When your emotions get overwhelming — like a balloon that can pop at any moment — certain tactics can help.
It’s a beautiful summer morning. My son is coming back from school for the summer and my husband is home from his travel photo assignment. I’ll have my kids and family all together, so I should be happy… right?
And yet, all week prior, I felt a mild panic surging up within me in quiet moments. Like I am on some kind of shaky ground, not really knowing where I can stand to feel calm, safe, regulated.
I don’t really want to admit it — the admission feels shameful — but I am intimidated by all of my family being together under one roof, for weeks of togetherness. I mean, I got married, I had kids — I shouldn’t feel like this. But at times, all I want to do is hide in my bedroom, and wait for this period of togetherness to be over.
It all came down to this: As an introvert, I knew my quiet time would be coming to an end.
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Why All the Togetherness Is Overwhelming for Introverts
I have always been like this — I love spending time with my family — yet when it actually happens, when everyone is around with their emotions and conflicting needs and desires, I tend to get overwhelmed and exhausted.
Years ago, my introverted self learned that it’s okay to not want to be social all the time, to allow my introversion to dictate my day (or night). Taking time to be alone, and to recharge, was not only something I craved, but also something I needed. And still is.
When I can feel the emotions brewing and I know they might overflow, the first thing I do is ask: How do I really feel? And, regarding the family example above, what came up was frustration and resentment. I had the idea that other people made me feel overwhelmed. But…
Of course, it’s not other people making me feel anything. It’s the sensation of being overstimulated by the world around me. It’s like I’m bumping too strongly into my introverted self.
We often don’t notice our emotions until they feel like too much for us to bear. But our emotions are with us all the time. They’re not created by situations or people. Rather, our emotions are there on repeat, looping over and over, and are activated when something (or someone) activates them.
Two Key Things to Understand About Emotions
There are two really important things to know about emotions.
- Emotions want to be seen, heard, and felt. Emotions aren’t there to punish or taunt us (even though it can feel like that). In our society, we’ve subconsciously learned to suppress our emotions or explain them away. We are usually told not to feel angry or scared — otherwise, we may be made fun of. We are pushed toward gratitude and calmness, as though we can just automatically go into those states of mind while ignoring feelings like shame and fear. (By the way, those emotions won’t go away if we ignore them. They stay, waiting to get our attention at some point, in some way. And that’s when overwhelm comes into play…)
- Emotions show us what our needs are. For example, our uncomfortable emotions — like rage, fear, and shame — are expressions of unmet needs. And when we learn to really meet our needs, which can include being heard, feeling safe, periods of silence, and so on, then we see that we aren’t so emotionally activated in general, or activated so intensely. What is very common in families is to continually emotionally activate each other, and that is why family life, or family gatherings, can feel like they are so much. We all have different ways of coping — one person may try to “fix” the situation, another may distract themselves by working or leaving the situation, and another may shut down entirely. So it’s important to be aware of how you react in such situations.
So, now that you better understand emotions, here are some ways to manage overwhelming ones, especially as an introvert.
5 Ways to Manage Overwhelming Emotions as an Introvert
1. Validate how you are feeling — and accept whatever it may be.
The first thing I do when I get overwhelmed with emotions is to accept that it is hard for me. I need to do this so I can emotionally support myself accordingly. And this is part of the emotional-support process called validation, which is immensely soothing when we are in the thick of emotions.
Think about it: It’s extremely irritating to be told, “This is not really a big deal.” This is basically telling us, “You shouldn’t feel like this.” Or when someone says, “Oh, there is nothing to worry about!” and you think, What are you talking about? (You are worried!)
When I say to myself, Oh, Di, this is a lot for you. You find it hard to be with a lot of people together, with all of their emotions, all of the possible unexpected conflicts. I understand, I see you, I see how tough this is.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
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That feels so good! That feels so supportive of who I am, and what I am carrying right now. So admitting how you’re feeling, and accepting it, is the first step.
2. Track your emotional landscape and how your emotions ebb and flow.
Emotions repeat. Endlessly. They are on a loop and always yearning for our attention. Like I mentioned earlier, they look for things to activate them, so when anger or fear come up, it’s not the outside situation we need to be paying attention to.
