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By Cristina Stanger, Self-Advocacy Liaison, WRFN
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter September 2020*
During the COVID-19 shutdown, day-to-day tasks, like a trip to the grocery store, became very complex very quickly. As Ontario moved into stage 3 of reopening, we started to reintroduce aspects of our lives that we had abruptly cut out in March of this year. Many things now operate in new and different ways. So for myself, as an exceptional adult, I found going back out into the world, has been much more overwhelming than the shutdown itself.
I expect individuals without exceptionality will also share in this sense of ramped up intensity to daily life. While we are all staying at home as much as possible, our lives have become quieter, and as a result, we have now been resensitized to hustle and bustle. Traffic, noise pollution, excess visual stimuli might catch you by surprise. Your ability to plan and organize may feel more taxed than before because you are out of practice. Whether overwhelm is a new sensation for you, or you are familiar with it already, it is important to identify it in order to find ways to cope.
Here are some of the ways I experience overwhelm when I put myself out into the big wide world. Perhaps you will recognize some that you can relate to, or maybe you have other experiences of your own? This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Possible symptoms of overwhelm:
Decision fatigue: This involves feeling overwhelmed by choice, even small decisions seem hard, and I experience a self-generated pressure to make the “right choice” (even when there is no right or wrong outcome).
More intense social interactions: Since I am out of practice everything feels more awkward and forced, and I second guess everything I say and do.
Emotional confusion: At times it can be hard to know what I am feeling, especially if something unexpected happens. As a result, it can be hard to know what I need to get through a situation.
Generalized anxiety: Thoughts of worry infiltrate my mind, and I start to question things that I had previously been sure of.
Here are some of the techniques I use to help manage my own sense of overwhelm. As always, you know yourself and your family members best, so this is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
Possible coping strategies:
Build up slowly: I find I need to make a conscious effort to reintroduce only one or two new things to my life at a time, and then give myself a period of time to adjust. This approach is certainly slower, but reduces the chance of overwhelm and increases my odds of successful experiences.
Anticipate that things may not go as planned: I actively remind myself before I leave home, that what actually plays out may be different from what I am expecting. This makes the unanticipated changes a little less jaring.
It is okay to step back and try again later: If I find an experience is too overwhelming to handle, I give myself permission to remove myself. With the information I gain from a first attempt, I can come back later better prepared.
Schedule downtime: Contrary to what my conscience tells me, downtime is not a guilty pleasure. This time is necessary inorder to preserve my mental and physical health. By specifically planning this time, I feel less guilty and I give myself the opportunity to recover from overwhelm.
Be mindful of self-care (eating habits, sleeping, etc.): Cognitively, I know that self-care is important, but it is easy to neglect these things when overwhelmed. However, if I work to prioritize activities of self-care, the more resilient I become during potentially overwhelming experiences in the future.
Reflect on my experiences: When I find myself overwhelmed unexpectedly, I often write down notes about what happened leading up to that incident. This helps me reflect on what I might do differently next time, or identify triggers that I may try to avoid going forward. Sometimes I need a professional to guide me through this process.
We are all trying to find our way in the world amidst rapid societal change. Let us be kind to one another as we move forward, as everyone will respond and adapt differently; and especially, let us be kind to ourselves.