Highlighting Moments of Okayness during times of Chronic Overwhelm

Whether you are experiencing chronic overwhelm right now related to the pandemic or have experienced it previously (work, family, relationship, school, financial stressors), it can be a difficult place to shift out of. We are in a unique situation, as we reach the year mark of this pandemic, where most people have reached a point of feeling chronically overwhelmed, exhausted, depleted, disconnected, fatigued, and uncertain. We are more prone to experiences of chronic overwhelm when there is an uncertain and unpredictable end of what we identify as the cause of stress and activation. The unknown of how long we need to cope with the activation just adds to the overwhelm of our nervous system. Our bodies’ nervous systems are set up to activate in response to stress and then return to settling when it passes. When the threat is not acute, but rather it persists, our bodies have a much harder time responding appropriately.

Chronic overwhelm does not only exist inside the pandemic we are currently experiencing; it can happen to anyone when their nervous system has been in high state of activation for a long period of time. For the kids we work with in the woods, this can come from inundation of social media, societal and cultural pressures for how to be, family conflict, belonging to an underrepresented group, exploring one’s identity, social stressors, school stressors, experiences of trauma and/or other mental health challenges. Chronic Overwhelm is not going to go away when the pandemic ends, and there are skills we can start practicing now to help support our nervous systems’ ability to recover and rest even in times of chronic stress.

Ideally, we would like to remove ourselves from sources of stress, triggers, and activation to allow ourselves to rest and recover. Unfortunately, that is unrealistic reality, even pre pandemic. The intention is to not work towards avoiding anything activating or stressful; rather it is to work towards accepting that we are going to continue experiencing stressors and triggers, and we are able to support our nervous system’s response to those threats to help it come back to rest and recovery. So rather than looking for an end date of whatever we have identified as the main cause of our chronic overwhelm, we can come back to what we are able to do in the present moment to support settling and okayness in our nervous system.

What this looks like is noticing the okay moments, the mildly enjoyable moments and spending time in the okayness of those moments. I say mildly enjoyable moments because higher levels of positive emotions or feelings are still activating to our nervous system and can take the same amount of energy as stress inducing feelings.  This task is simple yet challenging, as our brains and nervous systems have gotten used to looking for the next shoe to drop.

Some examples of how I invite kids to sit with their okayness is inviting them to pause when they share feeling calm, settled, relaxed, okay, content, etc. and asking them to get curious about what in their body is telling them they are feeling that way. Then I invite them to sit in the feelings and sensations for a little while. For weekly outcomes, I will task them with pausing a few times a day when they feel okay, safe, or something mildly pleasant and getting curious about their internal and external cues of that feeling, and then sitting in it intentionally for a minute or two. I like to describe this activity as if they are using a mental highlighter to emphasize the okayness and pleasantness of their day.

The intentional attention and curiosity gives more time to their nervous system to stay in this place. We tend to skip by the nice feeling emotions and sensations and focus on the not so nice feeling ones. By highlighting the okayness, the pleasantness, it balances the higher stress and activation out and injects rest and resiliency into our nervous systems. In practicing this skill, it can help us show up in relationship with ourselves and our loved ones more regulated, present, and often less reactive.

Some examples of highlightable moments or reminders of micro moments of okayness in macro level threat:

  • Enjoying your first cup of coffee or tea in the morning…even pausing to enjoy the smell of the ground coffee.
  • Honestly, anything a small child does-watch them interact with their world and notice the presence they bring and how they live in the presence. They are great reminders of presence and finding okayness in the smallest things
  • Noticing the smell of food cooking, notice the feeling after you take a first bite of food after being hungry.
  • Noticing the satisfaction of completing a task on your to-do list such as folding and putting laundry away, pausing to notice how it feels to complete a work outcome, noticing how it feels to look at an empty sink after washing all the dishes, noticing what comes up when you get into a bed with fresh sheets.
    • Taking a different perspective you can find okayness in the pile of dishes or pile of laundry to fold as it signals that these small tasks continue regardless of the current pandemic and in the moments of doing these tasks the pandemic does not need to have impact on these activities. It can be a signal for our systems to rest in the “normalness” of these tasks.
      • This perspective does not work for everyone-especially if you are in a place where those tasks just add to your already chronic overwhelm. And this perspective can help shift our relationships with what is ”okay,” “normal” and how we can find rest and settling.
    • Noticing the feeling that comes up when you see your favorite show has a new season on Netflix
    • The feeling when you get to sit or lie down on the couch after a long day
    • Pausing for more intentional time petting or cuddling with a pet
    • Your child giving you a hug, smile, or even an acknowledgment of your existence if they’re an adolescent)…or even your teen acting like a teen and rolling their eyes at you when you ask them to do something
    • Watching the sunrise or sunset
    • Sitting outside or walking outside and noticing the sounds around you
    • I, personally, love looking for the misbehaving kid in the grocery store—as grocery stores have transformed in to a different experience, I enjoy looking for kids who are driving their parents nuts asking for candy or sugary cereal because it helps remind my brain that kids are still doing what kids do best
    • Looking for smiling eyes when around masked people

I do want to normalize that our nervous system is meant to become activated when we face stressors, so this activity is not appropriate to use when faced with an actual threat or stressor.

Even these short moments of rest can help build resiliency in our mind and bodies and encourages our nervous system to continue through its normal cycles of activation and settling, rather than staying stuck in hyper-activation or getting stuck in disconnect and hypo-activation.  These moments help remind our brain and body that in this present moment, we are okay and there is not a threat to our survival.