There are times when the path forward is not clear. A dark moonless night in a snowstorm. Stuck in fog on the water. No directional signs to guide you. No path to follow.
This situation happens frequently and does not cause overwhelm. It can even be peaceful, if you feel safe and secure in the place you are. If, however, you need to move, the situation changes radically. Add a sense of urgency- howling, hungry wolves getting closer in a dark open prairie or the roar of an approaching flash flood – and your worldview and heart rate change rapidly.
If you are faced with a situation that feels life-or-death, even if only potentially or theoretically, it is possible to find yourself paralyzed, overwhelmed by uncertainty and an inability to decide how to move forward. This is your fight or flight kicking into overdrive and shutting you down. This is a primal moment where you feel the only thing to do is sit down and accept the wolves are going to have you for dinner or the plunge over the waterfall is inevitable.
In that moment, inability to see even the very next logical step puts you into a state of confusion. You end up paralyzed and spend a fair bit of time inefficiently swirling around what got you into this place, how you could have done it differently and how bad the outcome is certain to be. More than likely you are replaying the same 20 second clip of how did this happen, over and over in your mind.
How do you take the next step even with the feeling that it might (is it even possible?) make things worse?
Step 1 is always – always – to take a deep breath or even a few dozen. If you’ve been mediating or practicing some other mindfulness exercise, you should regain composure and focus. If not, this will still help push the reset button.
When fight or flight kicks in – as when we get into a serious verbal argument with someone – our thinking brain checks out – literally. The question is: do I (or rather can I) beat the verbal or literal crap out of this adversary or do I run away to fight another day? Overwhelm arrives when neither appear to be an option and our higher, thinking brain has already left the building.
Step 2 – assuming thinking brain has rebooted and come back on line, is to take a first step. This may well not be the best first step (and hindsight can prove this to you later) but as long as it moves you away from overwhelm and giving up, it is still a good first step. You need both momentum in a direction (any direction now, you can and most likely will course correct along the way) and a changed perspective.
Momentum of any kind breaks the grip overwhelm has over you. That clutching grip may grab an arm or leg like a swamp zombie, but momentum will help get you away. Sit still in a puddle of overwhelm and the swamp zombie gets brains for dinner.
Momentum, movement, also gets you to a different place. All too often, we are overwhelmed because we can not see a clear path out of a situation. When we are deep in the trenches, the 10,000 ft view that would help us map an escape is not available to us. Still, given the limitations we face in an uncertain situation, getting any other sort of view can help. Moving to a different location can give you the new perspective that will suddenly part the fog or shine the light on a path forward and out of the swamp. Even though hindsight will quite likely show that you would have gotten to your destination faster if you’d circled right instead of left, but the important thing is that – in the absence of a clear best choice – that you make a choice and get moving. Breaking through paralysis, remembering that you are a being that can make choices- over and over again – will help you break paralysis and move, gather additional data to inform your options, and move onward and upward beyond the challenge you might otherwise be overwhelmed by.