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Saturation Point: That Sinking Feeling of Helplessness and Overload

So, how do we drain the flood of outside demands and negativity to regain our mental equilibrium?

By Grace Lee

The responsibilities, the crises, the news just keep coming. Our system gets overloaded and the result is stress. When there is too much happening in the world, I can’t even get properly riled up enough about one issue before another one comes along to grab my attention and ire.

It happens all the time: You come home after a long day dealing with pressing issues at work simply wanting to relax and get a little break. Or maybe you’re frazzled about the lengthy time it’s taking to find a suitable place for your mom to live. You turn on the TV and all you hear about are how the latest tweets from the president are causing divisiveness, or that children are still in cages at the border, or one of our elected officials is accusing another of our elected officials of something dastardly. It’s too much. 

You turn off the TV and check your phone; the screen is full of the most recent notifications about the news you just decided to skip. You put down the phone and pick up the novel you’re trying to get through, but your mind is still bouncing back and forth among the issues: your mom, the humanitarian crisis, our collapsing democracy. How can you concentrate on a whodunit? You pour a glass of Pinot and pick up your phone again, ignoring the annoying red dots of notification, and open up the crossword puzzle app. In any case, you shut out–or shut down–the constant demand for attention from so many fronts.

Saturation is not just what happens to a baby’s diaper when it sits too long without getting changed, it’s an actual thing that happens when your brain can’t process any more information. And who isn’t saturated these days? With all the political issues, climate crisis, and social issues blasted at us 24/7 from emails, TV, social media and newspapers on top of our already overflowing lives, it’s a wonder we are able to tie our shoes in the morning.

If you think about it, it’s an appropriate term for what’s happening: When it rains day after day, the earth gets saturated with water and can’t hold any more–it floods. Flooding is actually a term used in psychotherapy  to describe the effects of too much stimulation to one’s brain. Flooding results in dysfunctional responses to perceived threats or loss, and therapy is used to teach people coping skills to handle it. For the earth, only time will bring it back to the place where the rains will be welcome again and can be effectively dispersed through the soil to roots and ponds and rivers.  The system will function typically again. But, as humans, we don’t always have the time to wait it out–or we don’t conveniently live with a therapist. The responsibilities, the crises, the news just keep coming. Our system gets overloaded and the result is stress and a sense of helplessness.

Saturation is immobilizing. When there is too much happening in the world I can’t even get properly riled up enough about one issue before another one comes along to grab my attention and ire. The president has insulted another member of Congress! I can’t believe it…I should write a letter…but wait! The EPA has rolled back another regulation designed to stave off climate change….I’ll go online and donate to the Sierra Club and…. Hold on…what’s that about another shooting? I am paralyzed, rendered statue-like.

So, how do we “de-saturate”? How do we drain the flood of outside demands and negativity to give ourselves room to take the tiniest of respites?It  might be helpful to turn to a “guru” from 50 years ago. In 1967, Timothy Leary told over 30,000 people in Golden Gate State Park to “Turn on, Tune in and Drop out”. At the time, the collective understanding for that generation meant they now had permission to get high and ditch college, skip military duty, and avoid meaningless jobs. In reality, according to Leary in his autobiography, he actually meant,

“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development are often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.  

Of course, he also encouraged the use of LSD, but the gist of his catchphrase is legit: Know yourself and your abilities, engage openly with your community, global or local, and be mindful and intentional with your choices and commitments. This is good advice.

Recognizing the limits to our ability to take in more information is essential to managing the constant blast of data coming at us. When it gets to the point that getting an invitation to a friend’s house for dinner on Saturday stresses you out–you’re saturated. Saturation doesn’t discriminate–all input loads the system. Stress is stress: even good stress does things to your body that bad stress does. The same with saturation. The brain can only process so much material at a time, and pushing it to do more results in exhaustion. And what happens when we get exhausted? We cry, we get cranky, we get angry. So, learn the signs. Crying, as I sometimes do, could be one of them. Are you snapping at the mailman? Forgetting to bring your wife gluten-free brownies for a treat? Do you spend hours on your phone looking at beach side resorts even though you don’t have any vacation time left? You could be saturated.

In Italy, August 15th signals both the day and the time period known as Ferragosto. If you travel to Italy during this time, you will still be able to grab a stracciatella-flavored gelato in Piazza Navona, but the streets will be a little quieter, the residents having taken this time to de-saturate. Ferragosto began with the Emperor Augustus thousands of years ago as a day of rest after a vigorous harvest time.

It wasn’t originally invented as the national remedy for saturation, but it’s not a bad way to address it. Ferragosto can be the day, a long weekend or most of the month of August. It is so tightly woven into the Italian culture that it is considered the peak of summertime, while here in the US we continue to saturate ourselves by amping up the stress in Back-To-School preparations.

We can’t all move to Italy, but we can design our own Ferragostos at home. Choose a day to “Drop out” and by that, I mean tuck your phone into the sock drawer for a while. Pick up your whodunit, put on some comfy clothes and give yourself a couple of information-free hours alone. You could also find a community of like-minded people who are concerned about–well, just fill in the blank here. But just one topic, okay? Whether that be climate change or the 2020 election, it’s your choice.

Putting your energy into one cause…maybe two…can legitimize your effort. You can soothe your saturated self with the knowledge that you are doing something about the issues that once appeared unassailable. When you start feeling that old saturation creep up on you, there are two things to remember. One: pretty much all the tools you need to take care of yourself are already within you. And two: you can’t please everyone. Or if these fail, you can always go to Italy.

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