To Beat Overwhelm, Figure Out Your Values

How to simplify stressful decisions, according to a new book.

By Jenara Nerenberg

Overwhelm is a modern plague, taking up news headlines, physician trainings, corporate employee workshops, new modes of therapy and more. With the rise of social media and a decrease in off-screen connecting, many of us are left confused, anxious, questioning our decisions, lonely, searching for meaning, and looking for a way to escape stress and find the way back to ourselves and our loved ones. A new book by Dr. Samantha Brody, Overcoming Overwhelm, suggests that the cure lies in identifying one’s very individual, personal values and making decisions accordingly. After 23 years of practice with patients from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds, Brody has found that honoring one’s unique value set and living accordingly is a proven way to decrease stress and overwhelm and thus feel empowered and engaged with life again. We chat further about her experience and recommendations in the interview below.

Jenara Nerenberg:    First, how do you define “overwhelm?” What does it boil down to and what are the leading causes?

Samantha Brody:      I think about overwhelm a little bit differently than most people. I think about it as the accumulation of all of the stresses that we experience, rather than just our typical approach or feelings of overwhelm, which is: “Oh, I have so many things going on. My to-do list is so big.” When we do that, we try to manage those things, instead of realizing that we actually have a lot more control if we look at the big picture of all of the things that are leading to overwhelm, which is going to be in pretty much every area of your life.

I think about it as stress is leading to overwhelm. So, it’s not overwhelm that made you overwhelmed; it’s stress that’s leading to overwhelm. That’s going to be in different areas. It can be in the environment, it can be in your relationships, it can be in the physical space around you. We tend to have such an accumulation of those things that we do have control over, but we end up really focusing on the things we don’t have control over, because often those are the things that are the most daunting.

My idea is that when we spin that around and are able to look at what we do have control over and what we can change, it shifts the game so we can take agency.

When we’re able to identify all of the accumulation of stresses that are leading to overwhelm, it allows us to have agency and to make changes that are going to decrease our overall load, which helps lead us to being able to deal with the things that we don’t have control over.

Jenara Nerenberg:    Tell me more about that—what are you seeing in the macrosphere, systemically and philosophically, if you take a wide world-view? What comes to mind–what are the things that are causing overwhelm systematically?

Samantha Brody:      I think that really varies from culture to culture, so I can only talk as someone who lives right now in the United States. I can say that there’s a lot of the day-to-day surviving piece that causes a lot of overwhelm for people, being able to just afford to live and know that their healthcare is going to be taken care of and they’re going to have food on their table.

That’s really going to be more important than any of the other kind of small stresses. When we are able to look at those small stresses that we do have control over, it does allow a little bit of space to feel less overwhelmed. I think that the way we tend to live our lives in this culture, very isolated, without community support—is very stressful. When I was a kid we’d all just run around in a pack and now parents are afraid to tell our kids, “Out the door.” So, we’re really raising our families in isolation.

When we’re looking at things that cause overwhelm in general, as a culture, the food that we eat is really hard on our bodies. We often don’t feel well. We’re pushed to the limit. We’re not getting enough sleep because of the glorification of busy culture, the immediate gratification of “What’s the thing I’m gonna do right now?” instead of being able to really step back and look at what we need for our health. It’s a really common cultural milieu that I think many of us live in.

I think all of those things make it harder to be able to identify what we’re going to do to feel better. Often, we don’t realize that feeling unwell is because of the accumulation of stress and overwhelm. Being able to step back and look at the big picture and then pare down from the macro to the micro, I think, is exactly the way to identify what things we can and can’t change.

Jenara Nerenberg:    Definitely, I tend to think in that way — synthesizing the macro and micro. And so what is the culture shift that you’d like to see happen?

Samantha Brody:      I think the primary thing would be prioritizing an understanding of what’s important to us as individuals. I think that we often will go along blindly with what we think is expected of us, without really taking time to look at what’s most important to us as far as our values and how we want to feel, both physically and emotionally, and what we want our lives to look like. So, I think the biggest shift would be around saying it’s okay to look at what’s important to you and to set up your life to line up with that.

The danger of not doing that is living a life that’s lined up with someone else’s values, which is what ultimately will often lead to overwhelm.

Jenara Nerenberg:    How did you arrive at that particular focus within the book? I really appreciated that reminder throughout. You kept saying: your values, your choices, your life. That was a really great way to center that idea and keep coming back to thinking about how to tweak things in daily life according to one’s values. How did you arrive at the primacy of value alignment?

Samantha Brody:      I’m in my 23rd year of integrative medical practice. What I found early on was I was taking what I thought was the best thing for people to do and then walking them through that. Often they didn’t have the long-term benefits, because they would make changes and then kind of slide back. I wasn’t offering a framework for them to be able to really get clear about why they were making the changes, why it was important and what the long game was, and to keep re-evaluating that.

Our brains suck us back into habit, and our subconscious sucks us back into whatever it is that we’re used to doing in our lives. It takes a lot of effort to consciously make change. What I’ve found over the years is that when people were more clear about what was really important, they were more able to make the choices that lined up with that.

