Tag Archives: energy

Managing the energy

For some months now, I’ve really been struggling with energy levels. It’s affected what work I can do, and how far I can walk. It’s also been depressing and worrying. I’ve been making a lot of changes in order to try and handle things better and in the hopes of being able to recover from this to some degree.

I notice that I tend to think of poor energy as a head issue. It’s one I’ve previously dealt with by applying willpower and pushing through. Like a lot of people dealing with fatigue, I have a history of not being taken very seriously and being encouraged to think of it as a personal failing, not a body issue. I find that when I treat low energy as something that is happening to my body – not as a failure to make enough effort – I can improve things. Mostly it’s about food and rest.

Increasing my food intake often helps. Even if it doesn’t solve the energy problem, it tends to ease the panic and depression that go with having run out of energy. Toast is my friend. Fruit is also good. Plant-milks are easy to digest and sometimes biscuits are the answer. I have to remind myself that comfort eating doesn’t make me a terrible person, and that I am allowed to do things that help me feel less horrible.

Rest makes a lot of odds, and as I’ve explored in previous posts (Doing Nothing) sometimes flopping in a heap is about the only option I have. I’ve established that how and when I rest makes a lot of odds. It is currently fair for me to assume that I’ll get three or four hours in a day with good concentration and scope to be active, and that I might get a few hours beyond that where I can do some things in a more limited way – reading or crafting perhaps. I can no longer just work flat out in the way I used to. To have four hours or so of good brain, I have to take breaks. Slow the pace and more becomes possible. I still have to be careful not to wipe myself out, but pacing is clearly key.

I have to prioritise. I have to say no to things. I have to make the time to stop and recover.  It’s a lot to learn and is requiring me to identify and rethink a lot of beliefs I have about myself. I need to feel that I am allowed to rest, and I need to deal with the voices I have internalised that tell me otherwise. If I keep on as I was, I will likely get worse. If I can change things, there’s some hope of turning this around.


New to managing your energy?

There’s going to be a lot of this about – people who used to be fine but who now need to manage their energy carefully. Fatigue is a common symptom of long covid. The psychological and emotional impact of lockdown is leaving people depressed, burnt out and exhausted. How do you cope?

My husband Tom recently had a stroke and went from being someone who could safely assume they had plenty of energy, to someone whose energy is unreliable. It’s come as a shock to him. So, be ready for it to be a shock and give yourself time and space to process that.

Often when people talk about poor energy they talk about spoons, and waking up in the morning and having to decide how to deploy whatever energy is available.  Only in practice, you won’t know – especially not when you’re new to this – how far the available energy might go or how tiring any specific activity might be. Things that used to be easy will no longer be easy and you will, at first, have no idea how to budget for that. Learning how to assess the energy cost and to budget for it takes a while – try to be gentle with yourself while you figure this out, and know that you will get it wrong sometimes. It’s ok to get this wrong, this is a steep learning curve at a really unhelpful, under-resourced time.

You have to decide what’s most important. If you want any hope of getting out of your low energy state, you have to decide that your health is the most important thing, and the people around you need to support that choice. (This isn’t always an option, sadly.) You then have to start off in the morning with the things that will most help you with your health. That’s going to be personal and will also need figuring out. Budget in time to rest, move slowly, but try to keep moving because you will feel better if you’re able to get something done – that might be a shower, or an email, or a small walk – whatever works for you. Set your sights low, aim low, but try and manage something.

You’re going to need patience. You’re going to have to forgive yourself for what you can’t do and be ok with asking other people to cover for you. Give yourself time. Healing takes a while. Learning how to manage what you’ve got also takes a while.


Returning to the Earth

If you live with deciduous trees, then late autumn is a time of shifting energy. When there are buds, leaves and other growth, trees are very sky orientated. Being amongst trees will tend to take your attention up into the canopy. What you see of trees from a distance will be dominated by their furthest reaches into the air. In summer, leaves are drawing energy from the sun, the tree is interacting with this energy in very literal ways.

Once the leaves start falling, that process will take your attention downwards. That might be in watching leaves come from the treetops and head for the soil. If you walk in fallen leaves, then the sound and texture of them may draw your attention downwards. Also, given how good fallen leaves are at hiding surprise poo, puddles and potholes looking down carefully is often a good idea! As the leaves come down, energy from the tree – energy that was in the sky – held in leaves grown from sunlight – is returning to the earth, where that energy will be released into the soil.

Winter exposes the roots. With undergrowth tending to die back, it can be a good deal easier to see the base of a tree in winter. Again, this shift tends to draw our attention and we may become more aware of trees as rooted beings, going down deep into the soil.

