When I am overwhelmed, "on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m feeling my emotions at about a 10, I'm paying attention to them at about a 5, and I understand them at about a 2. This is not a setup for successful decision making.” — Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart
When life gets busy and fast-paced, whether you are stressed or excited about it depends on the story you tell yourself. If you think, "This is fun; I've got this," you'll experience your body's stress response as excitement and anticipation. But if you think, “This is too much; I hate this!", you'll experience the same physiological responses as pressure and stress.
But overwhelm isn't like that. Overwhelm is what happens when your stress goes way past the red line. Your internal resources are overloaded, beyond your capacity to bear. Your internal circuits are blown. You can't function. All of your mental and emotional mechanisms fritz out and shut down. Your body bonks into a stupor that makes it hard to move. You almost feel like you've forgotten how to walk.
You can't think your way out of overwhelm. No amount of pep talking or strategic planning will touch it. Overwhelm isn't an attitude or a perspective. It's an emotional, mental and physiological state in which a person is "completely overcome or overpowered by thought or feeling" (Merriam Webster). It’s a complete nervous system shutdown.
There is only one cure for overwhelm, and that is rest. This may sound obvious, but the truth is many of us who live in fast-paced cultures have completely lost touch with what the word “rest” actually means. In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown defines rest as "no-agenda, non-doing time,” which just happen to be the two things (creating agendas and doing stuff) that we think we must never stop doing, because to stop doing them would mean we are “wasting time,” and wasting time is the worst possible sin a serious professional can commit.
We've all been indoctrinated to believe that being unproductive is inherently wasteful, and even shameful. But non-productive time—time in which you are not producing anything—is the very essence of what rest is. Making space in life for this kind of “no-agenda, non-doing time” is neither wasteful nor shameful. It’s actually essential to a healthy psyche, and a healthy life.
In his lovely blessing "For One Who is Exhausted,” John O'Donohue speaks of rest as “empty time,” and describes it as a natural tide of life that comes upon you whenever "you have traveled too fast over false ground,” and "your soul has come to take you back." The call to rest presses in on you whenever you’ve gone too far, too fast, and your soul needs time to catch up.
So what is rest?
It is watching the rain fall, without thinking, and with no hurry to get anywhere.
It is going for an ambling stroll, with no particular destination in mind.
It is being precisely where you are, and paying exquisite attention to every tiny detail.
It is gazing into a fire while sipping tea on a quiet night.
It is reading a delightful book, and taking naps between the chapters.
Rest requires us to go offline—mind, body, and soul. That means no social media, no newsfeeds, no email or texts, and definitely no work. It means being present to your life right here in this moment, and then moving toward whatever form of rest your soul feels drawn to experience.
Times of rest like these are essential to recovery from overwhelm. Even better, for those who are wise enough to make rest a regular part of their weekly routine, the practice becomes a terrific release valve for stress, and a great inoculate against experiencing overwhelm in the future.
When was the last time you really, truly rested? When is the next time? Why not schedule it now?