Feelings Rookie: Overwhelmed By Everything

feature image via shutterstock

Hello, fellow rookies!

It’s time again to delve into the deep dark, into the pure light, into the oh-my-goodness-it’s-so-cool-my-heart-may-explode-where-I-stand. Yes, it’s time to get back into understanding feelings, and if that last sentence didn’t already give it away, today I’m going to talk about the emotions that overwhelm our bandwidth, no matter how good or bad they are.

Which brings me to the best term I’ve learned so far in therapy: Zones of Arousal!

Me too, Olivia. Me too. Via 66.media.tumblr.com

Me too, Olivia. Me too.
Via 66.media.tumblr.com

My therapist knows I don’t love therapy. She also knows I don’t love feelings or soft cheeses, but is only concerned about one of those (brie it on, I’ll fight you about it). It’s not uncommon for her to make a suggestion or bring up a theory with the disclaimer, “Look, I know how you feel about these things but…” when she’s about to drop some serious, most-likely-based-on-good-research-but-will-probably-offend-my-precious-sensibilities-because-it-will-likely-mean-I-have-to-make-effort knowledge on me.

‘Zones of Arousal’ was one of these moments, but I warmed to it because the name made me immediately think of erogenous zones. Which is sort the same thing, but these zones are more like emotional erogenous zones.

Technically it means you’ve got big, Capital-F Feelings on the horizon — any kind of feelings, as long as they’re taking up significant space — and they’re affecting your physical presence. This means sexual arousal would probably count, so for the ease of it, I’m going to conflate the two (sorry, therapist).

Let’s think of it as stimulating the ultimate emotional erogenous zone: for a certain amount of time and pressure, it’s like, “Yes, hello, good evening, I am here for this, thanks for clipping your nails beforehand.” It’s a manageable amount of emotion, and you’re able to think and feel at the same time while also feeling safe in your space, and stable enough to experience empathy without it overwhelming you.

But everyone’s bandwidth is different, and too much for too long can become painful, moving past the this-is-great phase and into the wow-this-is-terrible phase.

When we’re emotionally comfortable, it’s called the “optimal arousal zone” or, my other new favorite term, the Window of Tolerance. This is about what we as individuals can tolerate comfortably before we’re pushed into emotional discomfort. We strive to exist within this Window of Tolerance at all times, but that’s impossible because we’re human beings and rarely fit in any sort of box until we’re dead and literally lying in one.

On one side I like the think of as the Numb-Numbs, the hypoarousal zone — too little arousal — you feel flat, unfeeling, unable to care much about anything. It’s like you can’t think, like you’ve got this lion stalking you but you can’t muster the energy to look for it or run from it, and what would it matter, you probably deserve to get eaten alive anyway, just as long as it doesn’t require work on your end. In terms of the emotional erogenous zone, this is the, “Not tonight, I don’t even remember what love feels like,” zone.

On the other side, there’s the hyperarousal zone, aka when your sympathetic nervous system has taken a double shot of espresso and wants to yell at you about it. You get shaky and defensive; your thoughts race; there’s impulsivity, there’s anger, and you feel unsafe, even if that lion is actually just a kitten lounging in a sunbeam. For the emotionally erogenous, it’s the “Yeah OK let’s do this it might fix my problems but who knows WHOA HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT DID YOU SEE THAT, WE GOTTA MOVE THIS PARTY,” zone.

This is only way this metaphor could end. Via

This is only way this metaphor could end.
Via gif-king.com

That ideal window lives between the two, and in people who have compressed and compartmentalized their feelings — people like me! — the window of tolerance that lays between what we can and cannot comfortably tolerate is smaller.

This doesn’t just mean the negative big feelings like sadness or loneliness are the only ones to overwhelm me when they push beyond my window frames. Full-on happiness, excitement, joy — those will push me beyond the point of comfort, too. It doesn’t matter which feeling it is; once it grows from, say, half frequency to full frequency, my nervous system feels attacked and fight-or-flight kicks in.

Fear of these big emotions keeps me away from things I love, and I know it. I will actively avoid something amazing, something that might change my life — I still haven’t seen Carol, for example — because I know it will make me feel, and it will make me feel too much.


Via 1.bp.blogspot.com

That feeling of “too much” is familiar to anyone who’s tried drinking from a fire hose, or gone shopping for clothes with my mom. It’s universal, but I never knew it had a name.

