A few years ago, I attended a meditation retreat. In the paperwork at the beginning, there was a section that read: “please list anything that might affect your participation in the retreat.” I remember writing, in all caps “EXHAUSTION AND OVERWHELM.”
At the time, I was studying for my boards (a decidedly horrible process), commuting an hour to work, and struggling with some mysterious health issues. Although I have recovered from that particular period of overwhelm, I do find myself using the word “overwhelmed” or “on overload” a lot to describe how I am. And I am definitely not the only one!
From the perspective of Chinese Medicine, the body, mind and emotions are all intrinsically linked. Each organ system has a specific function within the whole of a person. The digestive organs, especially the Stomach and Spleen, are responsible for taking in and digesting everything we come into contact with. This includes the obvious things like food and water, but also everything else. What we read, listen to, watch on tv, our interactions with others—the list goes on.
In today’s culture, we have to take in much more than humans have had to the past. Just a simple look at facebook can include a staggering amount of information. We are constantly innundated with images, words, sounds—much of it having strong emotional content. Our systems are simply unable to process it all at once. This often leads to things like mental confusion and distraction, but it also leads to poor digestion, anxiety, interrupted sleep, and other issues that we may not associate with the way we receive and process.
Those who know me know that I am a person with many passions. And so I often take on a lot, because I love to do so many things. I realized recently that it is not how much I do, but how I take it in and integrate it into my life that leads to feelings of overwhelm. I am often rushed, distracted, and trying to do too many things at once. Not being mindful of how I’m integrating everything into the whole seems to be a large part of the issue.
Because actually, having a life that is full of wonderful people and activities I'm passionate about is a great thing! I am learning more and more that if I am able to properly receive and digest each thing, that I will not only feel less overwhelm, but I will also feel nourished more completely by each of them.
Here are some practical things you can integrate into your life if you are feeling overwhelmed and/or exhausted:
Become aware of how you receive things. This includes everything in your life—from communication with family members to the radio in the car, to what you are having for lunch. I think you might be surprised at just how many different things you take in without being aware of them.
Once you are aware of what you’re taking in, see if there’s a way you can be fully present with each thing. It doesn’t take more time, just more attention. Some of us, for whatever reason, have a hard time receiving. It’s more in our nature to give than receive. If this sounds like you, it may be something to bring awareness to. Being present is very difficult, but even if we can do it a small percentage of the time, we may feel more fulfilled and nourished by the things in our life.
Do one thing at a time. This seems so obvious but we rarely do it these days. Eating while watching tv is a perfect example of this. Taking in our food in a calm and centered way is vitally important for healthy digestion and overall health. If we are watching something violent, funny, or stimulating in any other way, we have to take that in and have less energy to digest the physical food we’re putting into our bodies. This leads to exhaustion and often poor digestion.
I talk about this a lot, and I admit is a struggle for me. Cut down on electronic time! iPhones, tablets, computers, and other electronic devices are tools that increase convenience and efficiency in many areas of life. However, a lot of us use them way more than we need to! When I have successfully cut down on my electronic use in the past, I have often felt calmer, more grounded, and better able to handle all of my responsibilities
Slow Down. This is another one that I personally have a lot of trouble with. I know it may seem counterintuitive to a life that is so full, but if you can begin to be mindful of how you receive, you will automatically find yourself slowing down. This subtle shift can make a remarkable difference for those of us who feel stressed and overloaded.
Support your digestive organs. As I've mentioned, the Stomach and Spleen work hard pretty much all day every day. Be good to them by avoiding foods that stress them out. These include sweets, cold food (including salads!), fried/fatty foods, and dairy. Foods that support your digestive organs are warm, cooked, whole, and relatively simple foods.
I read a blog last year that recommended that instead of saying how “busy” we are, we shift the perspective to talking about having a “full” life. Since then I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to integrate that shift into my life.
Every acupuncture point has a beautiful name corresponding to its function. There is a point on the Stomach meridian, Stomach 20, called “Receiving Fullness.” Stomach 20 is used when patients are having trouble digesting, processing and integrating: both physically and emotionally. It can be really hard to receive fullness—especially because a full life always involves some degree of challenge. However, it can also be full of joy and fulfilling, nurturing things. So- looking at a very full year ahead—I am going to try to incorporate the spirit of Stomach 20 into my life as much as I can. My hope is that this will help me feel nourished and supported by the many wonderful, sometimes challenging, and always surprising things in my life.