For all the positive effects, for all the long-term successes, for the life-changing (and in some cases life-saving) impacts of going Primal, I never want to give short shrift to the actual process of transition. Going Primal, taking it to a deeper level, or hitting a snag several years in can throw us for a loop. We hit a major fitness plateau. We get hit with a new health diagnosis or injury just as we’re making it out of the Primal starting gate. We think too much about the scale. We get caught up in analyzing how far we have to go and forget how much ground we’ve already covered. These unnerved moments and temporary backslides are all part of real-life (i.e. imperfect) natural adaptations to new challenges—challenges that will offer huge payback once we move through them. Most days and weeks things go well, but once in a while they don’t. We lose our footing. We lose our mojo. We get discouraged and slip into an emotional swampland. Times of feeling deeply overwhelmed threaten to derail some of our biggest endeavors—but it doesn’t need to go down that way.
You likely know the feeling. One day you feel good, composed, eager. But things happen, responsibilities pile up, schedules get busy, and progress doesn’t happen as fast as you think it should. Gradually the initial optimism begins slipping through your fingers. Instead of empowerment or enthusiasm, you start noticing a heaviness. Determination wanes as you see projects as too big to handle—the myriad of demands as too much. You find yourself trending toward avoidance. You feel smaller, maybe edgier. Whereas before you identified with your endeavor, an emotional distance now grows between you and what you’re reaching for—or maybe everything. Your goals (and maybe your life) become something you want to escape. One day you realize that phase of frustration has thrown you off the wagon entirely. And it may be a long stretch before you’re truly ready to get back on.
I think it’s important to back up here and note that many (and possibly most) people come across the Primal Blueprint because something in their lives just isn’t working. Not surprisingly, there’s usually a long history of disappointment, aggravation, and failure, which can get re-triggered when we find ourselves hitting bumps along the Primal path.
And let’s be honest. Many of us already live on the edge of feeling overwhelmed, whether or not we’re taking up a new health challenge. The regular stresses of modern life and its incessant demands too often stretch us to the brink. Add to this the fundamental mismatch between these contemporary conditions and our evolutionary hardwiring, and you have an even greater underlying pressure. Even as we take up the Primal solution to CW’s faulty diet and exercise designs, we’re still likely operating within tech overload, sensory strain, professional and home overworking scenarios, and more. The fact is, it’s almost impossible to not get overwhelmed on occasion.
When we add a major lifestyle change to the mix, it’s important to respect the additional energy and focus we’ll be applying—not to take the wind out of our sails, but just to apply a reality check. Will a shift to the Primal lifestyle move your health, well-being, and vitality to new pinnacles? Yes, but it takes thought and change to get there—logistical change, certainly, and emotional change for many people, too. It’s not an effortless process, especially if you’re looking to undo significant weight gain or chronic illness. Nothing in life is free. That said, progress will take you by surprise, even if it doesn’t always come as an immediate or linear result.
Becoming overwhelmed can happen when we take on too much at once or when our approach to an endeavor takes us too much out of our comfort zone too quickly. The Primal Blueprint absolutely fosters physical as well as psychological resilience, but we inevitably go through uneven terrain on the way to it. Primal life changes us, as life in general thankfully does, and we can bring a Primal attitude to its challenges for perspective along the way—including times of feeling overwhelmed.
So let’s look at a few ideas for how to do just that.
1. Plan for it
As in plan for feeling overwhelmed. Just assume that it’s going to happen at some point, and prepare yourself emotionally for it. Everyone experiences undulations in their process of moving from A to B in their health. The Primal Blueprint is all about flexibility, and the 80/20 offers a useful principle for this purpose.
As you begin your Primal path and at various points along the way, think about what flexibility can mean for you in different phases of motivation. Preemptively brainstorm for days or weeks when you’ll need to operate from a pared down, simpler plan. What will eating look like during those stretches? What would a good fitness outline be for these phases? Write it down (because most of us, realistically speaking, won’t remember it when we’re already on actual overload). A little forethought goes a long way to staying on track.