So ask yourself, “Oooh, how do I feel here? What emotions are coming up for me? Oh, fear! Here you are again.” Then, look at tending to the fear, not trying to fix or change the situation that brought up the fear. (This distinction is very important.)
When I am in my best possible emotional state, it’s because I am very regularly paying attention to my emotions. I am being highly attuned to them, not other people’s. And this can look like:
Oh, Di, this person is angry, and I am having feelings about that! What are my feelings about this anger I am seeing? Oh, fear! Yes — I feel scared. I don’t like seeing anger, it feels scary. What else? Resentment, I feel very resentful that that person is having anger, because I never, ever get the chance to feel anger. It’s so unfair! Wow, that feels very deep!
So when we get a sense of what is on our emotional landscape, what emotions are here, what is repeating over and over, we can give ourselves some support around all that we are carrying.
3. Regulate your nervous system with self-soothing tools, like breathing exercises.
When our emotions are getting beyond our capacity to hold them — like a balloon that can pop at any moment — doing some nervous system regulation exercises can help. This will allow you to stave off that feeling of intense overwhelm.
The thing that I do regularly is really start looking after my nervous system. A key part of this is regularly doing a regulated breathing exercise. To that end, breathing techniques have long been shown to reduce stress. This breath is a signal to my brain, and my nervous system, that I am safe, all is well, and I don’t need to be pushed into overwhelm.
A regulated breath is a short, quick inhale, and a long exhale. This breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system — which is where we “rest and digest” vs. “fight-or-flight” — and brings a sense of calm to the body.
I often use this breathing technique and suggest that my clients use it, too, every day. You can do it when you feel overwhelmed or simply as a preventative way to keep some calm vibes in your body.
You may also find calm in meditating (even if you have trouble focusing!), through yoga, taking a walk, or another soothing activity. So see what works for you and do it — and often.
4. Give yourself tender, loving emotional support verbally, too.
There are a lot of emotional processing techniques I use with myself, my family, and clients, but at their most basic, remember: Emotions want to be seen, heard, and felt. And so I will support them by staying with myself through these feelings, and often by talking to them: Fear (or any other emotion), I see you. I see that you’re here. I will stay with you while you’re here. I get why you’re here, and it’s okay.
I will put my hand on my heart, I will rub my chest, and I will think of some soothing things I can do — rub my arms, get cozy and warm (perhaps in my “introvert zen zone” or sanctuary), go for a walk, or make some tea. Then, I’ll offer myself some empathic words and ask the fear what it needs.
The next thing I do is wait with the fear (or what have you) as it stays in my body. And if it feels like too much to stay with it, if I can only stay with it for a minute or two, that’s okay. I’ll check in with myself later. But the key is staying gentle with yourself.
5. Notice what needs aren’t being met since emotions are expressions of unmet needs.
I often check in with myself and ask: What are my needs here, and how can I meet them? This is because emotions are expressions of unmet needs, so how can you recognize what you need — and then meet your needs on a daily (or even moment-by-moment) basis?
Do you need to be heard? Do you need a quiet space? Do you need to take your kids (or pets or yourself) out into the sunshine? Do you need a calming hug? Do you need to get up early to have an hour to yourself?
So check in regularly with your emotions and needs. Ask: What can I give myself now so that I am meeting my emotional needs? (Do I need to take some regulating breaths, as one of my kids is giving me a rundown of something I find stressful? Do I need to offer myself some emotional support as I stand in the kitchen and see my kids work out a conflict?)
When we learn to truly take care of ourselves in the full swing of overwhelm or emotional activation, we not only give ourselves the support we need, but we also model empathic emotional support for those around us.
I want to raise children who know how to support themselves when emotions run wild for them. I want them to deeply, and lovingly, look after themselves. I want them to be able to identify, and give, themselves what their deep needs are. So first I must show them how I do these things, how I take care of myself. When I am loving and gentle with myself, the people around me will learn how to be loving and gentle with themselves, too. And that is my wish for you, as well.
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You might like:
- What to Do When You Feel Overstimulated and Overwhelmed
- For This Introvert, Quiet Moments Are the Best Moments
- 4 Meditation Tips for Introverts Who Struggle to Focus
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