©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

To recharge themselves, individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of circumstances they’re facing.

Harvard Business Review 10/07
“Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”

articles200408My iPhone vibrated into electronic life. The voice sounded hesitant, fatigued, maybe even in pain.

“I stumbled across your website,” the speaker said, “and found the article on PASS [Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome]. It sounded a lot like me. I have several of the symptoms, but I am unable to pinpoint any specific event that might have triggered them. Where do I go from here?”

Interestingly, it was the third call that morning: three different people in three different countries; three different but similar stories. Three unrelated individuals who did not feel good, had little energy, couldn’t sleep, and were marginally desperate for answers.

This is what I told each of them. Every brain and body is unique, as is everyone’s life journey. This means that goals for health and wellness need to be customized for each person. However, there are strategies that, when practically applied, can help a person move toward living an optimum lifestyle. Since PASS describes a cluster of eight symptoms, I like to identify the “where to from here” as a cluster of eight recovery tips.

Step #1: Identify your history

Many are living unbalanced lives consumed with frantic doing, having lost all track of being. Are you one of them? Evaluate your lifestyle history. If you are unable to identify an event that triggered the development of PASS symptoms, what happened that pushed you to develop the lifestyle you are living? What reinforced your brain’s innate bent, making it difficult, if not impossible, to live authentically?

Understand where you’ve built your skills and identify the types of tasks and activities that energize versus drain your energy. Figure out your Achilles heel, so to speak, and then minimize the time spent on tasks that are exhausting your brain and body. As the Harvard Business Review put it so succinctly, identify energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of whatever circumstances you’re facing.

Creating and living high-level-healthiness is a journey, not a one-stop fix. Commit to be in this for the long haul, learning for the rest of your life. Hopefully, you will be alive for a long time, so you might as well start now learning how to be the happiest, healthiest, most energetic, and successful person you can be.

In fact, living authentically may be the most important thing you can do in life--for yourself, for others, and maybe even for the world. Blame is out.  Most people did the best they could at the time with the knowledge and tools they possessed, you included. Even if your history involves evil you can’t go back and redo it. If you need to forgive yourself and others in order to improve your health, do so. (Refer to the mini-monograph “To Forgive or Not to Forgive.”)

Step #2: Obtain a medical evaluation

Sometimes an underlying health challenge contributes to symptoms. Sometimes the person’s lifestyle serves as a trigger. Discuss your health history with a trusted physician to identify whether a serious underlying illness or disease exist. If yes, obtain appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment.

If there is no underlying disease process, look for other health issues. Everyone has developed some energy-depleting behaviors. Sometimes those include serious addictive behaviors or other deficiencies in appropriate self-care. In a general sense, the super-ego enables a person to take very good care of themselves as well as think of the good of others. Unfortunately, many allow these two concepts to swing out of balance. Hone your super-ego and practice effective self-care.

There’s always something you can do to improve your health; your physician or trusted health care professional can often help you craft essential strategies.

Step #3: Become mindfully aware

Many people drift through life from hour to hour and day to day without much conscious awareness of what is happening in the moment. Become mindfully aware of your thoughts, what is going on around you, your reactions and behaviors, and your energy level at any given moment. All three of my morning phone calls were from people who were aware they were out of energy. None had developed the skill of identifying the relative energy expenditures different tasks required. Consequently, they were not minimizing time spent on energy-exhausting tasks and maximizing time spent on energy-efficient tasks.

Make sure you have pen and paper or iPad or some other tool handy that will allow you to make a note. Each time you complete a specific task write down the energy you expended on a scale of 1-10. Is balancing your check book a 2 or an 8? Is making your bed a 1 or a 7?  Is practicing your favorite instrument a 3 or a 10? You get the idea.

What tasks do you procrastinate--or would if you thought you could? Your brain knows where your energy goes! Often it pushes you to avoid tasks that involve higher levels of energy expenditures. Sometimes it allows you to become irritable when even thinking about doing specific tasks. Over time a pattern will emerge. Pay attention to that pattern and use it to create a more energy-efficient lifestyle. Find ways to minimize the time you spend doing energy-exhausting tasks.

