Is overload erasing your margins?

If you’re like the growing number of North Americans who feel tired, frazzled, anxious or depressed, you may be suffering from one common source—overload. It is the spontaneous tendency of our culture to add details to our lives: one more option, problem, commitment, purchase, debt, change, job or decision.

This “overload syndrome” (a.k.a. the proverbial “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” syndrome) is expressed differently in each of us and is often misdiagnosed or inaccurately labeled weakness, apathy or lack of commitment.

Most of us find it hard to recognize our own limits. But we need to learn the art of setting limits and accepting the non-negotiability of the 24-hour day. Physical limits are fairly clear but emotional and mental limits aren’t so obvious.

For instance, you may feel energized by many events and the challenge of full days, but then one morning you wake up and find it hard to get out of bed. You have reached the saturation point.

Dr. Richard Swenson, a medical practitioner and author who has studied overload encourages us, when we feel that “snap,” to understand it for what it is: “Don’t blame your work, your friends or your children. Blame overload,” he says.

We need to learn to allow our lives to have more “margin,” a term coined by Swenson. Like the extra room on the edges of a page, margin is the space that exists between ourselves and our limits. It’s breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.

Unfortunately, the conditions of modern-day living devour margin. Most North Americans don’t have the time to heal anymore. The instability of our days prevents peace from become a solid part of our human spirit.

This is evident in the way our culture lives. We have more “time saving” devices but less time—we get places faster but have more places to go; we have devices to help us clean, but more things are stuffed into more square footage to clean, and on the list goes.

So how do we combat such cultural forces? Decreasing stress load isn’t always easy, but it is critical for avoiding overload. It requires courage and often means rearranging your life. For example, creating margin may mean getting a different job, living with less money, or turning down good opportunities.

Research suggests some ways to decompress stress-filled lives:
1. Set realistic expectations
2. Accept what cannot be changed
3. Learn to relax (“behavioral aspirin”)
4. Establish boundaries (learn to say no)
5. Forgive
6. Take time to play

Dr. Swenson offers a helpful analogy. “When flying from New York to San Francisco, we don’t allow only three minutes to change planes in Denver. A much greater margin of error is needed. But if we make such allowances in our travels, why don’t we do it in our living? Life is a journey, but it is not a race. Do yourself a favor and slow down.”

To learn more about how to combat the overload syndrome, I recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Richard Swenson’s copy of “Margin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives” (1992).

Article by: Esther Groenhof, MA, RCC

Esther Groenhof, is Director of TWU’s Fraser River Counselling (FRC), which is a free counselling service provided to community members by counsellors-in-training at the Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology at Trinity Western University. For more information, contact the FRC intake worker at 604-513-2113.

Last Updated: 2015-07-13
Author: Keela Keeping