Overwhelmed: When Retreat is Not an Option

Over the past 50 years, the way we live, and work has drastically changed.  Work is no longer a 9-5 deal.  Emails and phone continue long into the night, and employers expect responses almost immediately.  But it is not just our electronic life; the role of a parent is changing too, activities for our kids have increased, more engagement is excepted at home. We are experiencing additional financial pressure as people work to pay off expensive loans.  Adults expect to change jobs several times in their lifetime, making networking more important now than ever. 

And so, we live at a drastically different pace of life than any previous generation.   We are in new territory, our responsibilities and purposes in almost all our roles are changing.  And it makes us feel like we are on shaky ground.  It makes us feel anxious and overwhelmed.  A few months after my fourth child was born, I was offered a new position at work.  I remember wondering, in my sleep-deprived state, how I would get it all done. I looked at all the pieces of my life, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to fit it together.  It was 'take your breath away' overwhelming.

Now the simple answer to these feelings of anxiety and overwhelm is to reduce and retreat.  Reduce our consumption of information, turn off our devices.  Establish boundaries with work, and with the activities, our kids are involved in, practice some self-care, take a vacation, etc.   But I think that most of us already do this.  When I talk to other moms, they are always thinking about whether they can really add something else to the schedule, and often they choose not to for the sake of their family's sanity.  At work, people are continually balancing their time and trying to figure out how to maximize their efficiency, so that they can be home for dinner, or make it to their kid's basketball game.  Most people are conscious of the need to turn off the TV and put down their phone and stop replying to email late into the night. Yes, at times need to reevaluate and reassert some of our boundaries.  But the idea that just cutting out a soccer practice or putting down your phone for 1 hour is going to reduce the constant anxiety that sits in our stomach is far-fetched.

I come from a faith background, so I often turn to the Bible for direction.  In the Hebrew Bible, there is the story of this prophet named Elijah.  He was coming off a busy season (handling critics, defending God, dealing with death threats, you know the usual). And he retreats.  He runs as far away from his problems as he can possibly go. 

Now I have a similar reaction.  When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I want to retreat.  I want to go into hiding and not come out.  But I have kids who need to be fed and picked up from school and taken to their various activities. I have work meetings and deadlines.  I have relationships with my friends and family to nurture.  We all have responsibilities that prevent us from hiding in a cave.  When we get overwhelmed with life and work, the option isn't just to run away.  We all have bills to pay and people; kids, parents, co-workers, who are counting on us, to do what we are supposed to do.  We cannot abandon our responsibilities.  However, if we do not deal with the overwhelm, we retreat in other ways. 

We emotionally run away.  We choose to not engage with the world and with the people around us.  You know when I am at my busiest and most overwhelmed, I don't ask people how they are doing, I don't smile at the clerk checking me out.  I don't volunteer to help the other mom who is running late and needs someone to get her kids from the bus stop.  I don't really listen to my kids or my husband or my friends.  Like Elijah, we retreat to a cave inside ourselves.  We become focused on getting our stuff done and ignore everything else that is going on.

So what is the answer?

Do you guys remember Honey I Shrunk the Kids?  It came out in 1989, and it was about this crazy scientist dad who creates this machine that accidentally shrinks his kids down to the size of an ant.  They are thrown out into the back yard and have to find their way back home.  The movie shows the kids battling bugs and taking cover from the bombardment of sprinklers.  More creatures and challenges fill their backyard than they ever dreamed existed.  In the Bible, Elijah comes out of his cave and hears the still, quiet voice of God calling him to continue, reminding him of his purpose.

What we need is a perspective change.  We need to look at our lives with a little bit of distance to see what is essential.  From a different perspective, we can:

  • Evaluate what really needs to get done and what can fall by the wayside

  • We can better prioritize.

  • We remember our purpose.

  • We can see what is missing from life.

 Leadership experts call this getting a balcony perspective: getting a little distance so that we can see what is really going on.  Counselors might call this practice re-framing, understanding our situation in a new way or from a different direction.  Pastors will say we need to look through the lens of eternity, studying our life from a place in God's beloved community.  As a person of faith, I try to engage in practices that give me a different perspective. Sometimes this is reading the Bible; him to sometimes it is through prayer or meditation; sometimes, it is being part of a small group. All of these things help me to see my life differently so that I can understand why I am overwhelmed and create an environment that reduces my stress levels. 

If you are struggling with the overwhelming demands of work and's some try one of these ideas to get a new perspective:

  • Any gratitude exercise

  • Talk with a friend.

  • Participate in service work

  • Sleep (a good night's sleep solves a lot of problems)

  • Do something creative (paint, take pictures, write a story, all of these require looking at life with a different perspective)

  • Read fiction (see the world through someone else's eyes)


Do you have other ideas?  What helps you get a little perspective on life?

Erin Reibel4 Comments