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Feeling Overwhelmed? 6 Steps to Manage Emotional Vertigo

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.

Emotional Vertigo

When We’re Overwhelmed, Our Lizard Brain Takes Over

When we feel overwhelmed, our lizard brain takes over. We feel vulnerable and exposed. We go into survival mode and choose between for flight, fight, freezing or folding.

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.

Emotional Vertigo

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

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Dawn, of Choosing the Better Life January 25, 2013, 11:23 am

    Ahhh, yes, vulnerability. ;) Nice post, good inner work (and support of your Mom in Mexico), and I thought your 6 tips were really good ones! Thanks for this post.

    • Lorena January 26, 2013, 8:09 am

      Thanks, Dawn! I’ve been working my inner muscles pretty heavily this past year- they’re toning up. :)

  • Walt Redding January 26, 2013, 5:47 am


    What a great “tool” for people to use to survive a traumatic situation in their life. I have shared this with my wife who lost her Mother late last year and is struggling with her loss. I’m sure she will be able to use this “tool” you have provided. I’ll let you know how much it helps her :)


    • Lorena January 26, 2013, 8:10 am

      I’m sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. Grief is such a personal journey and yet a journey we all must take at some point. I look forward to hearing your wife’s thoughts.

  • Lorena November 6, 2013, 11:04 am

    Glad you found it, Shelia.

  • MPhillips December 6, 2013, 1:47 pm

    Thank you for this. I haven’t really been able to explain my experience of overwhelm to others very effectively, and although i have asked for support from friends/family in the past… it seems to be a feeling which is increasingly prevalent in my life as the years go by. It hasn’t been brought on by any identifiable instance of trauma, I suspect it’s just underlying anxiety that i’ve tried to ignore/power through. I will try these steps/suggestions the next time i feel a meltdown on the horizon. Thank you for your support and understanding!

    • Lorena December 7, 2013, 3:26 pm

      Thanks for commenting. “Powering through” is really tough and taxing on your system. Take care of yourself!

  • Hal December 8, 2013, 1:02 pm

    Always good to find stories of other people sharing life’s ups and downs. I’m 27 and lost my Mom and Dad within a year of each other when I was 18. I just shut it away and did my best to survive with hardly any other family around to help me, basically there was just no way I could comprehend that loss at the time. It’s only now nearly 10 years later that I’m really beginning to feel the true feelings of this grief but because it’s so far in the past and I radically adapted my behaviour just to cope, it’s very hard for me to connect the way I feel now with my loss back then. It’s made the whole thing way more messy :(

    • Lorena December 9, 2013, 11:05 am

      I’m sorry for your loss, my heart goes out to you. Be compassionate with yourself. You did what you needed to do to be able to survive the loss of both parents at such a young age. Now you have the space and energy to be able to process it. It isn’t easy, but reaching out and sharing your story helps and I’m grateful for all those that have listened to my own. If you feel like sharing more of the details of your experience, I’d be honored to listen.


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