The Opportunity In Overwhelm

Recovery can be liberating and freeing. It can be beautiful and joyful. It can also be painful and scary, frustrating and depressing.

In the times of beauty and joy, you feel strong and able. Things feel do-able, goals feel achievable. But, when you feel frightened or hurt, the vision for a brighter future goes out the window and becomes a distant dream that feels like it will never materialize.

In my own recovery journey, I’ve experienced many periods of cycling through the good and bad, alternating between seeing myself as both a power woman and a powerless, incapable victim.

It’s been frustrating. I knew I had the ability to be the powerful, healthy, confident woman I wanted to be. Why? Because sometimes I actually was, and was able to behave in ways that aligned with that image of myself. But, I wondered, why did I always keep falling back into the role of helpless victim?

It was like I thought that the power woman side of me ought to have the strength and ability to prevent herself from falling at all. Yet, inevitably, she always did. And, when she did fall, the backlash was harsh. There was no acceptance, no tolerance for the slip. She was chastised, scolded, humiliated.

As my understanding of the brain and how it works evolved, so did my self respect and my ability to handle difficult situations. No longer were they embarrassing setbacks, but difficulties became opportunities for growth.

You see, every second we receive millions of bits of information through our senses – our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. This is how we perceive our environment around us.

Our brain then receives all of this information and goes to work sorting it into the basic categories of dangerous, important, pleasurable, and interesting.

But, our brain can only process a small handful of information at a time so, when we get overloaded with new stuff, the brain freaks out and gets overwhelmed. And, when it gets overwhelmed, what does it do?

Well, for me, it shuts down. The world gets dark. The air gets heavy. I fall back into old behaviors that I know are guaranteed to soothe the overwhelm I feel, even if they’re behaviors that aren’t necessarily all that helpful in the long run. I do the best I can with what I have in the moment.

Understanding this has helped me look at myself with a new level of acceptance and self-respect.

I see slips in behavior now as a sign that I’m overloaded with new stuff. I acknowledge and accept the circumstances as they are. I am also confident that I haven’t failed and recognize the moment as an opportunity to learn and grow. The darkness I find myself in is not because I have no willpower or lack the desire to do better, but because I’m in a situation that is new and there is too much for me to sort at one time.

And, unfortunately, this is where you begin in recovery – being overloaded with new and different thoughts, actions and emotions, learning and practicing things that are new and that feel foreign. It’s like a huge backhoe dumps a billion new strategies and behaviors at your doorstep and says, “Here. Figure it out!”

When this happens, if we look at being overwhelmed as a sign of personal inadequacy, it prevents us from taking the necessary measures to move forward. If, however, we can look at being overwhelmed as simply a signal of mental and emotional overload, and remember that we have the ability to work through it all even though it might take some more time, then we’re better able to take more effective steps towards working through the overwhelm and moving forward.

Our inherent nature is not one of weakness and inability but one of power and ability. If we can carry this knowledge with us into the inevitable seasons of overwhelm that recovery will throw at us, and remind ourselves that we always have the ability to learn and grow, we can then use that knowledge to navigate our way through the challenges of recovery.

When things start to speed up and you can’t keep up, slow down! You’re not incapable, you’re simply overwhelmed. Be patient with yourself!

If you would like to read more about my journey through eating disorder treatment and recovery, please download a free copy of my e-book, available here.

And, if you have any questions or comments, you can always send me an email at

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