Working with (not against!) your available energy

I’ve written a lot on this site over the years about working with our energy, energetic ebbs and flows, and the challenges highly sensitive and/or introverted folks can have with energy (especially when they feel forced to adapt to a lifestyle or pace that doesn’t work for them).

Many years ago, my very astute therapist at the time commented that “perhaps” I was a “low-energy person.” I cringed. I didn’t like thinking of myself that way (even though I knew she meant nothing at all negative by it and was only throwing it out there as a suggestion).

As we talked about it more, I understood that what my therapist was getting at was that I often took on way more than my natural energetic inclinations could handle, then crashed and burned. What emerged during that period for me was the opportunity not to go faster and work harder and push myself more (I’d already done plenty of that by the time I was about 14!), but the opportunity to practice what I began to term in my journaling practice radical self-acceptance.

Which meant recognizing that while I often had high energy “bursts”, it wasn’t healthy for me to attempt to sustain them over time — in fact, I really couldn’t without becoming ill.

I learned over the years that I functioned far better when I tempered those high energy bursts with lots of slower, quieter times, where I demanded less of myself, not more. It wasn’t so much that I was a “low-energy person” as that I hadn’t learned to honor the way my energy worked.

Ironically, I found that I got more done, over time, when I accepted my natural energetic ebbs and flows (you can read how that worked with my writing, here), than when I tried to force myself to stay in a “high energy” place and then crashed and burned.

Crashing and burning takes a lot of time. From the vantage point of burnout, I would find myself wondering why in the world I thought I had to move so very quickly, when now I couldn’t move at all.

***

Working with my coaching clients during the pandemic, I’ve noticed how many of us are experiencing our energy in new ways. Some clients have told me they feel “done” much earlier in the day than they had previously; others have said they feel the need to sleep later and stay up later.

Many have expressed that they feel there is “nothing to look forward to,” and this affects their available energy in ways they never would have anticipated. Sharing space with partners, children, and pets far more than “usual” also has unforeseen effects on our energy.

And some clients have shared with me that when “small” but unexpected things go wrong, dealing with them uses up much more energy than it did prior to the pandemic. There’s also a cumulative thing here: as the days and weeks and months pile up, what didn’t feel as challenging in April may feel very challenging in October (and vice versa, for some).

So what we might have gotten “used to” expecting from ourselves may not be at all realistic now. And this is where we have an opportunity, as I did all those years ago, to practice self-acceptance. What is true for us, now? Not a year ago, but right now?

I’ve been slowly recognizing that I need to “interrupt” the perfectionist, overachiever part of me sooner than I used to. I’d gotten much better at not allowing that part of me to call all the shots over the years, but I still often let her get a foothold and then needed to sort of grab her by the ankle and steadily loosen her grip.

Now, what’s true for me is that it’s more helpful not to let her get a foothold in the first place. And often, I simply don’t have the “excess” energy to allow that, so when I sense her trying to take the reins, I’m kinda like, “Nope, sorry, my dear, you do not get to do that today.” It comes from this very calm, kind, and quietly fierce place in myself. Nope. Not happening. We don’t have the bandwidth.

I’ve also noticed more than ever how our nervous systems and our available energy are exquisitely connected. If you are familiar with research on trauma, you may know about the “window of tolerance.” This is the space within which our nervous systems are neither hyperactivated and overstimulated (we might relate these states to the “fight” or “flight” stress responses), nor are they underactivated or shut down (these states connect to the “freeze”, “overwhelm”, or “collapse” stress responses).

The more we can stay in, or return to, our window of tolerance (which Elaine Aron refers to as our “optimal range of arousal” in her book The Highly Sensitive Person), the more sustainable, renewable energy we will have available to us over time, and the more we will stay connected to our creative, resourceful selves, where we are able to perceive many more options available to us than we do when when we are locked in a stress response.

I’ve been encouraging my energetically zapped clients to notice. Notice what happens for them when they begin to get outside of their window of tolerance. Do they feel agitated, headache-y, pushed or rushed? Do they feel sleepy (when it’s not time to go to bed), disconnected, tuned out? All of these might be signs that they are starting to move out of the zone of tolerance into a stress response.

Of course, sometimes stress responses come upon us suddenly. We read something in the newsfeed (right?!?), we get a piece of bad news about someone we love, we worry about health issues (and receiving care for them) more than before. We might find that some of our support networks are eroding, or have dissolved. In the U.S., as of this writing, many of us are feeling an intense amount of election stress. All of this means we’re leaving that “zone of tolerance” probably a LOT.

That will happen — there’s no way to completely keep it from happening — but we can return to our zone of tolerance once we realize we’re having a stress response.

So I often ask my clients two questions: 1) How do you know your nervous system is getting over-activated, or shutting down? and 2) How do you know you’re in a stress response?

When we can identify these signs for ourselves, we can take actions to bring our nervous systems back “online” — to that “safe and social” zone where we feel calm, alert, and able to connect with others.

So how can we regulate our nervous systems when they’re either hyperactivated or shutdown? I’ll go into more depth on this in a future post, but for now:

  • For hyperactivated nervous systems, think calming, soothing, comforting. What can you do to bring these states to your nervous system? Call a friend? Take a walk? Take four deep breaths? Have a cup of chamomile tea? (It worked for Peter Rabbit!)
  • For shut-down nervous systems, think small, manageable, actionable — to get you out of “freeze” state. Attempting anything too big at this point will feel overwhelming and only create more “freeze.” But very small actions that feel “doable” can help shift you out of freeze and into movement, even something as small as brushing your teeth, stretching, or interacting with your pet.

In the meantime, Happy Halloween! And, if you’re in the U.S., please VOTE!

What are you noticing about your energetic ebbs and flows during this time? And what helps you regulate your nervous system? I’d love to hear from you.

And: I finally have some limited availability for new private coaching clients. If you’re in need of support right now, feel free to check out this page to see if we might be a fit. 

Above images by Alex Simpson on Unsplash, Beth Teutschmann on Unsplash, and Angelina Jollivet on Unsplash respectively

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