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Dealing with Overwhelm

Recently I was nearly overcome with feelings of overwhelm. It is slightly vulnerable to write this in a professional blog post. Perhaps we are not supposed to admit that we have uncomfortable feelings, in our culture, and particularly as professionals. But connection has always been a powerful part of my medicine, and my direct experience provides valuable information to me as your fellow human, and hopefully permission for you to have whatever experiences you have, comfortable or not.

So overwhelm came to visit. With my practice bursting at the seams, I was trying to squeeze everyone in, while keeping a sane enough schedule for myself to eat and see the outside light. Then the tyranny of the to-do list chose this opportune moment to start shouting inside my head. "Should should should" chugs the busy train. All that is yet to be done, simply must be given attention at this very moment!

I stopped in the middle of this thought-storm to wonder about what my mind was saying to me, and if any of it were actually true. I noticed how small my world suddenly looked from that perspective, and how scarce; not enough time, not enough resources, is essentially what those thoughts are saying. As I looked around and saw my colleague, patients, and friends frequently experiencing these same thoughts and feelings, I had to wonder about what we've all agreed upon as "normal." Standard American Pace says you must produce, multitask, and stay cool among it all, and if you can't, then you probably need anti-anxiety/depression medication.

I'm reminded of a story that pierces right through this. A colleague and mentor recently told me about a friend of hers, a Buddhist from Tibet. This Buddhist woman said to her; "please describe this feeling of overwhelm you Americans talk about, because I do not know the experience of this." Overwhelm and anxiety are foreign concepts in their culture. Incredible! This points to an extraordinary truth about our experience; though many emotions are universal, many are created by our cultural mind.

According to this article in Mother Jones, the myth of multitasking is hurting our brains. Apparently it is also hurting our hearts. To me, overwhelm boils down to "I can't do all of this." Not only is this a stressful shut-down, making it harder for the brain to attend to the task at hand, it can wear down our sense of capability. In reality, we are doing more than has ever been done before, faster, and more efficiently. We are highly productive.

But what are we producing? For instance, I am able to essentially run my practice entirely alone; online scheduling, smart phone, insurance clearinghouse, etc. mean no receptionist, intern, employees or partners necessary. Drop-shipping from the pharmacy in New York means I don't need to stock an herbal pharmacy or mix the formulas myself, I just email them the prescription and the formula arrives in a couple days. I am certainly grateful for the ease of these services that make my practice possible. But what I gain in "fast," do I lose in "connected?" Is it really healthy to not need any help?

I can't help but wonder, though it's efficient, is it effective? In terms of Chinese Medicine specifically, it is so effective, that it is being practiced with many limitations in our country, and it is still getting wonderful results! So that's not the part I question. What I'm wondering, is how we can attend to our lives, both personally and me as your practitioner, from a place of effective having precedence over efficient. I am wondering if efficient is part of the disease, so the cure must come from elsewhere.

My anthropology background always leads me to think about how other cultures are living, and how it is serving their health. In a survey about happiness, the Danish were found to be top of the list. Their high level of happiness came down to having low expectations and riding bikes everywhere. But it also had a lot to do with work-life balance, which points to valuing effective over efficient. Effective "people-care" means our value is connectedness, and our cultural actions follow to support this. We value the production of satisfaction over the production of more stuff and money. Though stuff and money are important, the obsessive production of it all has become our American illness, and the sacrifice is our health.

I'm reminded of one wise teacher's historical perspective. During graduate school, he told us we would all become good doctors, because we are living during a time much like the Song Dynasty. During the Song, excess reigned, much like it does here for us now, so people didn't take care of themselves through food, rest, etc. The doctors had to become very adept at complex diagnosis and treatment. During other parts of China's long history, doctors were not so necessary, because the culture was less sick.

I hope as a culture we can look around at history, and much of the rest of the developed world, and learn how to put value back into connectedness; not the wireless kind, the human kind! I know we are all hungry for it. Until then, how do we medicine our overwhelm? What did I do the other day to step out of my own overly efficient thought-spiral and back into the connectedness of my life? For me, it often comes down to three things: 1) question the thoughts, 2) connect with the people I love, and 3) get outside. Perhaps this is medicine even for the duality of effective vs. efficient; can we efficiently reconnect? Each small moment of quickly leaving those thoughts and coming back to ourselves creates this value of connectedness as a whole; it's probably the most powerful thing we can do.

So here are some tips on how to efficiently reconnect during times of overwhelm. Do you have any ideas? What is your experience of overwhelm, and your medicine when you become anxious? I would love to hear from you! Until then, I hope these tips are useful, and I wish for you a most connected life!

1) Breathe. It sounds so simple, but it's our most immediately accessible tool for getting out of the mind and back into the body. Focus on where the breath is coming in and out of your nose, notice thoughts trying to take you away, gently lead yourself back to feeling this sensation.

2) Look around. Notice your surroundings, all the physical support available, all the mundane reality of the very moment, all the stillness that is actually there, despite the chaos of the mind.

3) Reach out. Touch the floor, the wall, your desk, get some physical contact to reassure your nervous system that there is indeed a boundary. Get a hug if you can!

4) Take a walk. Step outside and walk around the block, even a few minutes to smell the breeze and look at the sky.

5) Call someone. Connect with someone you love, as a reminder of what is important, and that stress comes and goes, but your foundation remains.