You Are Not Alone

overwhelm Jun 14, 2024
Man lying awake at night overwhelmed by life. Navigate the causes of modern stress, from global to personal. Learn how community bonds can foster resilience and mental well-being.

Last week, I shared a story about a congregant who was upset with my Easter sermon. Their letter began by explaining why they thought the content was inappropriate for children, but in the second half, they spoke about the anxiety they felt while listening to my more recent sermons. I took their critique seriously and was able to see that I, too, was feeling overwhelmed and it was coming through in my writing. But where my congregant retreated from the overwhelm of the world, I reacted by getting louder. Sometimes, this is called prophetic. And there is a place for that type of preaching. But after sitting with myself, I could see there was more taking place than just a minister trying to inspire his congregation, and I needed to examine my behaviors and motivations.

Thank you to everyone who responded to the last letter. Please keep your comments coming.

You are not alone

Despite the worn joke about ministers only working on Sunday, my job is stressful. For years now, I have woken up at 3 AM like clockwork due to what I now believe to be unmanaged stress and mild depression. I am still fairly high-functioning, but I don’t know if I can say that I am happy. I have happy moments. But it is not what I’d call a “steady state.” I’m not unhappy with my life either, but bad boundaries around work hours, the high cost of living, and the lack of free time for my hobbies and friends have recently made me pause and start to reevaluate my commitment to myself.

But this isn’t something specific to my career. According to a 2022 study by the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly three in ten adults report feeling so stressed about their personal lives and the state of the world that they struggle to function most days. And a 2020 study conducted by Gallup found that 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, with 28% feeling burnt out "very often" or "always."

I think the first step in addressing the overwhelm many of us experience is acknowledging that we are not alone. This is not a personal failing, it is a common response to our current circumstances.

Writing a list made me even sadder

But what are our current circumstances? I grabbed a pen and began to write out everything I could think of that gave me or my congregants some sense of anxiety. And the list got long very quickly. So long, in fact, I had to get up and walk away because just looking at it made me feel sad. When I came back to my chair, I grouped the list into three categories—Global, Societal, and Personal—and wrote a sentence to accompany each item. What follows is a curated version of the original list. My concern is many of you will stop reading because of the anxiety this list stirs up. I hope that doesn’t happen. I include it only to acknowledge how big this issue is. (No doubt you have additional sources of overwhelm for the list. If naming them gives you a sense of agency, please send me an email and tell me about them.)

Global Issues

Climate Change—the constant news stream of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and the long-term impacts of environmental degradation creates a pervasive sense of dread.

COVID (and the fear of future pandemics)—the fear of illness, the grief of losing loved ones, the prolonged isolation has left all of us weary and worn out. (A study published in The Lancet highlights the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic, noting significant increases in the prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders worldwide.)

Economic instability—job insecurity, wage stagnation, and the rising cost of living have created a cycle of financial stress.

The political climate—characterized by rancor, disinformation, and fears of political violence, many people hold a dismal view of the nation's politics, with concerns about the long-term viability of democracy and societal cohesion leaving many of us anxious due to a heightened sense of helplessness.

Societal Pressures

Social media—”social” platforms often create unrealistic expectations and foster unhealthy comparisons, leading to feelings of inadequacy and lower self-esteem, especially among teens and young adults. The curated nature of social media, where people often present an idealized version of their lives, contributes to a sense of failure and dissatisfaction in one's own life.

Information Overload—the constant connectivity and bombardment of information in the digital age contribute to mental fatigue. The endless stream of news, emails, and notifications creates a sense of urgency and prevents people from disconnecting and relaxing.

Personal Challenges

Work-Life Balance—the demands of work often spill over into personal time, leading to burnout, stress, chronic stress, fatigue, and depression.

Health—a confusing and expensive healthcare system leads many of us to put off routine checkups and health-related behaviors because resolving what is unknown overwhelms us.

Relationships—the pressures of maintaining healthy relationships while managing other stressors have left us the most isolated generation in the history of the world.

The New Normal

Feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to today's fast-paced world. The body's stress response, which we sometimes refer to as "fight-or-flight," is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect us from immediate threats. However, in the modern context, this response is being triggered by non-life-threatening situations such as work deadlines, family obligations, and continuous exposure to global news, leading to a constant state of emotional fatigue and stress. This state is exacerbated by the continuous influx of information and the expectation to multitask, which impairs our ability to process information effectively and makes it difficult to focus.

As a man, I feel weary when I look at this list. As a minister, I feel lost. I see so much anger and confusion in my congregation. People fight each other instead of seeking a way to console the very people they claim they want to be with. I think, on some level, it feels like my congregants take out their anger and frustrations on the people closest to them because they feel like it is safe and they won’t get rejected. But it makes everyone feel so alone.

Despite the pain I witness my congregants (and other houses of worship) struggling through, I still believe that community is the solution to this "new normal." In times of distress, being part of a community provides a sense of belonging and a reminder that we are not isolated in our struggles. Social connections have been proven to significantly improve mental health, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression by providing emotional support and increasing our sense of purpose and fulfillment.

It is only by intentionally engaging with others that we are able to foster a culture of empathy and create safe spaces where individuals feel heard and valued. Ultimately, the strength and health of our communities lie in our willingness to be vulnerable and open with each other, reinforcing the idea that we are all in this together. By investing in our communal bonds, we can restore our mental health and find hope amidst the chaos of the modern world.

I will speak on this more in my next letter, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Would you be willing to reflect on a community you used to be a part of and miss, or one you are currently in that supports you. What makes it special? 

Send me an email and tell me about it.



  • Is there a community you used to be a part of and miss, or one you are currently in that supports you?

  • What makes it so special?

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