Autumn tends to be fungus season. In woodland this means that we get to see something of the life beneath the soil. Fungi live in vast networks, interacting with tree roots. Much of the life of a wood happens beneath the surface, where we can’t see it. The appearance of fungi in the autumn is a reminder of what’s there all year round. It’s easier to think about things and be aware of them when there’s some more tangible sign of them, and the fungi give us that.

It’s normal to talk about life pulling down into the Earth during the winter, but important to have a more specific awareness of what that means. Tree life certainly is more earth orientated at this time of year. Each living thing responds to the seasons in its own way. For the migrating swans, early winter is all about the skies and making huge journeys guided by the stars. For amphibians, the season can be all about retreating into water to hibernate. There is no one single, simple energy narrative for any given season.


Finding more energy

I’ve had energy problems since my teens. Aged fourteen, my Doctor told me that ME didn’t exist, that it was probably psychosomatic or because I wanted to get out of doing PE. Oddly enough, I didn’t find that helpful. I figured out a lot of things on my own which have allowed me to manage my body a lot better.

I’m hypermobile, which apparently means everything is going to take me more effort than it does most people. Not a lot I can do about that, but knowing helps. It particularly helps in not blaming myself and telling myself I’m just being lazy and not trying hard enough. This in turn helps me rest when I need to and that’s improved my energy levels.

It may be the hypermobility impacting on my gut, it may be some other technical thing, but my digestive system has never been very reliable. I’ve eliminated the foods that make me ill – I can’t do meat, I can’t have too much refined anything, and I do better when I eat large quantities of fruit and veg. But, if my gut packs up, I mess up with the electrolytes and this in turn messes up my blood pressure leaving me feeling weak and useless. It took me a while to figure this because I get stressed by doctors so I don’t show up in tests as having low blood pressure!

By my early teens I was anxious about my weight, and went many rounds trying to starve myself. I’ve never been able to control my weight through any kind of dieting. In recent years I’ve focused on making sure I have the energy to be physically active. This works better for me, and having the energy from my food to do the things I want to do make a lot of odds. Investing in my diet helps with the aforementioned electrolytes issues. Having enough oil has helped reduce pain. I try to maintain good blood sugar because when low blood sugar and depression collide, energy disappears.

I’ve got the best energy levels and concentration I’ve had in a long time, and it’s more reliable than it’s ever been. I still get days when, for no reason I can identify, it’s like someone has coated my bones in lead, put old-style deep sea diving boots on my feet and sent me to walk through rivers of treacle. I don’t know what causes those days. I don’t push hard against them anymore, and I rest up as much as I can.

What this has taught me, over the years, is that my body is a really complicated thing, with many different factors involved (not all of which I have mentioned in this post). Simple, miracle cures have never cured me. Trying to work out things like how sleep, activity, stress, diet and body mechanics interact with each other is difficult, and those balances shift all the time. I’ve had to accept that I can’t totally fix myself and it’s not some kind of personal failing to have to work around some of this. Some of it is clearly genetic and I know something of the history of that in my family. Not everyone can cure all their stuff, and I’ve become very resistant to people who are adamant that a bit more magnesium and positive thinking (or whatever it is this week) would make me perfectly ok.

I’ve learned not to waste precious energy on people who are insistent about their miracle solutions. What I do know is that if a problem in your body was easily fixed, it was never that complicated a problem and it isn’t indicative of what will happen for anyone who has a whole mess of things going on.


Finding energy

Experiencing a lack of energy can become a problem for all kinds of reasons, without those reasons being obvious. I find it pays to start with the physical considerations and work from there when trying to deal with this.  It isn’t always possible to figure out the cause and deal with it directly, but these sorts of things are always worth checking and tend to help.

Getting more rest and more sleep can help a lot, even if the problem isn’t a lack of them. Emotional and mental processing can take time and energy, so gentle down-time can help fix a number of things that may be exhausting you.

Good food, being properly hydrated and being at the right temperature for you, are all really helpful things. If I’m low, I’m more likely to feel cold and will benefit from warming up. Washing may be restorative.

Sometimes it helps to stimulate yourself with some moderate activity. I suffer poor circulation and I definitely benefit, some days, from being more active rather than less. It’s a case of determining whether it will benefit you. Moving the blood around can encourage healing. Sometimes a bit of adrenaline is the right answer.

If my brain is tired then I try to do things that are mentally restful – here physical activity can be a great help, especially anything you can do at a gentle pace. I find crafting helpful, but reading isn’t reliably good when I’m brain-tired. Also be wary of mind numbing responses – shite TV, alcohol and the like can feel like a relief at the time but they aren’t giving you anything restorative. Escapism is fine, but make sure it feeds you.

