Filling Up The Tank
OK, everyone. Time for a check in. Fill in the blank:
“I’m feeling _____________, and I don’t know why.” Happy? Grateful? Peaceful? Hmm. Maybe: Tired. Cranky. Worried. Sad. Mad?
It’s possible at different moments you could be feeling any of these things. Some days you may notice you are struggling more than you are used to. Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m tired all the time. I’m not sure why. I’m not really doing anything that strenuous.” or “I just feel down. There isn’t a good reason. I just am off, I guess.”
Sometimes these confessions are murmured by people used to doing well, feeling pretty good, and achieving the things they set out to do. Sometimes they are uttered by people who are already struggling and are worried that they might be heading into a serious bout of depression.
Today I want to introduce you to the idea of Surge Capacity.
Surge capacity is a part of our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic nervous system) that kicks in when we are under threat and gives us the energy to respond to a crisis event. It is related to our fight/flight/freeze response, and enables us to respond to an immediate, short term threat. These responses are linked in our biological systems. Surge capacity dumps adrenaline and cortisol into our system to allow us to sustain our energy and respond to something like, say, a flood or tornado or fire — an event that requires some sustained, but intense, effort to manage. Think about the people in California or Oregon responding to the fires or people along our southern coast dealing with yet another hurricane. This system basically speeds us up so we can respond effectively and survive. Brilliant.
However, because our brains and bodies don’t really know how to differentiate “crisis event” from experiences of ongoing chronic stress, our surge capacity can get depleted. Dealing with the COVID pandemic was this sort of ongoing crisis for our brains and bodies, forcing us out of our normal behavior patterns and limiting our social connection for months on end. Honestly, I think our brains and bodies can respond to the stress of school almost like a natural disaster, too. Though our classes may have periods that are more or less busy, there is always the crescendo to the end and we can end up feeling spent, depleted, and end up getting sick once school is over.
So what can we do if we notice that our surge capacity is getting depleted by the ongoing demands of school?
REASON FOR HOPE
Even though our sympathetic nervous system can get pretty tapped out, we also have the reasoning part of our brain, the one that tries to calm us down, reassure us that we are OK, and that an end will come. This part is a more conscious area of our brain, but is wired to our parasympathetic nervous system. This part of our brain/nervous systems is connected to our heart rate, breathing, body temperature, digestion, and sensation.
So, here is the good news: we can actually learn to leverage this part of our brain to “manually refuel” our depleted surge capacity by bringing some conscious awareness and practice to the activities related to the parasympathetic nervous system!
STRATEGIES FOR REFUELING
Humans have tremendous capacity for resilience. We survive horrible things, heal from wounds and injuries, and learn to love again after our hearts get broken. We can choose to be kind to people who are unkind. We can seek beauty in the middle of broken and barren landscapes.
So, this is a moment to learn, practice and revel in our capacity to regroup, refuel and reimagine a way forward.
1. Admit that you’re tired. Truth is truth, and hiding from it doesn’t help.
We’ve already accomplished this if you are reading this far in the blog, so take a deep breath and know that being tired is OK. It’s normal right now. And it’s survivable.
2. Pay attention to the good, wherever you can find it.
Our brains are hardwired to identify potential threats; it’s part of how we’ve survived. Because we are all exposed to the 24/7 news cycle and pervasive social media feeds, our brains are being bombarded with awareness of what’s wrong or bad. We actually have to be proactive and remind ourselves of what is good, what is working, and yes, what we are grateful for. This allows our brains a bit of respite and moves us from our stress response closer to a relaxation response. When we notice what is working, we can take a step back and observe ourselves without judgement and remind ourselves of something good, no matter how small. Breathe that in. Be grateful for that. Enjoy recognizing something that is working!
Some Quick Tips:
- Look for beauty in places you pass or see everyday, but don’t really notice. Changing leaves. Sky. Flowers.
- Look for small successes in your day. Doesn’t have to be world shattering. Just good things.
- Bring to mind people you care about and who care about you. It helps keep things in perspective.
3. Breathing. Seriously. Pay Attention.
Humans (who are not already malnourished) can live without food for about 3 weeks. Humans can live for about 3 days without water. Humans can live about 3 minutes without air. So, the role of breathing cannot be overstated. There are a LOT of ways to use breathing to shift from a stress response to a relaxation response. The simplest one that I like is called square breathing.
- Try this:
- inhale for 4 counts
- hold for 4 counts
- exhale for 4 counts
- hold for 4 counts
- (repeat 4 times)
Exercise gives our bodies an infusion of oxygen exchange. Even a simple sigh is a way our bodies shift from stressed to relaxed. So, use your breathing through the day to signal to your brain it can “stand down” for a few minutes.
4. Take your senses on a date.
Have you ever tried to “create a mood” or “get in the mood” for something good to happen on a date? Sometimes it is music, candles, a stroll along the lake at sunset… lotion, cologne or perfume, a special meal. All of these experiences heighten the experience of different senses: hearing, vision, taste, smell and touch. Use your body as an avenue to calm your brain, signaling that for right now, in this moment, you are safe.
- Take a bath with your favorite essential oil or bath salts or bubbles;
- Find a piece of fruit you like and eat it very slowly, taking time to look at it, feel the texture in your fingers and mouth, smell it, taste it;
- Light a candle or incense (unless it’s not allowed where you live);
- Put on some lotion;
- Stroll down lakeshore path (or anywhere near you that’s outdoors) at sunset;
- Sit by the lake and listen;
- Cook a meal and then take time to enjoy it. While you eat, put your fork down and take a deep breath!
- Put on your favorite music and dance in your living room.
Take a bit of time each day to refuel, just like you would refill your car’s fuel tank if it was getting low. It’s not fantasy or delusion. It’s brain training. Take a deep breath. Slow down when you are eating, chew, smile, and breathe. Give your senses some love. Notice beauty. Watch a sunset. Listen to music that makes you happy. Take a deep breath or two (or three).
OTHER TIPS FOR REFUELING
You probably already know these, so just take this as a friendly reminder:
- Get some vitamin F every day (um, that’s fresh air); sunshine — if we have it — is good, too!
- Move your body: walk, roll, bike, slide or glide, paddle (depending on the season), run, crunch, or dance .
- Find reasons to smile (smiling releases serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good)!
- Sleep is your body’s way to reboot: releases toxins and waste and stress…so, sleep well! (Here’s a different blog on sleep if you’re not sleeping as well as you’d like.
If you feel like things are bad, and none of this helps, please reach out for some extra support. We all need that sometimes…. You may also want to check out Candid Circles to see if that might be a good fit for you.
Written by Ginger Morgan, PhD
Director of Candid–Health and Life Coach