Stress, overwhelm and using our excitement to fuel us.

By Nicole Reilly

In one of our recent newsletters, I mentioned that we had been reading the latest book of Brene Brown’s called Atlas of the Heart.  The entire premise of Brown’s new book is that language has the power to define our experiences.

In the book she tells a story about working as a waitress and uses this to describe the emotions of feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Brown recounts, ‘back in the day, if I walked into the kitchen and told another waiter “I’m in the weeds” – the response would be, “What do you need?”, I might say, “Can you take bread to tables 2 and 4, and reset tables 3 and 5, please?”.

Brown tells that “Being in the weeds and pulling out of the weeds happened to everyone on almost every shift. It was part of the job, and you learned to manage it.” However, “Walking into the kitchen and saying ‘I’m blown’ – well, that’s completely different” states Brown. When “you’re blown”, you can either step outside or into the cool room or go to the bathroom (and cry). Whatever you need. You’re expected back in ten minutes, ready to go, but for ten minutes, there’s a complete takeover. Stressed is being in the weeds. Overwhelmed is being blown.

Brown describes feeling stressed is when “we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully.” She goes on to say, “regardless of how strongly our body responds to stress (increases in heart rate and cortisol), our emotional reaction is more tied to our cognitive assessment of whether we can cope with the situation than how our body is reacting”. 

Brown describes “Overwhelm is an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function”. We all know that feeling that sweeps over us and leaves us completely uncertain of what to do next. Even when people ask how they can help, or what needs to be done – responding with organised thoughts feels impossible.

We may be able to work through feeling stressed, but there is no working through overwhelm. Brown recalls the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in her book who suggests that mindful play, or no-agenda, non-doing time, is the only cure for overwhelm. So it makes sense why, in Brown’s story when staff are feeling “blown”, they weren’t asked to help problem-solve the situation. They we’re just asked to engage in non-doing.

The big learning here is that feeling both stressed and overwhelmed is about our narrative of emotional and mental depletion. Brown tells that “Feeling stressed and feeling overwhelmed seem to be related to our perception of how we are coping with our current situation and our ability to handle the accompanying emotions: Am I coping? Can I handle this? Am I inching toward the quicksand?”

The story we tell ourselves about our ability to cope with stress affects our emotional landscape much more than our bodies physiological responses. There’s no better example of this than anxiety and excitement. Brown discloses “Anxiety and excitement feel the same, but how we interpret and label them can determine how we experience them.” Even though excitement is deemed to be a positive emotion associated with enjoyable activities, it doesn’t always feel great. We can get the same coming out of our skin feeling that we experience when we’re feeling anxious. Similar sensations are labelled “anxiety” when we perceive them negatively and “excitement” when we perceive them positively.

In my usual day job, I work as part of a Human Resources Team for a local Registered Club. I was bouncing ideas about this concept with a colleague, Imogen, our Training Officer. The last few months have been particularly difficult in the hospitality industry. We’ve had entire teams be wiped out due to Covid and close contact rules, and we’ve been struggling to fill rosters. A recent Saturday night, we were forced to close two out of four food outlets because we just didn’t have enough staff. We also had a function with an extra 350 people expected to attend who would likely expect a meal before the show. Some staff had expressed their trepidation for the evening, foreseeing how bad it was going to be. Imogen reassured them that yes it will be busy, yes they are going to be stretched likely more than they have ever been before, but encouraged them to just have fun with it.

I was fortunate enough to be also working that Saturday night and I stuck my head in to one of the restaurants to see how things were travelling. Imogen was upfront as host, the restaurant was full, and it was pumping. There were staff that call that restaurant home and there were others that were temporary expats from other Teams. There were upper-level management on the tools behind the pass. It was a beautiful symphony of what it means to come together as a team. It was chaos, but it was magic.

I caught up with Imogen afterwards on our walk to clock out for the evening, and her adrenalin was pumping, she was alive – admittedly much more so than any day in the office has ever provided her. And boy, did she have fun with it!

Because of her experience, training, and temperament, when her body tells her the stress is here, she knows she can handle it. She interprets it as excitement. She moves with it, not against it. It transfers to her feet and helps her glide quickly across the floor. It brings light to her eyes and a brightness to her smile while she converses with the customers. It’s her jam and you can totally tell.

I know hospitality is not everyone’s jam, but I believe there not only to be lessons here about work, but there are lessons about life. How can we get through stress, avoid overwhelm, and use our excitement to fuel us rather than let our anxiety cripple us?

Brown mentions one important strategy when we’re in these feelings is to take a deep breath and try to determine whether we’re feeling anxiety or excitement. Brown tells us that researchers found labelling the emotion as excitement seems to hinge on interpreting the bodily sensations as positive. She adds, that she believes “our anxiety and fear need to be understood and respected, perhaps even befriended. We need to pull up a chair and sit with them, understand why they’re showing up, and ask ourselves what there is to learn.”

Irrespective of your field, whether it be in the workplace or within your family, I encourage you to be honest about the moments you’re “in the weeds” and give permission to yourself and to those around you to take a moment of nothingness when “feeling blown”. I encourage you to seek mentorship from those more experienced than you, those who have developed confidence in their ability to crawl their way back from each “in the weeds” moment and taken more time outs from feeling “blown” that you can imagine. I encourage you to discover and rediscover your passion. But most of all, I hope you managed to enjoy a little non doing time and much needed, and well-deserved rest, over the Easter and Anzac Day breaks.

“A woman who lives with the stress of an overwhelmed schedule will often ache with the sadness of an

underwhelmed soul”

– Lysa TerKeurst

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