It really started small, with my saying to someone, “Well, what’s important to you?” And then getting deeper and deeper into that over the years. This is what I’m now doing with all of my patients. I decided to write the book because I went, “How can I systematize what I’m doing so other people can get the benefit of that, even if they can’t get in front of me in my brick and mortar or work with me in my online consulting business? How do we help people figure out what exactly it is that they need to do?”

So often, we see on social media, “Oh, you should do this for your health. You should do that.” And so often, that’s not right for an individual, but then we feel like we’re not doing what we really should be doing, or people feel like they’re not doing what they should be doing to take care of themselves.

So for me it really was kind of a slow evolution of saying, “Oh, there’s something missing here,” realizing what was missing, starting to work on a day-to-day basis with patients, and then doing that in my own life and going, “Oh, this is really the thing that makes the biggest difference with my patients and clients.” I don’t like the word “success” very much, because I really feel like you can’t fail at self-care. I feel that every step we take when we don’t follow through with something that we think is important, that’s information rather than failing.

I will flip that and say that having success with the things that we really want to accomplish in our lives or the goals that we want to accomplish—we’re so goal driven, but without really understanding what’s most important, we end up driving toward goals that aren’t really lined up with what we want.

Jenara Nerenberg:    Exactly. I really appreciated that in the book. Are there ways that broader societal structures can better support that?

Samantha Brody:       I love that question. I love when people ask me questions that no one has asked, or coming at it from a completely different perspective.

The first thing is making sure that everyone’s basic needs are met, because, without that, what we have is inevitable overwhelm. Making sure that people don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck, because when you live paycheck to paycheck, it’s very hard to get beyond, “How am I gonna make it through the month and get food on the table?” We don’t have the luxury in that circumstance of micromanaging your emotions or paying attention to whether you need therapy, or even having access to those things, or healthy food.

I guess that’s the first thing is making sure everyone has access to healthcare and healthy foods and not have to struggle to make sure that ends are being met.

Beyond that, I would say the deglorification of busy. I would also say that I have a lot of concern about what’s happening to both adults and children with media, with cell phones and social media, the addiction of that and how it’s driving how our brains are working. I think it’s hard for many, many people to disengage enough.

So many people say, “Well, I don’t have time to” X, Y or Z. I say, “Alright, let me take your cell phone and your computer, beyond what you need to do for work, and you’ll probably have plenty of time.” Myself included. I think that those are the things that I would lean toward. That’s a great, great question. I love that.

Jenara Nerenberg:    Thanks, it’s all about weaving the inner and outer and micro and macro. And so on the individual level, which was more the focus of your book, what are some daily reminders or mantras that you would encourage people to use to help make these value alignment shifts?

Samantha Brody:      What’s most important for mantras is really getting clear on your values. It’s imperative to understand what’s most important to you to even be able to make that mantra: doing the work of figuring out what’s most important to you and how you want to feel. In the book, I have people actually take that and make a little index card with those words on it so they can literally use that as they’re making decisions. I really have found that to be so helpful. In the moment, when we’re trying to make decisions and do things, we’re stuck with what we always have done, and we’re stuck with what’s expected, and we’re stuck with our habits, and we’re stuck with not wanting to disappoint people, whatever our own individual roadblocks are.

If we’re constantly coming back to “here’s what’s most important to me”—sometimes we all are going to make decisions that don’t line up with what’s most important to us or decisions that aren’t really truly in integrity with what our values are. That’s human nature. But to have that constant reminder of “this is really what I want” keeps us from going in the wrong direction on a regular basis.

Jenara Nerenberg:    Absolutely, that was one of the main takeaways of the book. And finally, what are your top recommendations, in terms of diet and exercise and other wellness practices?

Samantha Brody:      If I could have people prioritize one thing, it would be getting enough sleep. If people have difficulty sleeping or issues with their sleep–to get the right kind of support. I work with my patients and clients with that all the time. Sometimes that means a medication. Most often, it’s really figuring out what the problem is and why you’re not sleeping.

After that, moving your body regularly. I know that’s really hard, too. If I had to pick for people, it would be making sure they’re moving for at least five minutes every hour. Sometimes I’ll have my clients just literally get up and walk around the building, mull around their work building. And then strength training. I have a very strong emphasis on that in my practice, if people can get the right support to do that healthfully and safely.

Food-wise, I would say more protein, less sugar. Sugar is incredibly problematic. Most people have no idea how much sugar they’re eating. Really taking a deep dive on that. I often have people track their food so they know exactly what they’re getting. Places that we don’t even expect sugar to be, we find it.

My experience is that that is one of the biggest—other than genetics, I might even say the biggest—driver of ill health is sugar intake. People hate to hear that.

Jenara Nerenberg:    I think it’s great. Such a good reminder.


Jenara Nerenberg is a writer and producer based in San Francisco and the author of the forthcoming book, Divergent Mind (HarperCollins). She is the creator of The Neurodiversity Project and can be found on Twitter.

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