Step #4: Obtain daily exercise

Physical exercise is essential to brain and immune-system health. It is also key to managing negative stressors. The brain, which has no muscles, needs physical exercise to help rush the blood through it, blood which removes toxic materials and waste products and replaces oxygen, glucose, and micronutrition. In addition, the immune system’s lymph vessels are not ringed with muscles as are blood vessels, so lymph vessels depend on physical exercise to keep lymph fluid from pooling around ankles and feet.

Four exercise types are recommended: aerobic, balance, endurance, and strength. Do some type of exercise every day, making sure to include all four types some time during the week. Walking, biking, and swimming are examples of aerobic exercise. Studies have shown that walking in nature can lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, while walking indoors does not. Dr. Michael Lara recommends a 15-45 minute walk in nature five days a week, stopping periodically to pick up a rock for lift-above-your-head exercising and then returning to your walk or bike ride.

Be wise—make time to exercise. Every day! Even if you are confined to bed or a wheelchair, there is usually some exercise you can do.

Step #5:  Live a positive mindset

Develop the habit of living in a state of gratitude. You may be amazed at the improvement to your health: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Begin each day by identifying something for which to be grateful, and then continue to do so throughout the day at every opportunity. Choose to dwell on the positives in life and minimize any tendency to criticize, whine, or complain. (You know what whining is: anger squeezing out through a very small opening!)

The human brain is hardwired for joy--the only emotion that has no negative outcomes when maintained over time. This implies neither a Pollyanna approach to life nor an ostrich stance. Bad things happen to good people all the time. When that occurs, acknowledge what happened, take appropriate corrective action, and then look for the lesson or gift or opportunity. To learn more about emotions and feelings and the differences between them, check out articles under “Emotions” on the website. Knowledge is power!

In life you typically give up something to get something. Of course, the reverse is also true. You usually get something when you give something up. Sometimes what you get is something completely unexpected and often quite wonderful. Something you never even thought of. When one door closes, stop banging your head on it. Look for the open door instead. There is always an open door, although I missed a great many of them earlier in life, generally being too busy pounding on the closed door. Without exception, the open door offered me more than whatever was behind the closed door. I just had to move forward and identify the opportunity it presented.

Step #6:  Live in balance

Create and live a balanced lifestyle. You are the only person who can do this for you. The brain and body function best when they are used in balance within a balanced environment. Make a list of key factors that contribute to high-level healthiness and then include them in balance. Remember that more than half the factors that have been found to delay the onset of symptoms of aging are within your partial if not complete control.

Here are just a couple key factors to consider.

  • Rest and sleep. Are you sleep deprived? Studies have shown that at 20 hours without sleep, you are functioning at the level of a brain that has reached the California legal limit of alcohol intoxication (.08). And it just goes downhill from there. Each brain has an optimal sleep requirement. Figure out what is optimum for your brain and make it happen. Inadequate sleep can be a consequence of working swing or night shifts. If that is your work schedule, do whatever it takes to get an adequate amount of sleep. This may require a 15-minute catnap once or twice during a 24-hour period. A solid hour before you want to fall asleep, turn off all electronics that have LED lights. They tend to excite the brain. Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Light in the bedroom can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that is essential to sleep.
  • Water intake. Are you dehydrated? Lack of sufficient water intake can create a plethora of problems for brain and body. Dehydration can accelerate the rate of aging and increase free-radical production, neither of which are on my “to do” list. Unless you have a medical condition for which you have been advised to limit intake of fluids, drink water for your brain and body. If you have grown accustomed to drinking primarily fruit juice, colas, and coffee or tea, you may have to teach your taste buds to love pure water. It is the premium beverage for both brain and body. Estimates vary, but generally the body is composed of over 70% water, while the brain is around 85% or more. If your brain is short of water it does whatever it can do to get what it needs. For example, it may cause you to feel thirsty so you will drink water. It may even direct your bladder to concentrate its urine and send fluid to the brain. That’s a most unattractive proposition and puts a different spin on the term pea brain! How much is enough? A physician colleague of mine recommends drinking sufficient amount of water to produce two very pale urines per day.

