There seems to be so much to do. Getting it all done is a bit like conquering the beast. But is all this busyness of the 21st century lifestyle actually harmful to us? My answer to this question is it can be. Some would argue, that so long as the busyness is framed in a way of choice and personal interest than the stress is good for us to keep us fulfilled. There is also research showing us that the way we mentally frame the stress in our lives can reduce the negative impact it has on our health. (For an inspiring presentation on a new way to reframe stress in our lives check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk). Often though, I find, busyness and the consequent stress in our lives can be insidious and stemming from “things” in our life not so pleasant. Whether it is self-induced or outside of our control, it can leave us feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. When we feel this way, there is tendency to push aside our personal health practices (good rest, good diet, exercise, fun, etc). Left long enough, our physical bodies suffer, and eventually the body has a way of expressing itself on the matter to get our attention.
Consider chronic pain as an example. A course I attended not too long ago reviewed the anatomy and physiology of our nervous system when we are in pain (instructor, Neil Pearson offers many invaluable resources about pain on his site Life is Now). Essentially, the purpose of pain is protection, and it’s the brain’s job to determine if tissue damage or some other experience to the body is dangerous. If the brain decides that it is dangerous, it sends out protection signals that come in the way of pain, muscles spasms, weakened muscles, and a release of hormones. But the nerve signals originating from the area of injury or area of pain are not the only source of input that the brain relies on to decide on whether or not to “protect.” Factors such as our thoughts, emotions, memory of past pain experiences, the amount of stress hormones in our body, and level of fear can all add input to the brain’s assessment of the degree of protection needed, and can therefore affect how much pain we feel. So in the face of persistent pain, keeping our worrisome thoughts, negative emotions, and stress levels in check can help mitigate the urgency and intensity of the pain protection system, and being mindful that keeping these things “in check” is nearly impossible when we are constantly busy, rushed, and overwhelmed.
Add to all of this that when one system of the body is highly active, such as the nervous system when we are in pain, this affects other systems as well. The field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology (PNI – if there was ever a word that needed an acronym..) studies the interrelated functions of the brain, nervous system, immune organs/cells, and endocrine (hormone) glands. We know now that there is a unifying network of nerve fibres that wire together the various components of the PNI system, and that there is also constant biochemical cross talk among them. Research shows stressful events trigger cognitive and physiological responses which, in turn, induce nervous system, and hormone changes, and these can impair immune function, rendering us more vulnerable to becoming ill. Things do not happen in isolation in the human body, changes in one system affects other systems, and this can be cyclical and cumulative!
So this is what I’m learning. Adding to a plate that is already full can result in the body protesting, and that persistent pain in your abdomen or the panic attacks you recently developed don’t always seem related to that small thing you said yes to doing last week, but they can be. I like to use the analogy of the human body as being like a large container or vessel filled with various objects representing all the things we do in our lives. When your vessel is already full, it is not such a good idea to keep adding things to the to do list – adding more can result in a full vessel eruption. If there is no room for “you” in the container, some aspect of your health will protest.
Our containers can only hold so much and we can imagine that some items in our lives take up more space than others. A simple acknowledging of what’s in our containers at any given time is beneficial. Sometimes life gives us really big items that take up a lot of space in our containers. For example, the care of an ailing family member takes up a lot of space (logistically and emotionally), and we may not be able to handle as much in our container during this time. When life gives us big-ticket item such as this, it’s wise to let go of some items and ask for help. At other times we may notice we’ve filled our containers with so many small items, we’ve left no room for the more important, substance items such as our health or time with family and friends. Restructuring how we load our containers by placing foundation items as a first priority will free up space and can give us extra energy for the smaller items in our lives. When we delete excess, prioritize, and re-structure what’s inside we can take advantage of our full capacities.
So the next time you find yourself feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, let it be an amber light indicating your body has reached capacity. Any more, and your body may signal red, and your guess is as good as mine as to how this red light will manifest in your body. Maintaining a healthy balance is doable when we respect that our containers have limits, and our limits can vary at different phases of our lives. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed–it doesn’t mean you’re weak or there is something wrong with you. Think of it as being part of a sophisticated protection system, the body’s way to get you to pay attention to take a step back, slow down, and look what’s in your container and how it’s prioritized. Listen, acknowledge the signs your body is telling you, and allow for enough space that you’re enjoying the items and moments that make up your container of life.