Why are we so overwhelmed?

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I often hear my mom comment to my sister during a particularly stressful episode with her (much-adored) grandchildren that, “It wasn’t like this raising you two.”

Overwhelm seems to be the plague of the 21st century in North America. For most of us, life has never been more convenient than it is today, and yet many of us struggle with keeping our head above water. Sometimes we’re even paralyzed by our daily to-do lists. Why is that?

I think there are many reasons for this:

  • too much choice can cause paralysis (as outlined in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz)
  • endless access to information and entertainment, and comparing ourselves to others
  • working and raising children simultaneously
  • constant communication in the form of phone calls, emails, texts and social media alerts

Rarely does anyone feel bored anymore.

But there’s another thread to overwhelm that I hadn’t recognized until I became a Nutritionist.

All of this stimuli – the constant stream of information being processed by our bodies – is being conducted by our nervous systems, which includes the brain. The nervous system requires a constant stream of nutrients in order for biochemical processes to occur. (It’s easy to forget how literally every action we take and reaction we experience requires work on a cellular level.)

And so, a diet full of nutrients is essential for our nervous systems to process the world around it. Therefore, if we are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or stressed, it may be our body’s inability to handle all the stimuli in its environment due to a lack of essential nutrients. It can’t do the job if it’s not equipped with the tools.

Therein lies the deeper problem: It is difficult for us to take in enough nutrients to meet the growing demand on our nervous systems.

Because there’s more stimuli in our environment than ever before (from traffic on the streets, to incessant communications, to endless streams of media around us, to joyful social gatherings and travel), we should essentially be taking in even more nutrients to meet the growing demand on the nervous system. But sadly, it’s hard for us to attain even the daily minimum requirements. The processed foods in our grocery stores have been stripped of their nutrients. Even whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains are less nutritious than before due to the use of harsh pesticides and agricultural equipment that are destroying our soils and yielding less nutritious foods.

So here we are: We are not only living in the most stimulating environment, we may also be acquiring less nutrients from our diet, and thus running on a deficit.

What results is overwhelm.

The good news is that there are things we can do to rest our nervous system as well as feed it specifically what it needs. For starters, unplugging from as much stimulus as possible can give our nervous system a much-deserved rest. That may mean shutting down electronics during dinner or reading a book instead of surfing the net. It could mean declining a social gathering, and opting for a walk in the woods, a long bath, or an early bedtime instead. On your dinner plate should be whole foods (locally sourced if possible!) and foods high in omega 3 fatty acids which are calming for our nervous system, among other nutrients.

Remember, even positive stimulus is a stress on the body that needs to be processed, too. So give your body breaks! Let yourself get bored every once in awhile. Your nervous system will thank you for it.

If you would like to learn more about specific foods and dietary habits that support the nervous system, please join me next week for a free talk at Buddha-Full called The Edible Side of Overwhelm. Learn more here.

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