I can feel low when I’m under-stimulated mentally. In which case, a creative challenge, exposure to creative work, or something I can get my teeth into is the answer. Boredom can also suck away energy, and generate apathy, so needs watching for – if you’re dealing with yourself as though you are exhausted when really you’re just devoid of enthusiasm, you can end up doing all the wrong things and making yourself feel worse.

Low emotional states can be protective. They can be a response to overload and be a way of stepping back from more than you can bear. The answer to a loss of emotional energy is seldom to be found in pushing against that. Often the best answer to look at your simplest and most physical needs and take care of those, and wait for your feelings to catch up.

Sometimes there’s a degree of trial and error in finding out what you need to change in order to improve your energy levels on any given occasion. There’s no universal right answer here, and what you need may vary from one occasion to another. Even if you can’t pull yourself up, taking care of your most basic needs will give you the best possible resources to help you cope. Take it gently. Be patient with yourself. Don’t imagine you should be other than you are, and don’t feel if you can’t find a reason, there isn’t one. Humans are complicated things, and perfect self awareness in times of difficulty is ambitious to say the least.


Storing up spoons

I’ve got a big event coming up next weekend (Asylum in Lincoln) so am in the process of trying to get ready. For me, event preparation isn’t just about what to pack and what to say in workshops, or the set list for the castle stage (late Saturday afternoon, should you happen to be there!). Event preparation is about trying to make sure I have the energy I’ll need to get through the event and some rest time after it.

This has affected how I work for the entirety of August. I’ve been doing things here and there to make sure this last week isn’t a mad dash of covering for the days when I won’t be able to work online. I’ve been doing things to improve my chances of getting some time off after the event. There will be no late nights this week, socialising outside of the event is not an option. I’m budgeting in rest time. If I’m tired when I land at an event, the whole process is harder. This is an intensive three day event in the offing plus travelling on the days on either side of that. I will need all the spoons I can get.

Obviously life doesn’t always give me these options. I don’t always know when an exhausting thing is in the offing. I can’t always pace myself for a month to make sure I can handle a bigger thing. Sometimes I just have to deal with what comes up, and recover afterwards, without having planned for that recovery time. It is not easy juggling spoons and working. It is even harder jugging spoons and working when something unexpected and demanding gets into the mix.

I have less trouble with this than I used to – partly because my energy levels have improved a bit in the last few years. Partly because I’ve become very good at forward planning. Even when there’s nothing going on, I pace myself, I try to make sure I don’t wear myself out unless I am totally sure I can spend the next day in a limp heap. I’ve also got better at figuring out how to have those limp heap days. This in turn means that most of the time I can have a social life, and having a social life improves my overall resilience.

None of this is terribly obvious from the outside. The forward planning, and the cost afterwards aren’t noticeable to other people, when I get things right. I have no doubt the same is true of many other people who have got good and reliable strategies and know how to work around their own limitations. Of course not all energy limitations are predictable, either. If I have a really bad patch, all bets are off. For some people, there is no predictability so there’s no scope to outthink the problem.

People who see me at events will see an up-beat, communicative, outgoing person. Unless someone is dealing with me in a much more personal way, they won’t see my coping mechanisms and they won’t see what happens when I stop coping. On the whole, that suits me, but I’m aware it can create a misleading impression. It’s important to me to mention this, because you can’t see from the outside what’s going on with anyone and they may not choose to show you. If your first encounter is when they run out of options, it may be hard to believe what you’re seeing, if you never thought there was anything wrong. Knowing that people can have invisible energy issues can make it easier to respond well when you run into that.


Emotional Energy

For people who feel keenly (is that all of us, or only some of us, I’m never sure!) emotions take a lot of energy. I assume this works as a spectrum and that the more intensely you feel things, the more those emotions take up energy. I also find that the more powerful the emotion, the more time I need to digest it, process it, and accommodate it. This is also true for me in dealing with potent positive experiences.

The incredible high of something going amazingly well and being rich with excellent feedback, brilliant outcomes and wholehearted emotional engagement from other people can, if I’m not careful, lead to desperate plummets. Coming down off a high like that can be nothing short of a crash. However, I’ve found in recent years that if I give myself processing time in the aftermath, I cope a lot better. Walking home talking over whatever happened, writing about it, eating toast, drinking tea, bringing my body down gently.

