Life can be overwhelming. You can be cruising along just fine and then wham-o: you’re completely blindsided by something. It could be as debilitating as a life-threatening illness, an unforeseen financial crisis, or a turbulent emotional interaction- anything that sends you reeling into emotional vertigo.
When We’re Overwhelmed, Our Lizard Brain Takes Over
My comfort zone is fairly large. Other than jumping off high cliffs into water, it’s rare that I’m afraid of a physical challenge. Managing my inner world isn’t always so easy. I’ve found it helpful to create a vulnerability assessment matrix and fear scale to help find the “sweet spot” of personal growth. Despite this, overwhelm still occasionally happens.
Recently, I traveled to Mexico to visit my mom. It was my first visit to the place where my parents have been “snowbirding” during the winters since my Dad’s passing.
After arriving in Mexico, I was overcome by a whole new wave of grief and feelings. The rip tide threatened to pull me under. I forgot how difficult “firsts” can be: the first time revisiting a place I’d been with my Dad, the first time I met his favorite Spanish teacher, the first time I saw his notes in the hiking guidebook, the first time a friend told me a story about him I hadn’t heard. It was like a difficult post-operative physical therapy session ripping and pulling at my scar tissue. Change isn’t easy. Neither is uncertainty. It isn’t that I’d rather not have the memories and the stories but like physical therapy, healing isn’t always pleasant.
Inadvertent Weather Procedure
In my job as an EMS helicopter pilot I flying under visual flight rules (VFR). I look out the window and use visual references to keep the aircraft upright. Before accepting a flight, I evaluate the weather to ensure I will be able to maintain the required visual reference for the duration of the flight.
However, despite one’s best planning there are times when a VFR pilot might go “inadvertent” and be unable to see any visual references. The weather might change so rapidly due to heavy rain, snow or fog that visibility is extremely limited. Or while flying at night, a pilot might enter an unseen cloud layer. The aircraft is now in instrument meterological condtions (IMC) and VFR flying is no longer possible.
The pilot must transition from looking outside to controlling the aircraft from inside using the instruments. My current aircraft, an AStar helicopter, it isn’t rated for IFR flying (unlike most commercial aircraft), and there isn’t an autopilot or a second pilot. This makes the situation extremely critical because a helicopter is dynamically unstable and won’t glide and stay upright like an airplane.
Many helicopter operators develop a “IIMC” (inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions) procedure to help pilots if they encounter this emergency. The procedure is memorized and drilled into pilots to help them stay focused when fear and vertigo set in.
Here are the steps:
- Level the aircraft.
- Turn only to avoid known obstacles (turning often makes vertigo worse).
- Adjust to climb airspeed.
- Adjust to climb power.
- Climb to the minimum safe altitude.
- Declare an emergency and ask for assistance.
These steps are intended to regain and maintain aircraft control, get away from obstacles, and get assistance from an air traffic controller to help the pilot navigate to better weather or complete an approach to an airport using the instruments.
What if we were to develop a similar procedure for when we get derailed in our lives?
6 Steps to Manage Emotional Overwhelm
- Sit down. If at all possible, sit down and take a moment to breathe deeply. This is the equivalent to leveling the aircraft attitude. When debilitated by fears or emotion, you feel off kilter. This is why our bodies often swoon or faint under extreme stress. Sit down. Rest.
- Scan Your Body. Can you help yourself by taking care of any physical needs? Drink a glass of water. Have a snack. Name the physical sensations in your body. When experiencing emotional vertigo, my insides feel wobbly and unanchored. Don’t make any major decisions. Stay the course (your present heading) unless you need to take immediate action. Be deliberate.
- Don’t try to solve anything. I often go straight to trying to fix whatever is wrong. The thought of trying to analyze why I went inadvertent in the aircraft is ludicrous to me and yet I seem compelled to do this whenever I am emotionally overwhelmed. I mistakenly believe my brain is capable of both managing the overwhelm and determining how to fix it. We know that when our lizard brain takes over we are unable to use our prefrontal cortex (the higher order thinking) parts of our brain. The average time to recover is 26 minutes. In the moment I always feel as if, “it will always be this way” but if you check with me later- sometimes less than 26 minutes, sometimes more- I’ll be able to reframe the situation and see the possibility that things will shift.
- Recharge. You may need to disengage from the situation until you’ve settled enough to deal with it. This might mean checking out for a bit. It is okay to checkout, just be mindful about it. Make a plan to re-engage. What recharges you? As an introvert, a low stimuli environment is the best way for me to recover. Only once I’m through the worst of the overwhelm am I able to talk about their experience. If you are an extrovert, you’ll prefer something social as a way to recharge.
- Share your overwhelm. Let others know you are in full-blown overwhelm. If I go inadvertent in the helicopter, I’ll declare an emergency. I’ll take all the help I can get to land the aircraft safely. Though I couldn’t say much yet for the emotions, the kind words of a friend saying, “he’s here” helped me know she got it. Sometimes individuals may not know how far outside of your comfort zone you are operating. Let them know you’re in the red zone can help them be empathetic. Empathy is the antidote to vulnerability.
- Ask for assistance. Don’t do this step until your lizard brain has calmed down. Ask yourself: What would help me in this situation? Oftentimes you can provide yourself with the answer. Sometimes it is just wading through the feelings. Sometimes asking a friend for help with a few tasks. Sometimes this might mean having a difficult conversation.
How do you handle your own emotional vertigo? Share in the comments.
Photo Credit: Giftwrapper26