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Where does your energy go?

August 13, 2013
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I had a conversation in early May of this year that sticks with me.  I think of it often, like it’s stuck to the insides of my skull and I could not scrape it off even if I wanted to.

A friend of mine and I sat on a hill of grass overlooking Boston as the sun set.   I wondered aloud to him — “You know that feeling of bliss, of being so in love with the world, and so passionately delighted to be alive?”

“Yeah,” he responded, a bit of wist in his voice.

“Didn’t you used to feel that way all of the time?  I used to feel that way all of the time.   It was my default.  Now — I’m lucky if I can muster that feeling up for a few brief moments every month.  What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied.

Then, at the same time, we both said, “It’s because we’re adults.”

The difference between childhood and adulthood is mostly responsibility, in my opinion.  It’s about having to take care of things.  It’s about having things be at stake in your decision making.  And it’s not not just anything at stake in your decision making, but important things.  Your health, the health of your significant other, parents, and children, your career, and your ability to keep putting food on the table are just a few examples.  Your ability to pay for insurance and to have a roof over your head.   Looked at from this angle, being an adult is about bearing stress.  It’s about juggling all of these things and taking care of so many people.  Stress is worry — it takes your brain’s resources and directs them towards managing your responsibilities.

The thing is, however — that this worry is the precise thing that separates us from the youthful joy of being alive.  

————-

So it’s not the responsibility that robs us of freedom and joy per se.  But it’s the mental energy that comes along with it.

Think about the times in which you happily engage others, really enjoy yourself, and spread love.  Think about the times in which it is easy to be open, to be loving, and to be joyful.  Are they not the times in which you are the most unburdened and free?  In which you are unafraid, and do not bear the weight of fear and stress?

Alternatively, think about times of your life in which you have had many things to worry about.  Do you not feel curled into your own self?  Do you not feel as though it is more difficult to positively engage the people around you?   Ever have an impending deadline and snarl at every person who approaches your workstation?  God forbid they disrupt your ability to get the damn thing done on time.

To be honest, all of this is okay, I think.  It makes perfect sense.   I see it as a matter of energy.   Each of us only has a given amount of energy.   This energy can be directed anywhere — toward sadness, anger, play, delight, or diligent work.   But it cannot go everywhere.  And it is limited.  And your biological priority is taking care of yourself and your responsibilities first and foremost (or your offspring and family, but that’s just as draining.)

So when you are worried, anxious, stressed, or have any kind of mentally-demanding challenge floating arond in your brain, you direct your energy inward.   You do everything you can with all of the resources at your disposal to manage your responsibility.  You might overshoot and give it more energy than it needs, but you are still doing your best and you need to be understood and forgiven for that.  On the flipside, when you are not anxious, stressed, or have inner-problems toward which you need to direct energy, then you are liberated to give your energy to other things.  To happy things.  To external things.  You are free to play, free to laugh, and free to love.

The reason I bring this all up is because I think it is one of the most important factors for overall wellness.

We talk about stress a lot in the health world.  But what do we mean by this, and what is its real effect?  What are the different kinds of stress?   How should we handle it?

Understanding stress in this way helps me navigate it better and reduce it.  I know that my body directs all of its energy toward my responsibilities because it is doing its best to keep me alive.   But does it have to?  Can I not allocate time for certain worries, and firmly tell my brain to cool it at other times, and let the gratitude and joy of liberated living flow into that vacuated space?

Understanding stress in this way makes me forgive myself for being stressed in the first place, too. It’s okay — I understand now that my body and my brain are doing their best to help me.  I understand that they demand my energy because they think they need it in order for me to be safe.  Sometimes I don’t need them to do this, and I can tell them to relax and take a break for a while.  On the other hand, sometimes I really do need to give 100 percent of my energy to the problem I am dealing with.  When this is the case, I let myself do it.

I understand that I actually need to devote all of my energy to stressful events sometimes.  This is important.  In some sense, it’s an acceptance of my basic humanity and fragility where I let my need to take care of things override my desire to feel or ability to act outside of this stressful zone.  I let my stress run its course through me without resistance.  I give myself to the demands my situation has put upon me, and I let my brain do the mental work it wants to do.  When I can accept and live through times of crisis in this way, then even the fact that my brain has demanded 100 percent of my mental energy does not make me feel as wretched at it normally does, because I know that this is the best and most efficient way to weather the storm.  My stress and I in this case work together rather than against each other.

This works for me in a million different realms, particularly when it is a professional or social situation that demands thought and care.   This is especially important for me as someone who’s job it is, literally, to think.  Though it works in myriads of other ways, too, particularly in how I relate to myself and manage my relationship with myself.

