Tips for Dealing with Overwhelm in Feeling

Emily Downward Life Coaching - Overwhelm EmotionWhen you’re overwhelmed by feeling, such as grief, anger, sadness or frustration, it may seem like it will never end. We have a natural tendency to resist these feelings, to stuff them or avoid them, and we may turn to things like food or alcohol to avoid feeling them. As Carl Jung wisely pointed out, “What you resist persists.” Pushing those feelings away or stuffing them deep inside only makes them stick around all that much longer. So how can you deal with them?

1. Feel them – Emotions are energy in motion, and they will pass through you if you allow them to. Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor noticed this when she was recovering from her stroke and no longer had the option of avoiding emotions. She felt each one pass through her and noticed it went through her body in about 90 seconds. When I’m in overwhelm in feeling, it may take me longer to process emotions than 90 seconds, so I try to find time when I can allow myself to fully experience  what I’m feeling. And I like to remember Winston Churchill’s quote “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

2. Find ways to simplify – When I have experienced this kind of overwhelm, I have little to no ability to make decisions. Even the simplest decisions, like what to eat for lunch or what to wear, can seem overwhelming. To help myself create space to process my emotions, I simplify or eliminate the necessity of making small decisions. For example, I’ll make a large pot of butternut squash soup and eat it for lunches for the week, varying a side fruit or vegetable if I need variety.

3. Use music to soothe the soul – I am very moved by and affected by music, and I’ve found I can use it to help me get through overwhelming emotions. When I was going through a rough period of grief, I created a playlist I called “Recovery” that included songs that tapped into the sorrow as well as songs which spoke to empowerment. I also have certain songs I listen to (and sing loudly to) when I’m feeling intense anger or frustration.

4. Incorporate movement – As energy, emotions want to flow, and it can be helpful to incorporate action to help them move through your body. While some get significant release from running, others may find that the gentle movements of yoga or Tai Chi are more effective. Even taking a brief walk can help you to move stuck energy.

5. Give yourself loving kindness – The practice of loving kindness comes from the Buddhist tradition, and I love its simplicity and effectiveness. Loving kindness always begins with the self – sending yourself love, peace, wellness. From there it moves to those you love, and finally those you are in conflict with. One version of loving kindness is:

May I be safe. May I be well. May I be at peace.

May you be safe. May you be well. May you be at peace.

May we be safe. May we be well. May we be at peace

I learned a song version of this and recorded it to share with others: listen to the Metta Sutta.

If you’re currently in the throes of overwhelming emotion, I encourage you to treat yourself gently, and give yourself time to move through your feelings. The more you lean into it, the faster you get through it. And if you need help, consider scheduling a free 30-minute sample session with me for coaching.

Tips for Dealing with Overwhelm in Your Thinking

overwhelm, life coach, life coachingI work with a lot of people who are dealing with overwhelm, whether that’s at work — trying to manage incredible pressures and responsibilities, not to mention that never-ending Inbox — or in their personal life — when everything falls apart and you don’t know where to begin to put the pieces back together again.

Overwhelm is defined as being overcome completely in mind or in feeling. It’s a state I’ve had quite a bit of personal experience with, and through experience and my coach training, I’ve learned some great tools to help me and my clients move through it. This blog post will focus on overwhelm in the mind, and I’ll share in another blog post about overwhelm in feeling.

Overwhelm in the Mind

When you are experiencing overwhelm in mind, or in your thoughts, it seems like your thoughts are racing and constantly churning. It may be difficult to sleep, to shut off your brain. When I’m experiencing this, here’s what I do:

1. Make a list of all the things on my “to do’s” – Getting all the things I have to or want to do out of my head and onto a list helps clear my mind because I don’t have to spend time remembering them. I also get satisfaction and a sense of completion when I can cross things off my list.

2. Prioritize – Looking at my list of to-do’s, I choose not only those which are the highest priority, but also those that will give me the highest return. Consider a 2×2 matrix of importance and urgency, which I learned years ago (attributed both to former President Eisenhower and Stephen Covey):

Prioritization Matrix - Importance and Urgency

Obviously, the top right, those items which are high in importance and high in urgency are critical. But we tend to choose based on urgency, and often spend our precious resources (time and energy) in that bottom right corner (low importance, high urgency), when it would be better served in the top left (high importance, low urgency).

3. Meditate – It may seem like a waste of time to meditate when you already have lots to do, but I have found if I can take 15-30 minutes to meditate and still the racing thoughts, I end up with so much more clarity and focus that I’m much more productive afterwards.

4. Breathe – I know, it’s an automatic thing that you don’t have to think about, but when you’re in a state of overwhelm, you’re more likely than not going to be breathing very shallowly. The easiest and quickest way to get a little more peace into your body is to take three deep breaths. Relax your belly and breathe deeply and evenly. Do it three times, and your body gets the signal that you’re not in immediate danger. It shifts the chemicals in your body and mind and allows you to then access more of your creative brain.