And when we can name something we’ve felt lurking, but found ourselves powerless to identify its origins, it stops being this rootless, unmoored anxiety floating around and becomes an idea, and actionable.

So, how actionable are we talking here?

To get back into your preferred Window of Tolerance, the hello-good-evening zone, the plan is to be very present in your situation (mindfulness), then breathe regularly. That might not seem like much, but it’s the building blocks.

Laura Kerr, PhD, who is not my therapist but has amazing materials on her website for this issue, offers some ideas here:

Check out laurakkerr.com

Check out laurakkerr.com

I’ve tried these exercises, and after I’ve gotten over the initial feeling of “This is stupid and your mom is stupid” and actually do it with intention — you have to give it genuine effort, which sucks but pays off — I do calm down and feel better.

The goal now is to start pushing the boundaries on my window frame, to allow slightly outsized feelings to stretch and make the frame groan a bit, little by little, until my default is bigger than my maximum now.

No matter the size of your frame, it’s yours, and that makes it OK. If you aren’t in a safe or solid place emotionally, it’s OK to not push those frames just yet. Explore ways to extend yourself, but always safely. It’s your window, don’t let anyone else tell you how to run it if it means putting you at risk.

But that also means should you so choose and are in a place to do so, it’s yours to modify and deconstruct, to paint or expand however you choose. It’s work. It’s difficult. It makes me cry a lot out of sheer frustration for hating how big those emotions actually feel.

But I’m feeling them. As awful as it is now, I’m laying the groundwork for a stronger, wider foundation, for what I hope becomes a whole damn House of Tolerance, where we can throw a big party and you can visit me any time you like.

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Molly Priddy

Molly Priddy is a writer and editor in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @mollypriddy

Molly has written 50 articles for us.


  1. I was just thinking about this series yesterday and I am so pumped to see part 2!

    Do you have any advice for getting out of the “This is stupid and your mom is stupid” phase of mindfulness? Because I’ve been aware of mindfulness as a concept for some years now and I can’t seem to convince myself that things like that will actually work. I tend to either (a) be sarcastic at my feelings and resent them for existing or (b) wallow in the anxiety instead.

    • Hey! Yes, how did you know this is also my preferred way of dealing with feelings?? I was aware of mindfulness for a while until I actually started using it; for some reason, I felt too cool for school on that one, like I couldn’t make myself do something so sincere. But that left me in a wallow-anxiety pit, which is about as comfortable as a used-syringe pit.

      I can only tell you what worked on me, and it was making myself just do it, just try it, just to see. Because the only person whose opinion matters on whether or not you seem like a gomer for trying this is yours. So give yourself a break! It’s OK to do.

      • I will do my best to take your word for it! Easier said than done, etc., but I’m working on being less sarcastic at myself in general so hopefully I can scooch that in under the same umbrella.

    • This might not help you at all, and it might not be phrased terribly clearly but here goes! I personally think mindfulness is massively over-rated, and just the new ‘in thing’ ( yes, it’s been knocking around for a while but is really being hyped up of late)..obviously it’s your choice whether you try it or not though, and also you can be ‘mindful’ in many ways, without consciously calling it that.. I love photography, and i’m VERY conscious of EVERYTHING when I have the camera in my hands, but also conscious of nothing at the same time? Like, the wind and the light and everything that makes the shot what it is, you can’t control those things but you snatch moments out of it.. so if there’s something you really love to do, whatever it is, maybe you already have that consciousness then?

      • That sounds a little like the idea of flow! I definitely have some hobbies that evoke flow–writing, translating, drawing iff the picture’s going well–but that can be a way to avoid feelings rather than dealing with them, yaknow? At least for me. So. I have to be careful with that.

        • Same here! I have some activities that put me in that flow state as well, but I find that when I do them regularly (rather than just when I’m trying to avoid the feelings), I just feel more emotionally stable overall. But sometimes it’s useful as a temporary measure, to step away from the feelings for long enough that I can come back and tackle them and figure out what exactly I want to say or do in a certain situation.

  2. I love this. Just all of it. But especially that lion/cat/giraffe gif. And the phrase ‘Window of Tolerance’. And your relatable approach to therapy. So yeah, just all of it really.

  3. <3 Window of tolerance is such a great term! this is all soo good!
    I forget that going from no feeling to all the feelings without much in between isn't ideal… like that's just normal for me but its not good. I need to find that window of tolerance more.