I find anger takes a terrible toll on me. It’s not an emotion I’m prone to and I can only sustain it in very short bursts, and it leaves me wiped out. The aftermath of anger tends to bring massive anxiety and no confidence. I second guess myself, mistrust my first impulse, and can easily fall into depression. Historically, anger has not been a safe emotion for me to express in any way and I’m still learning how to make room for it without harming myself. No doubt this is part of why it leaves me exhausted. For other people, anger can be a source of energy and fuels feelings if self righteousness and power. We’re all different.

Squashing down sad feelings can seem like a way of avoiding negativity and staving off depression. My experience is that in the longer term, it has the exact opposite impact. Pains and griefs that are dealt with at the time can be let go of. Anything we repress or deny festers inside us, often to return with greater force at a later date. Unprocessed grief can become a very heavy thing to carry, and it can crush you.

It takes a surprising amount of energy to not deal with powerful feelings. Pretending that everything is fine is one of the most expensive emotional activities that I’ve ever encountered. Over time, it is exhausting, leaving me not only feeling threadbare and depressed, but also inauthentic and hollow. Having space for your own feelings is a key part of getting to feel like a real person, not some kind of robot. Feeling obliged to hide how you feel to appease others eats away at self esteem, identity and confidence. People who do not have room for your real responses are not good people to spend time with. If you can’t get out of that situation, making private, personal space for how you really feel is essential. A few minutes locked in a bathroom can be a sanity saver.

We associate being cool and in control with being mature and responsible. Our culture is suspicious of emotional outbursts and quick to label them as childish, irresponsible, or manipulative. You don’t get to be the kind of person who is always calmly in control by not feeling things. Not least because if you don’t let yourself feel, you never find out what you feel, and thus never really know who you are, and this is the egg from which future breakdowns in mental health will hatch.


Low energy, decent output

Recently, Jen over at Liminal Luminous blogged about the problem with the perceived need to work long hours in order to be successful. As a person with limited energy, Jen obviously struggles with this and it struck me that I might be able to speak to this in a useful way. So, here is what I know.

Firstly, take the time to define success. Is it just about money? Success can mean best outcomes, quality of life, friendship, doing inherently rewarding work. Once your physical needs are met, more money doesn’t confer significantly more happiness anyway.

Secondly, most of us – even the entirely healthy people – are only really good for about four hours a day. You may not be able to manage four. Work out how many hours you are likely to have of high quality output. Once you get beyond those hours, the quality and speed of what you can do, will diminish. People tell themselves that they’re working hard when they’re working long hours. The odds are for much of that time, they are working tired, inefficient and not capable of their best thinking. Long wasted hours are of no use. Be clever. Make the most of your best time and then rest.

None of us can work flat out all the time. Whatever you do, you need time to re-charge, and to let your mind chew on things in an unstructured way. I don’t have good ideas while I’m busy working. I have good ideas when I’m walking, crafting, and cleaning. I work more effectively when I have a coherent plan, considered goals, a sense of direction and new ideas. I don’t get those by trying to work all the time, I have to make quiet space for them. If I’m not well rested, I’m not able to work.

Being uber-busy is not sustainable. Sooner or later, you burn out, or crack up, or get sick. Again, this is as much an issue for people who started out well as it is for the rest of us. Burning out, cracking up, getting sick, succumbing to anxiety and depression… these are not things that improve your productivity or bring success. Being ill is not a winning outcome. Being too ill to keep going is not a winning move either. Plan for the long term, and remember that your health – mental and physical – is also a measure of success. For some of us, simply staying viable is an epic win. If you trash your health for the sake of money, you are not going to be successful in the medium to long term.

The trick is pacing. Know your limits and you can make the best use of what you’ve got without pushing yourself into dysfunction. If you’re going to be self employed as a person with chronic illness or energy problems, then there are ways to make it more viable. It might sound blindingly obvious, but you have to focus on what you can do rather than what exhausts you. There’s no point aspiring to be a paid youtuber if sitting in front of a camera wipes you out. Look at what your body and mind can sustain. Ask what you can do most effectively in the time available to you. Look for the resources, platforms and opportunities that suit how you can actually work, not how you think you’re supposed to work.

Being an overnight success takes years. It takes most businesses three years to starting breaking even and moving towards profit. If your primary cost is your own time, you can do better than that. The temptation of course is to try and speed up your profit making by throwing more hours at it, but that isn’t a sure fire solution.

I reliably have four hours a day, often more but with that extra being less clever, plus uncertainty as to how much more from day to day. I do the most important bill paying work over four mornings a week. I do the more speculative stuff in the afternoons. I get far more done now than I used to when I was trying to work eight hour days and more. We get by financially, and I am far less ill than I was because I have more time for self care.


