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What to do when you're overwhelmed: aka why you need to start practicing pratyahara

I never used to be the kind of person that would get anxious or overwhelmed. I used to be proud of that and think it was a skill especially when I was working as an ICU Registered Nurse and things were going sideways that day.

Turns out it was dissociation, aka a coping mechanism from trauma.

What can I say, hindsight’s a jerk sometimes.

Now, the truth is I get very anxious, not just my OCD anxiety disorder, but also just generalized anxiety. I think it’s kind of wild sometimes how creative my anxious brain can be, and how clear it can make the most awful, worst-case what-if scenarios feel so possible and so real.

It’s really easy for the anxious part of me to start drumming up feelings of overwhelm because I can convince myself that I’m not able to cope with whatever my anxious brain or perfectionism have built up. But anxiety is just a friend of mine now, welcome to stay here as long as they need. 

Overwhelm, though, that’s a red-flag warning sign for me that I’m heading down the road to burnout. 

overcoming overwhelm and anxiety

The steps to managing and preventing overwhelm

When we feel like everyone needs something from us, when we have so many responsibilities and projects on the go, and we’re feeling stretched really thin, it’s easy to to have little thing push us into overwhelm…like the sound of the furnace kicking in or the drone of cars driving by on a wet road…which are both reasons why I’m wearing earplugs right now as I’m writing this.

Of course there are a bunch of things that need to happen when I’m feeling overwhelmed to help me get my energy and focus back on track like:

  • check in with my goals to make sure that I actually want to be working towards what I’m aiming for. 
  • I also need to make sure that I only have ONE priority, and not a bunch because priority means first thing, and there can only be ONE first thing.
  • Reorganize my deadlines to make sure I’m not giving myself an inhuman amount of work to do in too little time

But the thing is, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m not exactly in the right frame of mind to start looking at everything objectively and sort it all out. I’m feeling drained, scattered, and often not even sure what to do next as I walk in circles around my kitchen.

Instead, I actually start with a little pratyahara practice.

overcoming overwhelm and anxiety

What is Pratyahara?

Pratyahara actually plays a significant role in recovering from and preventing burnout because it helps slow the energy drain that happens in this busy world of ours. 

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the 8 limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali. Usually pratyahara is described as the withdrawal of the senses, but that’s already feeling pretty abstract to me and also it’s not as simple as that (of course).

When you get right down to it, pratyahara is the practice that generates the ability to engage with our corner of the world intentionally. Not reactively, but intentionally. We’re able to notice what’s going on around us, without our external or internal reality driving the bus. It’s where we can allow our Inner Objective Observer to take the lead. 

The key here is that you still feel things. 

You’re not just dissociating and staying numb. You’re actually able to notice the emotional freight trains taking off, zipping away in the distance, while you’re left on the platform saying “Interesting, I’m going to address that later.” 

The practice of pratyahara, when you get right down to it, lays the groundwork for finding inner stillness in the outer chaos.

overcoming overwhelm and anxiety

How to practice pratyahara

Practicing pratyaraha isn’t quite as simple as going into one of those sensory deprivation float tanks (although you could).

Side note. I was absolutely terrified of going into one of those ages ago, but I made a promise with my mother in law that if she watched Jurassic World with us that I would try a float tank despite my claustrophobia. So I ended up giving one a try. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, not going to lie, and I’ve actually considered going back, oddly enough. Who knew?

Anyway, you can absolutely practice pratyahara in something as fancy as one of those float tanks. But it’s really easy to withdraw from the external stimuli without leaving the comfort of your home or spending a dime.

Gentle ways you could start practicing pratyahara to calm the sensory overload from external sources could look like:

  • choosing the notifications you get on phone or the ones that buzz through to your watch
  • being conscious of the kind of music you listen to while working, or maybe not listening to any music at all
  • not being on your phone while also watching a show on TV
  • being intentional about when you use social media and who you follow (because we often use social media as a distraction when we’re feeling very overwhelmed, but the very nature of social media continues to contribute to this overwhelm)
  • what you do while you’re eating or out for a walk (reading, listening to an audiobook or podcast, watching a show, doing work, or planning something out).
  • having a cup of tea or coffee and actually only doing that – not drinking it while you do something else

Or, you can take it to the next level and sit in a dark room with earplugs in and just… well… be.

The benefit to this is that you’ll remove a lot of the stimulation from your external reality which will help calm your nervous system and give your mind space to settle. The downside is that you’re now only left with your internal reality – and the mind can be quite noisy all on its own.

overcoming overwhelm and anxiety

Tips to quiet the mind (aka how to make your busy brain shut up, aka internal pratyahara)

The goal with this is to not quiet the mind or be able to sit in a space where everything is calm and nothing is happening around you. The truth is that’s just not possible.

Your mind is designed to think. It’s going to think. So expect it to think even in those quiet moments.

The idea here is that by practicing pratyahara, we’re withdrawing our Self from the vacillations of the mind and we’re just noticing them as our true Inner Objective Observer.

It’s like how we can tune out the radio or the TV when we’re focused on something else. We can essentially tune out our inner dialogue and let it move on by like leaves floating on a river.

Here are my favourite ways to do practice internal pratyahara:

  • taking regular reset breaks with my dog Takoda out on our patio in the afternoon sun to just sit, close my eyes, ignore the sounds of the city and just ‘be’.
  • going into a quieter room between speaking engagements, listening to rain sounds and closing my eyes to allow my mind to rest
  • silencing notifications on my phone and my watch for an hour while I go for a walk outside with earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones playing really soft, gentle, simple instrumental music
  • keeping my phone out of sight and out of reach during the times I’m dedicating to myself like my morning tea and reflective journaling time.
overcoming overwhelm and anxiety

Where to go from here

So whether you’re anxious like me, or you’re a high achiever like me, or you’re a perfectionist like me, or you’re an overcommitter like me, or you just feel overwhelmed and like you’re heading into burnout, the practice of withdrawing your senses for just a little while can make a huge difference.

You’re not trying to fix anything – you’re just trying to slow down your mind and calm your nervous system enough that you can take the next steps.

Take a moment to think about how your nervous system feels right now. Is it overwhelmed and frazzled? Or calm and regulated? Or somewhere in the beautiful in-between?

Regardless, I encourage you to try at least one of these strategies even for a few minutes just to see what a difference they make for you.


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