If you’re experiencing overwhelm in your thoughts, I invite you to try these tips for a quick fix. And if your overwhelm has become a persistent habit that you’d like help shifting, consider scheduling a free 30-minute sample session with me for coaching.

Choosing Your Focus

Emily_Downward_Coaching-Fisherman in Seattle

This man is not bothered by the gray sky melding into the gray sea at all.

When I told people I was moving to Seattle, several of them said, “You’ll hate it there! It rains all the time, and it’s so GRAY.”

I would just smile and reply, “It’s not for everyone.”

And while it does rain quite a bit in Seattle (especially this time of year), and the sky can be a dreary shade of gray, there’s also something more.


Emily_Downward_Coaching-pic of Seattle mossThere is so much green here, from the green grass to the bright-almost-neon green of the mosses, the blue-green of the blue spruce, the Kelly green of the ferns, and the deeper shade of green in the Western Hemlocks. (Not to mention all the blue and green around town in support of the Seattle Seahawks.) When I walk through the forest, I’m awestruck by the lushness and the beauty, the evidence of life in everything around me.

Yes, Seattle is often gray. And, Seattle is very green. I think it’s a perfect example of the power of our ability to focus.

Emily_Downward_Coaching-pic of Seattle forestOur brains naturally look for the negative – being on the lookout for danger is a survival instinct we’re hardwired for. However, we can shift our perspective by consciously putting our attention on the positive. And what we give our attention and focus to grows. Are you focusing on what’s wrong? Or on what’s right? Which do you want more of?

Seattle also has several large bodies of water. There’s the Puget Sound, the Salish Sea, Lake Union, and Lake Washington. And when the sky is gray, the water reflects the gray. But when the sky is blue, the water becomes a beautiful shade of blue. Sometimes, we are like this. We unconsciously reflect back what we experience around us in the world. When people around us in the workplace or in traffic are stressed and angry, it’s easy to get angry and short with them as well.

But there’s another option. You can choose to be like the green growing things that are found throughout Seattle. Choose how you want to show up, no matter what the weather is like around you.Emily_Downward_Coaching-pic of fractals in plant

An Intentional New Year

Rather than New Year’s resolutions, I now prefer to set intentions. To be honest, resolutions only kept me toeing the line for a few weeks, or possibly a month or two at best. Intentions feel much kinder to me. I like the concept of intentions so much, I set intentions at the start of any new program or course, and even at the beginning of each day.

How do you want to Be in 2015?

Intention is defined as an aim or plan. I like that concept, since resolutions tend to get “should-y” and make me feel guilty for not being good enough. (I now believe this is a fallacy – we are each worthy just because we are. The “not good enough” refrain that all our brains churn out is a dirty lie that keeps us unhappy.) Intention is more about how you want to BE and less about what you DO or accomplish.


As you approach 2015, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What worked in 2014?
  • What didn’t work in 2014?
  • What predominant emotion would I like to FEEL in 2015?
  • What are my intentions for 2015?

My brain so easily goes to the negative that I must consciously redirect it to the positive, such as with the question “what worked?” Finding what worked is also a great way to leverage your successes for other areas. By determining how you work best, you can recreate the pattern, such as capitalizing on the time of day you work best or what personal rewards are most motivating for you.

And it’s still helpful to look at what didn’t work, to determine where you want to make course corrections. When I think of what didn’t work this past year, I think about the times when I fought against reality (always a losing proposition), when I was reluctant to surrender an idea of how things “should be,” and when I spent energy and time worrying about things that [thankfully] didn’t occur. So I intend to do less of that, and more of putting my energy and focus on more positive and productive ways of being.

So often we get caught up in the concept of being reactive, thinking that external forces are the primary driver of our feelings. However, the truth is we actually have much more influence over our feelings with the thoughts we choose to focus on. I find that by identifying how I want to feel, I can then notice more clearly when I’m not feeling that and consciously reach for my desired feeling state.

For much of 2014, I have focused on the pursuit of peace. I know I have made significant progress in this area since I feel much more peace on a regular basis, and I have recently had several people spontaneously comment on how much peace I’m radiating. I want to continue to feel peace in 2015, and I’m also going to add an intention for joy.

Wishing you all a very joyful and prosperous New Year!

How to Play Big in Life

The world is waiting for you to show up.Throughout my childhood, my family moved around a lot, due to my father’s career in the airline industry and his progress up the corporate ladder. Being the new girl in classes and social groups became familiar, if not comfortable. I learned to listen a lot before I spoke, to sense the dynamics of the crowd before declaring my opinion.

