The Evolution of Overwhelm

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can thank your ancestors.

Overwhelm is an evolutionary feature that backfires in our modern world. If our ancestors couldn’t keep up with their environments, they died. Today, there is way too much to keep track of and manage. The modern day hunter/gatherer needs a digital calendar and an assistant to sort it all out! By examining some of what our ancestors might have experienced, we can see how it translates to our own lives.

There were fears our ancestors had about keeping up: it’s too much (predators, natural forces such as flood and  fire, attacks from other tribes) and there’s not enough (not enough food, shelter, belonging to the tribe or having a mate). The modern version of, “It’s too much” can show up as too many commitments, too much information to digest, too much news, and all of it coming faster and faster.  

The modern version of, “There’s not enough” can show up as time pressures, a lack of money, lack of knowledge or capability, and even the modern FOMO (fear of missing out)  is related to the fear of not enough. For our ancestors, these dangers of too much and not enough were generally fairly short-lived. But for us modern caveman descendants, the fears can be virtually 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

We know that these reactions to “‘it’s all too much” or “there’s not enough” are real.  Overwhelm can show up in the body through elevated cortisol levels, mental churn or confusion, and emotional reactivity which, in turn, affect our mood, our appetite, our sleep patterns, and more. This is also a direct result of the response of our nervous systems to threat. That so-called irrational feeling of ‘if I can’t keep up, I’ll die!’ might not be so irrational, after all. Our ancestors experienced that in a very real way. Although the world around us is changing at a lightning pace, our nervous systems haven’t changed dramatically in thousands of years. So we must recognize this incongruity, and catch ourselves in those ancient reactions.

To interrupt these ancient reactions, ask yourself some new questions. In what ways are you  trying to keep up when it’s impossible? What specifically can you focus on to feel more in control? What small, specific actions can you take to feel progress, rather than procrastination? What beliefs do you have about yourself that could be contributing to overwhelm, and how can you focus on more of your strengths?

You can thank your ancestors for the color of your eyes, or the shape of your nose, or the innate talents you have. But you don’t have to live in reaction to the ancient nervous system that you inherited from them.  

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