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Overwhelmed

By June 14, 2024No Comments5 min read

As much as I wouldn’t like to admit it... what Carol Gohm says is true: “[overwhelmed describes] an experience where our emotions are intense, our focus on this is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we’re feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions.”

Jennifer Acuff

In her book, “Atlas of the Heart,” Dr. Brené Brown provides examples and definitions to differentiate between “stress” and “overwhelm.” Her illustration of this uses her time from working in the restaurant scene in which a service worker can walk into the kitchen and say, “I’m in the weeds,” and fellow staff know to ask, “what do you need?” At that point, the stressed staff member rattles off a few things that would help them regain some balance in the situation to relieve some immediate stress. However, if the staff member is past stressed to the point of “feeling unable to function,” they can walk into the kitchen and say “I’m blown” At that point, it’s all hands on deck so that the staff member can walk outside, into the cooler, or to the bathroom scream-cry-throw up-breathe or whatever it is they need to do to do nothing. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, that’s actually the scientifically founded appropriate response to overwhelm—actively doing nothing related to what was causing the overwhelming conditions and feelings.

I had mixed emotions in reading that doing nothing is the cure for overwhelm, but I’ve thankfully had some experiences that tell me it’s true. I don’t like the idea of giving up control or pausing the problem solving. As much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, though, what Carol Gohm says is true: “[overwhelmed describes] an experience where our emotions are intense, our focus on this is moderate, and our clarity about exactly what we’re feeling is low enough that we get confused when trying to identify or describe the emotions.” My problem solving is going to be barely effective, at best, when I’m overwhelmed because my mind is going to be scattered and lack clarity. I know this, even if I don’t want it to be true.

After our time together on Sunday afternoon when some of us went to Puritan, John Ray asked what I was thinking about during the lesson time, since he noticed my arms-crossed, clenched-jaw demeanor. Conversations about stress and overwhelm make me uncomfortable because I know I’m not very good at coping with them. My responses are extreme, rapid, and independent. I expressed to the folks there that I know we can’t avoid stress in our lives, but we’re not meant to endure it long term, and I tend to get frustrated when I can’t identify a good response to the stressor (especially when it’s something I’ve been dealing with for several years). I followed it up with the fact that I usually don’t bother even sharing these events with my community because if I can’t address it, why would I expect them to?

The power of being able to walk into a kitchen to say “I’m blown” is in the fact that there’s other people in that restaurant kitchen. The overwhelmed staff member knew they could rely on others to hold down the fort while they had their ten min of do-nothing time. They don’t emerge from the cooler after ten minutes with answers or solutions. They just come back ready to tap back in. That takes a lot of trust, but when the community knows and cares, it works. My favorite illustration of this in scripture is in Matthew 14 when Jesus learns his cousin has been killed but he’s being followed by tons of people to hear his teaching and witness miracles. He needed space, so he hopped into a boat. These people needed Jesus. His ministry couldn’t just stop. He knew this, but he was overwhelmed, so he jumped into a boat and said “deuces” to his disciples. He trusted them with the people and knew he needed a few moments to process the overwhelm and do nothing. Sure enough, by the time he landed on the other side of the shore, there were even more people, but he had the capacity to “have compassion” on them.

I love that Matthew doesn’t write about how Jesus was thinking, “the show must go on,” “I don’t have a counterpart, so I have to keep going,” “my feelings and stress aren’t as important as all of these people’s.” He had the emotional maturity and courage to stand up to the idea of “perfectionism, pleasing, and proving” (Atlas of the Heart), rely on his community, and tap back in when he was ready. He showed courageous leadership through vulnerability as an example to his disciples and because he needed it! Now THAT is counter cultural and THAT is one of the many ways we can show each other love and community.

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Grace Church of Northwest Arkansas is a nondenominational community of Christ-followers committed to loving others, living out the Gospel and serving in Jesus’ name. We stand with the marginalized and welcome folks of all races, genders, and sexual orientations.

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