Taking back power

Loss of power sounds like a dramatic thing, doesn’t it? You’d spot someone stealing your power, surely? This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last year, struggling to find the energy I need to do the things I both need, and want to do. I started to ask where my energy was going, and over time I realised that apparently small energy losses can add up to a very large power drain. Based on a mix of experience and observation, here are some examples of how power is stolen.

Time is the most precious thing. People who feel entitled to use up your time with their things, who offer nothing in return. Who don’t pay any attention when you tell them you are busy, or need to be somewhere else, or can’t do it right now. Just a few minutes day by day of taking your time to no good purpose can be quite the energy sapper. People who are always late and keep you waiting can steal a lot of time.

Asking for unpaid work. Asking that you stay on for just a little bit, or just do an extra thing – always presented as small and no big deal. Again, when this happens all the time, a great deal of time and energy is sucked up by it. Unpaid work that you didn’t volunteer for is basically theft. I’ve also seen this where people with more power slack off to make people with less power bear more of the load, thus taking even more power from them.

Demanding you do emotional labour can be a massive energy sapper. In a true relationship, people look after each other. You hear each other’s problems when they come along, you support each other, help each other figure stuff out. When one person demands support of another but gives nothing in return, they are stealing energy. When you say ‘I’m in a bad place right now and I can’t really help you,’ and they say ‘sorry to hear that, but here’s my problem in great detail, what do you think about my problem? Let’s talk about me and my problem’ there’s power theft going on. People who pester if you say no, and use up more time and energy if you try to resist than they would have if you’d gone along with them, need avoiding as far as possible.

People who make you feel responsible for their problems can be exhausting to deal with. People who keep having the same problems, doing all the same things, totally ignoring all advice but still expecting emotional support, are exhausting to deal with. I’ve had this one in combination and it took me years to find the resolve to step back and not get snared in it.

When a person is in crisis, things can become unbalanced for a while. There’s no problem in that, because we all have times when we’re in trouble and we should all have time to at least listen to each other when things are tough. However, people who are attention hungry, who need to be at the centre of all things at all times, manufacture drama, inflate problems, and ignore clear signs that they’re asking too much. If you’re wired up to take care of people, inclined towards healing or nurturing, this can suck up your life.

It’s worth doing a sort of energy stock take every now and then, I’ve realised. Pausing to look at what happens, and where your energy goes, who uses it and what they do with it. I find if I’m putting energy into something or giving it to someone, and good things happen, I don’t experience it as a drain at all. What wears me down is when my energy is taken, but nothing changes. When I’m given make-work to do, or badly directed so that my work is useless. When my advice is constantly ignored yet I keep getting asked for advice on the same problems over and over again, that grinds me down.

I find it difficult saying no to people. But, I’ve learned the hard way that if I keep saying yes to people who steal my time and energy, I end up drained and useless, with my self esteem through the floor.


The Energy of Anger

Anger gets things done. It gives us the drive to rise up, making noise and change. If someone can tap into our anger, we can be persuaded to act in all kinds of unsavoury ways, feeling justified by the force of our emotions. As we live in a culture where anger itself is seen as a reason for violence, if we get angry, any physical or psychological violence we undertake as a consequence can seem justified. We may even be proud of it, our anger having told us that we have the moral high ground, and that the ends justify the means.

I think it’s always worth being wary about what we can be manipulated into doing. So much of what is nasty in politics right now comes from feeding the anger of people who feel squeezed and then telling them who to blame. And so the anger that should more rightly have been directed towards power and money is instead used to hate the poor, refugees and other powerless, vulnerable people who make easy targets.

The energy of anger feels powerful, but the trouble is that on its own, all we can use it for is to knock down. Sometimes a bit of knocking down is necessary, but it’s never a whole solution. If all we have to work with was anger then we are not prepared for dealing with the aftermath – again modern politics is littered with unfortunate examples. We go to war, we have no idea how to build peace.

In the short term, the rush of anger energy may seem productive, but it tends to emotionally exhaust people. It won’t feed or inspire you, and to stay angry you have to deliberately keep stoking the fires of hate, and this seldom does anyone much good. Groups whose unity depends on anger have to keep finding new things to hate in order to keep moving. When anger is your energy there has to be a bad guy, an enemy, and something to fight against. You can’t make anything better when your whole way of being relies on having someone to fight. You can’t smash patriarchy, you have to build an alternative.

It’s really important not to get caught up in anger, but instead to keep an eye on what we are fighting for. What’s the real goal? What are we building? How are we going to make things better? Anger used alongside this, for short term necessary bursts of action, can serve a cause well. Anger on its own can only lock us into more fighting and destruction.