Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

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How to deal with overwhelm

While writing Christmas cards, I’ve struggled to find a way to sum up my year. The only word I could find that came anywhere near embracing the emotions was “overwhelming”. Yet overall I’m not overwhelmed. I’ve certainly felt overwhelmed on occasion but here I am, still standing. Not complacent, I hasten to add, but standing. I can’t echo Elton John and suggest that I’m standing “better than I ever did” but I seem to have come through.

Someone who didn’t know me asked me the other day, “So, overall was 2019 a good or bad one for you?” There is no answer. It was neither. It contained the extremes of both but they don’t balance each other out at all.

In the 12 and a half month period up to now, my older daughter was married, my younger (middle) sister, Jo, was diagnosed with multiple cancers and a too-short terminal prognosis, my younger daughter got engaged, my older daughter became pregnant, my sister died, and my older daughter had her baby six weeks prematurely. That last event was just under three weeks ago and since then has been full of joy, worry, anguish, fear and love. The same emotions that have punctuated the whole year.

There are plenty of people who have had a far more overwhelming year, of course, with even worse or more lows and no balancing highs. But this was my year and it has meant I’ve had to practise what I preach in terms of well-being.

That word “balancing”: grief and joy do not balance each other. They do not become neutral or dulled. If you have grief and then something joyous happens, you don’t feel less grief. What you feel is something incomprehensible. Inexplicable. It has been harder to feel joy, though. Maybe grief dilutes joy but not the other way round? The day after hearing the news of Jo’s illness, while performing at the book festival in Dubai, I had to travel into the desert and indulge in the most extraordinarily luxurious experience in which I should have been utterly blissed-out. I didn’t know how to feel and I certainly couldn’t enjoy – feel the joy of – that place, nor did the extraordinary beauty of the oasis or how lucky I was to be there dilute the other awfulness, fear, sadness, guilt even a tiny bit. 

But joy is fragile, whereas grief is not. Joy can be tinged by anxiety, too. A premature baby is a thing of awful fragility and impossible not to worry about because worry is a part of love. While grief is pure and sharp, joy is nebulous and wispy, light shining through a veil of clouds. You have to go seeking it, allow it in, shield it from wind and blow on it gently to grow the flames, make it live. Grief is strong and sharp and fast and needs nothing to feed it.

“I can’t get my head around it” is the most common thought I’ve had this year. I can’t compute how or why or even that my sister died. But then we don’t have to get our heads round such things. We just need to allow ourselves to feel.

Jo, me, Sarah

Grief and joy and worry, anguish, fear and love. They’re all snowballed into one whole emotion. It needs a name. I call it overwhelm. Overwhelmingly painful and overwhelmingly joyous and wonderful.

Anyway, since my website is supposed to be about advice for well-being, it’s worth explaining how I am still standing. Besides a portion of luck, it’s because I have worked hard to keep my “well of well-being” full.

It’s possibly a slightly naff, even trite, image, this well of well-being, but I think it works. To give myself the best chance of staying standing, whatever is happening to me, I take every chance to fill that well full. Whenever I can, I look after my food, water, sleep, exercise and relaxation. Whether it’s taking a five-minute break or going to bed early one night or putting my work down and stepping outside to smell the roses or going for a run and stopping on the top of the hill to admire the view – small things or big things – I consciously do them because I know these things matter and work. Negative moments – stress, anxiety, sadness, worry – all drain something from the well but, as long as I keep topping it up, I’ll stay standing. 

Gardening is a major part of replenishing the well for me, too. I wrote about that and Jo’s border here.

As we approach the Christmas and festive holiday, how will you replenish your well-being levels? I hope you’ll have joyous moments, plenty of indulgent food, some afternoons when you barely move from the sofa and the fire, wintery walks, maybe a snowman or two, games to win or lose, gripping books to bury yourself in and times of peace and thoughtfulness as well as festivity.

I wish you an overwhelmingly good holiday in whatever way you need it to be and may 2020 be a good one! But, ideally, not so full of overwhelm, thank you.


5 Responses

  1. Nicola, thank you for this. For different reasons this has resonated so very much, and deeply helpful to hear your thoughts on it. I hope you have a good end to the year, and as you say, here’s to a less overwhelming 2020. xxx Cat

  2. Hi Nicola
    Thank you for putting those words out there. I’m sure they will help many who are both in the throes of both grief and joy at the same time…. hard and yet that is how it often happens.
    I’m so sorry to hear about your sister.
    I wish you and yours all you’d wish for yourselves in 2020.

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