2. Stop and let the dust settle
When you realize you’re in over your head, resist the urge to push. Just shut down the engines. There’s nothing woo-woo about this. The fact is, I’ve yet to meet anyone who does his/her best thinking in a desperate, overwhelmed, insistent mindset.
When you see that you’re swimming in the waters of exasperation, the answer isn’t to swim harder. It’s time for the float, maybe even the dead man’s float, simply to conserve precious energy and sanity. The more we wear ourselves out flailing around, the more likely it is we’ll just sink. Stabilize yourself instead, and give rational response a space to come through.
3. Accept the phase and move through it
No regrets. No self-flagellation. No coulda, woulda, shoulda. Just get your head in the now because that’s the only moment you have any influence over. Once you’ve collected yourself, the only relevant question will be, “What’s the next best move given where I’m at?”
4. Apply self-compassion
It’s my experience that people often get themselves to the point of feeling overwhelmed because they were more focused on a sense of obligation to others (e.g. family or friends who criticize our Primal commitment) or to perceived “perfectionistic” principles than to their own individual needs.
Accept the lesson and use the chance to get back to your intuition. No guilt here—just a potent reminder that retrieving health (and, indeed, living a life) is just a grand self-experiment, and we need to focus on our body’s feedback more than any expectation we or others might have of us. Take time to cultivate patience with your own process.
5. Load up on self-care
Self-care certainly encompasses getting/staying healthy, but it’s not about letting an unrelenting, drill sergeant force run your life. An excellent recent Harvard Business Review article offered a spot-on reminder of this principle. The title alone, “Resilience Is about How You Recharge, Not about How You Endure,” says a lot. If you tend to be someone who resists taking your foot off the gas, consider it suggested reading.
Self-care, as I’ve explained before, is ultimately about cultivating self-attunement and applying healthy as well as nurturant activities to your life. When you’re overwhelmed or discouraged because of a setback (e.g. a fitness plateau or workout injury), it goes double.
Make a list of what healthy indulgences (e.g. massage, naps) and recovery activities (e.g. meditation, yoga, time outdoors) fill the well for you. Responding effectively to feeling overwhelmed isn’t just about what to cut out of your daily life, but also including more of what rejuvenates you.
6. Enlist major support
Make a list of five ways someone else can help you this week. Do this every week, and follow through. If you’re the answer to how everything in your life gets done, getting overwhelmed will dog you at every turn. Find a way to clear space for yourself.
Support can mean delegating responsibilities or employing a trainer or health coach to hold and design the bigger picture of your Primal endeavor. If you’ve been spinning your wheels for a while on the health/fitness front, there may be issues you wouldn’t necessarily consider that a professional might be able to help with. Bringing an objective eye to your situation can be extremely helpful. Where, after all, does it say in the book of life that you have to be the one to figure it all out on your own?
7. Set lower threshold goals
This is relatively self-explanatory. The risk of getting overwhelmed is the common response of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Of all times, this is the one in which to dump the perfectionistic, all-or-nothing tendency. Walk back your behavioral change goals instead of walking away from them altogether.
8. Take your time
You have your entire life to institute these changes. Even when you feel you’re up against the clock because you’re working to dial back blood sugar issues or heart disease, resist rushing to the finish line. Take the time you need. Live from a patient commitment to the Primal path, rather than a desperate swinging at it. Baby steps will still get you where you want to go.
9. Recalibrate a new normal
Too often, people who get overwhelmed want to take a week off, patch themselves up, only to get back into the same routine as fast as possible. They don’t stop to consider that the old routine was what got them overloaded to begin with.
Taking a break is a time for recalibration, for assessing what’s been working and what hasn’t. Do you have enough time for free play in your life? Is a certain job or the commute to it draining the life out of you? Accept feeling overwhelmed as feedback, and take advantage of its cue for reflection. Use the temporary slowdown or detour to move into a new plan that will take you to your next Primal level.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on feeling overwhelmed and the situations in which it’s come up for you in going Primal.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.