Many of us worry about our health.  Or we worry about how loved we are.  Or how beautiful we are.  Or something.  But how much energy do we need to give that?  What does your brain need in order to efficiently achieve a level of safety and love?  Do you let your stress have the time that it needs?  Do you let yourself think and research health issues the appropriate amount of time?    You can do it too much, and you can do it too little.  What is right for you?  What is the best way to work with your stress and the mental energy it is demanding, rather than against it?

All decent food for thought, in my opinion.  What do you think?  Do you experience a limited amount of energy that can either go inward or outward?  What helps you feel positive and share your positivity rather than being curled inside of yourself?

What helps you feel the grand joy and excitement of being alive?

What are your strategies for keeping stress from getting in the way?

 

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Where does your energy go? | Paleo Digest

  2. Yes! We only have so much energy to spread, and it becomes more of an issue the more you want out of life. The allocation-of-energy has become a predominant theme for me in the past few years. I no longer waste too much of my energy on meaningless conflicts and unfulfilling tasks or endeavors (some of it has to be – like housework, errands, repairs, etc). Overall, more with every passing year, I guard my energy allocation like it’s the Holy Grail. This makes for more joy.

  3. I’m going to disagree with the first part of what you said. I was being abused as a kid, but I was still happier, because I didn’t have the bigger picture, so enjoyed the happy moments more (and compartmentalized the rest). It’s cognitive development – in early adolescence in educated populations, we start processing information differently, analyzing it better, and can get bogged down in that. But we’re connecting the dots more, and it can take us out the other side if we can figure out how.

    What I have discovered recently (since January) is binaural beat brainwave entrainment, which is like meditation, but without any work. You just listen, with headphones (you need to do it in stereo), and it integrates your hemispheres or something, and slows down your brainwaves. It’s like the emdr I emailed you about privately last year but better. (Not safe for people with epilepsy, unfortunately, though there may be a biofeedback equivalent.) I feel much less stressed out, calmer and more rational. I don’t feel the same highs or the same lows to the same degree, but more of a peaceful centred feeling. It’s weird, I tell you. Of course, I’m still plenty neurotic. It’s only been since January! But the rest should fall away over the next few years, if what they say is true. I’m so impressed, I want to do research on it.

    I don’t think stress is something we can think our way out of. I think we also need mind-body techniques. (At least, I think that’s what the research is saying.)

  4. I’m a long time reader, but for the first time I feel compelled to comment on this very interesting self-reflection. You imply, in my opinion very correctly, that stress is a state of disrupted mental and physical homeostasis warranting coping mechanisms that consume the resources that otherwise may have been allocated to feelings of pleasure and joy. I became so fascinated by this that I made it the topic of my PhD. I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that it’s not you, it’s your dopamine that blunts the experience of pleasure in times of stress, or rather, it fails to make us aware of rewards we get..you see, dopamine signals the presence of both stress and reward, but when the stress is chronic, intense and overwhelming, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine and the rewards get overlooked. It’s like a small group of fans trying to cheer for a team when the whole stadium is booing and whistling against at the same time. No one will notice the fans and the team will feel defeated. After a whole season of such experiences, an affective disorder may arise. Even worse, some of us may be hyper-sensitive to stress because of childhood trauma, genetics, etc and we only need very little of it to blunt our sense of joy. How to turn this around? Assuming that the underlying mechanism is correct, I can see two solutions : 1) maintain the brain flooded with dopamine from rewards to make it less sensitive to stress, or 2) prevent the brain from over-reacting to stress in the first place to detect the rewards – both can be accomplished through changes in immediate environment that create room for mental detox such as spending some time looking at green, open spaces, or into the faithful eyes of a dog or a loved one, visualizing ourselves in a happy, peaceful place, taking dopamine precursors to saturate the system, eating nourishing food..the right neurons will surely fire to that and that’s not magic, it’s basic neuroscience. Much dopamine to you, Stephanie!

  5. You can think your way out of stress in some ways.

    Make decisions to stay active and eat healthy. When I treat my body well I feel so much better – less stress and anxiety for sure.

    For me, I make sure I get enough protein and vitamins, do yoga daily (even if it is just for 15 minutes), and go running and hiking.

    The yoga really helps my mind slow down and team up with the rest of my body. I get stressed when I obsess over things that are out of my control, and being mindful of my breathing really helps clear my mind. It is also a really great workout – which makes me feel better about giving myself enough time and energy. Running is the same, it helps clear my mind and releases those feel good chemicals in the brain.

    :)

  6. To get to that feeling…its a path you walk in your mind. I would suggest exploring the world of psilocybin, because its like having a Sherpa show you the way, and if you habituate the path enough, you can find it yourself without any other means. You can also do this through meditation, chanting, drumming, and other endeavors that connect mind to body, but for some of us whose paths have been blocked or grown over due to past traumatic events and/or conditioning, its very useful to use these old sacred journeys to remap our hearts and minds and find that path again.

  7. Pingback: Lovely Links & Sunday Affirmation | Running with Balance

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