This article is about two healthy tools for overwhelm. I have written other articles describing a variety of tools to help people cope with stress. However, this article will focus on what to do in that moment when rational thinking has gone out of the window and emotion feels intense.  When everything feels impossible.

Overwhelm and the Acute Stress Reaction

Stress and overwhelm trigger the Acute Stress Reaction, also known as the fright, fight, flight response. This incredible response is an evolutionary adaptation to life-threatening situations which is designed to save our life. It involves the primitive part of our brain and leads to activation of systems which provide us with increased energy, strength, speed and alertness. Those systems which are not needed in this acute situation are suppressed, saving energy for those that are essential.

Overwhelm and the primitive brain

When we feel overwhelmed, our primitive brain kicks in and triggers acute stress reaction changes. These include increases in our heartrate, breathing rate, muscle tone and the sensitivity of our senses as well as the release of cortisol. At the same time, the systems which are suppressed include our higher functioning. Our ability to think rationally, to make wise decisions, to remember things and to control our emotions becomes diminished. As a result, we become increasingly irrational and emotional. We feel we can’t cope and we make bad decisions. Without tools to help us regain our rational thinking and emotional control, we can slide into a crisis situation.

Two useful tools

I am going to focus on two important techniques which can help us feel less overwhelmed and more rational about our situation: Breathing and the 54321 mindful tool.


When we feel overwhelmed and very stressed, our breathing tends to become faster and shallower. We need to slow it down. 6-8 breathing is all about breathing out more slowly than breathing in. Breathe in through our nose for the count of six. Then out (ideally through our nose) for the count of 8, and repeat. Once we can do this, it helps to try to incorporate Diaphragmatic Breathing. Diaphragmatic Breathing is all about breathing to the bottom of our lungs, pushing our diaphragm down, making our belly stick out. Movement of the diaphragm actually reduces our heartrate and blood pressure. It helps us to feel calmer. The best way to learn this technique is to lie down. Put your hand over your belly, just below your breastbone. Imagine a balloon under your hand which inflates as you breathe in and deflates as you breathe out. Practise until you can feel the movement there. Once you can do the Diaphragmatic Breathing, combine it with 6-8.

54321 Mindful tool

This tool is all about feasting our senses and getting our rational brain back into action. Tell yourself (out loud or in your head): 5 things you can see, 4 that you can touch/feel, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste. The first three are the most important. Doing this exercise will help your thinking brain re-focus and restore a more rational perspective.

Putting these tools into practice

If you feel your emotions rising, you can’t think, you feel angry or upset or panicky, think BREATHING and 54321 in whichever order works best for you. These tools will help you think more rationally and feel more in control of your thinking and your emotions.

If you are struggling with stress and think you could benefit from some help, do drop me a line or arrange a call.