We are social creatures, conditioned to compromise to be a part of the group. There was a time when belonging was absolutely necessary for survival, and sometimes, it feels like it still is. But compromising too much of one’s self becomes painful over time. To me, it feels like selling my soul to pretend to be something I’m not, or to deny a part of me that yearns for expression. I can do it for a while, but over time, the discrepancy between who I AM and what I’m pretending to be causes friction and pain inside, until I can no longer stand to be anything than other than what and who I am.

It’s like trying to squeeze into a blazer that no longer fits. You feel the constriction, limiting your movements and causing discomfort and possibly pain. For a while, you try breathing more shallowly, and you don’t raise your arms. You roll your shoulders forward in a hunched position as you try to make your physical self fit into this too small container.

But a part of you is waiting for the hour when you take that blasted blazer off and stretch your shoulders and reach your arms to the sky. You inhale deeply and let it out with a sigh. AH!

Six years ago, I was working in NYC as a senior vice president for a PR firm. I was consistently asked to play bigger, to make bold statements and predictions, to create point-of-view documents on major trends in digital health. I did it, to some extent, but it was very uncomfortable for me. Not just the uncomfortable-ness that comes from growing and becoming more, I also realized it was increasingly uncomfortable because this wasn’t the right place for me to become bigger. I didn’t want to be a leading authority in that arena. It wasn’t me. And the more I listened to that inner yearning to be and do something different, the more obvious it was to me that it was time to chart a new course.

You are not meant to squeeze yourself into clothes, jobs, or relationships that don’t fit. If the only way it fits is to make your self smaller, it may be time to upgrade.

What does it mean to Play Big?

I’ve been playing with what this means in my life, and here’s what I know so far:

Open the Door to the Possibilities. When I have a thought of “ooh, I’d love that,” my inner critic’s immediate response is something like “Yeah right! Who do you think you are? You’re not as [good, accomplished, talented, intelligent, sophisticated, lucky, rich, thin, healthy, beautiful] as that person. You’re better off just doing what you know works, what you’ve done before.” My inner critic believes I’ll only be disappointed if I go after something big, so I’m better off playing it safe and staying small. However, you never win the lottery if you don’t play, right? And while I’m not suggesting you all go out and buy lottery tickets, I invite you to tell your inner critic to eat a peanut butter cracker. Consider for a moment that it COULD be possible. The evidence that others have done it, even though they come from different backgrounds and choices, is proof that it CAN be done. And to all the negative “what if’s,” offer up some positive ones. What if it could happen? What if it does?

Believe in Yourself. Occasionally, I can get stuck in listing for myself, internally or in writing, all the things I need to change and improve. (I should exercise more, meditate more, eat even more greens, etc.) I can get so focused on all the things I’m not doing that I lose sight of all the things I’m doing well. Remembering that I can and have accomplished many great things helps me to believe in myself, that I can do and accomplish even more. And the fact is, every one of us is a survivor. If you’re reading this, there’s not been a single day when you haven’t risen to the challenge and gotten through it alive. Shift your negative self-talk for some positive reinforcement by chronicling for yourself all the things you’ve achieved.

Claim it and Live it. First, start by allowing yourself to have those big dreams. Write them down, in a journal or on a post-it note at your desk. Words carry energy, so choose them carefully. Rather than saying “I want to travel the world,” try “I will travel the world.” Feel the difference? The first one comes from a place of lack, while the second one makes a declaration. After you write down your dreams, start taking small steps towards them. For example, if your dream is to travel, you might begin looking at all the ways you can garner frequent flyer miles through the purchases and activities you make. Consider how a world-traveler thinks and acts and how you can incorporate that into your life now.

Every small shift gets you closer to the new, bigger you. And the world is waiting for you to show up. I believe the Universe can dream bigger dreams for us than we can ever dream for ourselves. But we have to get out of the way and allow them to come into our lives. Open yourself to allowing by seeing the possibilities, believing in yourself, claiming it and taking steps to live it now.

My Journey to Become a Master Coach

I recently finished my masters program and received certification as a Martha Beck Master Life Coach. To me, this is the culmination of a dream, and at the same time, the process and achievement were completely different than what I had imagined.

Many people have asked me what the Master Coach certification means. On paper, it means I have been completed the rigorous training, which included honing and strengthening my coaching skills and finishing several real-world assignments, such as public speaking, product development, writing assignments, and retreat planning. I submitted several actual coaching calls and received feedback from my instructors and colleagues, as well as reviewing others’ calls to provide feedback. I gained more confidence in my abilities and skills as a coach, and I became more certain in my purpose and next steps for my practice. We coached each other regularly, and the more willing I was to dive deep into my personal issues and challenges, the more I got out of it. But it wasn’t easy.

