature, and my breath I was not going to be able to get past this sensation of being overwhelmed, and I wasn’t going to be very productive in this state. I knew that mindful walking would at least help me understand the sensations I was feeling.
I started the walk by noticing my breath. What was the quality of the breath at this moment? Where was the breath traveling in my body today? The breath had a thick quality and couldn’t move with ease. It was difficult to feel the breath move beyond my throat. It felt like my throat had a large rock in it making it difficult for the breath to flow with ease. As I walked with Zoé I focused my attention on the throat and the breath. With each inhalation and exhalation I felt the throat begin to loosen. It was as if the breath was slowly eroding the rock that was lodged in my throat. At a certain point this metaphorical rock turned into a pebble, then a grain of sand, and eventually if was no longer there.
I continued to breathe and noticed how the breath began to flow with more ease. The air was no longer thick and I could get enough oxygen to my lungs. As more oxygen was entering my body I felt more energetic and my pace began to pick up, which of course was exciting for Zoé. I expanded my awareness to my legs and the bottom of my feet. Sensing gratitude for my ability to walk. Noticing the complexity of such a simple act that I take for granted each day. Muscles contracting and releasing; ligaments stretching; bones holding the body upright. What an incredible act walking is.
I continued to check in with my breath and at times noticing that my mind had wandered and my brain was planning my day. Gently releasing the planning mind I returned to the breath and noticed the rock had appeared again in my throat, but this time it was half the size. Breathing, sensing, simply being aware of this moment, and then this moment, and know this moment.
Zoé and I reached my favorite part of our long walks. We were surrounded by trees. My awareness continued to expand and know paying attention to the beauty of each tree. Noticing the texture of the bark, the uniqueness of each leaf, and the roots that were strong enough to crack and elevate parts of the trail. I could clearly hear the birds in each tree calling each other.
By the time we arrived home my mind was clear. I had more energy in my body, and my heart knew that I could accomplish what I needed to be that day. I sat back down at the kitchen table about began chipping away at my work. I continued the day with ease. The feeling of drowning was no longer present and whenever I sensed the lump in my throat appear I paused for a moment, connecting with my breath and simply being present with this moment and this sensation.
Did I complete everything on my to-do list? Of course not. I don’t have clones or a 24/7 support team that will cook, clean, and run errands for me, but I completed the tasks that were most pressing. However, the overwhelming feeling and paralyzation from that moment subsided. Most importantly, I had a deeper understanding of what being overwhelmed felt like in the body and I was able to practice self-compassion for being overwhelmed.
The next time this powerful sensation comes over me I know the antidote. Be present in the body, bring awareness to the breath, and become fully embodied in the moment with kindness and tenderness to myself. I hope this practice and my experience helps you when you’re overwhelmed.