  4. I’m going to cry. This is everything I’ve been thinking about lately but with actual words. I knew being overwhelmed by any emotion, positive or negative, sometimes makes me feel “icky”, but now I totally get it – I don’t feel safe, it’s fight-or-flight time. But I think having these words is going to help me respond better to stuff. Thank you xxxxx

  5. “when we can name something we’ve felt lurking, but found ourselves powerless to identify its origins, it stops being this rootless, unmoored anxiety floating around and becomes an idea, and actionable.”

    Helllloooo the last two years of my life. Just as an example, I realized that the uncomfortable experiences I’d had on occasion for twenty years and didn’t know how to talk about had a name – panic attacks! Those are things you can talk to someone about and treat in different ways. Identifying a pattern of experiences and behavior with a name made it actionable as you said and much easier to evaluate. Like, “I have panic attacks sometimes, this is a thing I can address;” rather than “I have no idea what this is when my stress level spikes and it feels like my brain won’t process anything.”

  6. As someone who often feels so deeply, to the point of being completely overwhelmed and paralyzed by them, this was so incredibly helpful and insightful. Its really comforting to know I’m not alone in this experience and that there are tools to shape it how I want.

  7. Well, this couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Thank you, Molly.

    Also, I imagine our mothers are rather similar re: “That feeling of “too much” is familiar to anyone who’s tried drinking from a fire hose, or gone shopping for clothes with my mom. ”

    If I had a dollar for every time I had a “nope, i’m done here” scenario that unfolded from shopping with mom.. I would have a lot of dollars.

    • My mum is like that too, although its just as well, since thanks to her i get to have a couple of ‘presentable’ clothes, cos i just dont shop at all, and would just continue to wear the few rags i own.

  8. Oh so maybe that’s what’s happening when I get really low in the evenings after I’ve had a really nice day… whoa. Never thought about it like that before.

    Thanks for explaining :) and I also have a too-cool-for-school block on the mindfulness thing but I’m trying other ways, like drawing very simple and repetitive things, which someone else mentioned about photography. I think it’s really nice if you don’t want to go full-on “listen to your breathing” but need some focussed quiet time. I like decorating notebooks with loads of tiny bubbles, for example, or any other way of just filling space on a page by doing the same motion lots of times.

    I really like this column and am looking forward to the next ones ^_^

  9. Really enjoyed this article and the conversation in the comments. I’m a serial compartmentalizer. I’m so good at pushing everything that doesn’t fit through my “Window of Tolerance” out, and I feel like our modern, information-rich society makes that ever-easier, because there’s always something you can turn to for a distraction. But now that I’m in my middle age I find myself curious about these experiences I’ve shied away from, yet unable to easily bridge the gap. How do you emotion? A lot of it right now is coming down to taking the time to actually observe how I interact with my world, which I think falls under the heading of being mindful or present. But as you write, this can be scary for the very-compartmentalized, so it’s good to be reminded that we can retreat back into our window through techniques such as this. So: thank you.

    • Yes–how do you emotion is something i wonder too, but not positively. Really all I feel is anxiety about so many things, and rage. Soooo…emotions aren’t fun in my experience.

      • I plan on tackling rage and anger soon, because those seem the be the feelings most of us are the most comfortable wielding. But that usually ends up leaving me feeling weird, too.

  10. Thanks for the suggestions about mindfulness because when things are TOO MUCH I usually start dissociating. Which is anywhere from “mildly inconvenient” to “holy shit this is dangerous” depending on the circumstances (driving a car while dissociated: holy shit this is dangerous -10/10 do not recommend).

  11. Have you heard of Highly Sensitive People (HSP)? I realized earlier this year that I am one and it has totally changed my life, and helped me realize a lot of what you’ve identified here. It’s seriously been super helpful to understanding my own levels of tolerance to stimulation. Check out the term and the literature on it–it might be relevant to you as well :)

  12. It took me a long time to actually practice mindfulness after learning about it because of that “this is stupid and your mom is stupid” attitude lol. I remember thinking that it was too simple to work? But I’m just now realizing that I have a problem remembering to practice mindfulness, like I don’t even remember that it fucking exists, when I’m feeling more on the not-present-because-I’m-numb-and-disassociating side rather than the not-present-because-I’m-consumed-by-anxiety-and-feelings side! Oh boy! Constantly working at it is so worth it though. Feeling validated and grounded after reading this. Thanks again, Molly! ♥

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