On the spiritual path, you must be continually willing to let go of who you are to become who you are meant to be.I recently heard “those on the spiritual path must be continually willing to let go,” and I believe this is true. It’s not letting go of material things or relationships, although that sometimes happens in the process. It’s more about letting go of the way you thought things were, letting go of the way YOU are, in order to become who you are meant to be.

For me, the tension reached its peak mid-way through the training. Through a series of events, I became so frustrated and fed-up that I nearly quit the program. I did a lot of self-coaching and got coached by some dear friends, and I realized that the certification truly didn’t matter to me anymore – because I already felt like a Master. I knew at a deep level that I was at the master level, and whether someone else could see that or not truly didn’t make a difference. In fact, I realized that just like in some of my past intimate relationships, if the other person didn’t see my value and respect me, why would I want to stay in that kind of relationship? At the time, I could only see two options: leave the program, or pretend to be something I’m not and stay (and my tolerance for being something I’m not has dwindled to dust). However, I know that this binary way of thinking is evidence that I’m missing something, so I reached out and asked if anyone could see another option. Working through this with one of my instructors, she suggested rather than the issue itself, the whole process I was in the midst of could be about breaking my patterns of behavior. It was a strange revelatory experience. Could that be it? I agreed to stay, for the moment, and see how things played out. But in my mind, I had one foot out the door and was ready to jump if that felt better to me.

While I was in this I-can-stay-or-I-can-go mode and having the inner acknowledgement of being a master, something shifted. I no longer got quite as caught up in the stress of the assignments, even the big ones that were challenging. I was able to stay in a state of peace with more frequency, knowing that I already had in myself the feeling of mastery – having already given myself that, I knew that acknowledgement meant more than anything anyone else could say.

I’ve heard before that there’s nothing anyone can give you to make up for what you aren’t willing to give to yourself, but now I’ve learned it on a visceral level.

And while all my issues and self-defeating patterns haven’t been eradicated through this experience, I’m more aware of the patterns my mind plays and having been through this process, I know I can break the ones that don’t serve me. I’m proud of my accomplishments, both of the external assignments I completed and more importantly, of the inner work I’ve done. And I’m more certain and excited than ever to share what I’ve learned with others, through coaching, speaking and writing.


Getting Past Stuck

I talk to a lot of clients who tell me they feel stuck.

I know that place. It’s not one of my favorites. When I’ve been mired in it, I feel a sense of powerlessness, like I can’t do anything to change my circumstances.

Fortunately, this is completely untrue.

You can ALWAYS do something – even if you can’t take action, you can always change your thoughts.

I used to think it was all a bunch of nonsense. Choose your thoughts? I was so wrapped up in my mind and so very attached to my thoughts that I couldn’t see I was separate from them.

One of my favorite stories I share with my clients is when I first heard my mentor Martha Beck say in our coach training, “Any thought that causes you pain probably isn’t true.” My immediate thought was, “That sounds like bullsh*t.” Yes, I was a skeptic, and I wasn’t easily convinced otherwise. But I decided to just play along with what she was saying and tried out the tools we coaches call “thoughtwork.”

There is such freedom in the knowing that you are more than your thoughts. And when you choose which thoughts you focus on, your brain becomes a powerful tool to help you achieve your goals.Turns out, she’s right. I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong before, because I found SO much freedom in recognizing that I am not my thoughts. And once I could see that, I could see that I had a choice in which thoughts I wanted to focus on, to feed with evidence and strengthen.

If you’re feeling stuck – and I would say it may be more accurate to say you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed or unhappy – you may be thinking the thought “I’m stuck.” (It could also be more complex, like “I’m stuck and this SUCKS!” but you get the idea.)

When you think a thought, your brain looks for evidence to prove the thought correct. So basically your brain goes on a recognizance mission with the sole purpose of finding proof for this thought. The more evidence you find, the stronger the thought becomes. It’s as if your brain sees evidence and says, “See? I was right!” and it keeps on looking for more.

Unfortunately, this can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say “I’m stuck,” your brain only looks for evidence that you are, in fact, stuck. So it ignores evidence of say, new opportunities. New ideas. Helpful friends.

If you can shift the thought even a wee bit – say, to something like “I used to be stuck, but now I’m open to new opportunities.” – your brain suddenly has a fresh mission: New Opportunities.

Your brain can be a powerful tool to help you – once you get it focused in the direction you want to go.

If you can’t see what thoughts you have that are holding you back, don’t worry. We all have that blindness sometimes. That’s why it can be so helpful to work with a coach. I still get so mired in my own thoughts sometimes that I need an objective and compassionate outsider to help me sort it out. And afterwards, I have so much more freedom and am more open to the possibilities, rather than just the limitations.