Step #7:  Eat well

What do you eat, how much do you eat, how often do you eat, and when? Is meal time an enjoyable experience that you often share with supportive family and friends? Do you laugh while you eat? Those are all components of eating well. Many people expend needless amounts of energy ingesting and digesting more calories than brain and body need, exhausting the gastrointestinal (GI) system in the process.

As to what to eat, it’s pretty basic, actually. Multiple studies point toward the benefits of a Mediterranean style of eating. I go for the 20:80 rule myself¾80 percent of the time or more I lean toward a Mediterranean style of eating; up to 20 percent of the time I allow leeway for when traveling or when I want the taste of a favorite food (rice pudding or apple crisp) for variety and “old time’s sake.”

Increasingly, information is surfacing on the internet about the benefits of intermittent fasting. It’s a strategy designed to give your GI system a much needed rest for from 12-18 hours, one to three times a week. There are a couple of options:

  • Eat breakfast and lunch on a given day and then eat no food (drinking water only) until breakfast the following morning
  • Eat lunch and dinner on a given day and then drink water only until brunch late morning of the following day

Avoid worrying about inadequate amounts of glucose. Typically, the body has a 36-hour store of glucose. Intermittent fasting has been shown not only to help keep the GI system rested and energetic but also to maintain an optimum body weight due to the slight reduction in caloric intake. What a bonus!

Step #8:  Manage expectations 

Many people drift through life rather mindlessly, acting out the script they were handed at birth. You may need to do some Family-of-Origin Work to help you identify the expectations you have been following¾yours as well as those of others¾and consciously evaluate how they are impacting your life and health. (Refer to the mini-monograph “Family-of-Origin Work.”)

Which expectations are realistic, desirable, and contributing to your success? Which are not? Are you caretaking, exhausting yourself by doing for others what they can and need to do for themselves? Are you giving out of the well of your own unmet needs, thereby putting yourself into a life-deficit position? Be brutally honest: denial is more than a river in Egypt! Caretaking is very different from caring.

Develop a healthy selfishness that allows you to create and sustain a happy, healthy, balanced life—by design. This not only gives you energy to thrive but also provides an energy base (a full cup) from which to help others. Whom do you hang out with? You may need to do some pruning. Consciously and deliberately develop a circle of friends who are on a similar journey to health, happiness, and success; individuals who live a positive mindset, have a dynamite sense of humor, and laugh a lot. Studies show that people who live a very long time and who are typically   healthy laugh several hundred times a day.

In conclusion

Metaphorically, you have been leased a BMW brain and body for use on this planet. (Okay, Mustang, Mercedes, Maserati, Rolls Royce, Toyota, Leaf... Your choice!) How are you caring for your amazing life-vehicle? Unfortunately, at birth you were not handed a concise and helpful how-to-care-for-me manual. Fortunately, conclusions from research studies can provide you with a good start on creating your own manual. As I spoke with each of the three individuals, I suggested they create a personalized Owner’s Manual. Figure out how to apply strategies in ways that work for your unique brain and body. The goal is to keep your leased vehicle functioning smoothly, effectively, and energy-efficiently for a very long time.

There is good news. Developing a high-level wellness lifestyle can often help you resolve symptoms of PASS. It certainly did in my case! Sometimes you can even avoid burnout and mid-life crisis. If you’re already in that state, the strategies can assist you in recovery. Be patient with yourself. You didn’t get into this situation overnight and you won’t resolve it overnight.

You can, however, begin implementing strategies immediately, one at a time. When you have a handle on one, add another, and then another. Before long you may just find yourself living a consistent, balanced, energetic, high-level-healthiness lifestyle.

To be clear, you are the only person who can do this for you.

Start now!


NOTE: There are other strategies, as well. Refer to Taylor’s article “A Brain-Friendly Lifestyle” for a baker’s dozen. Also refer to Taylor’s book Age-Proofing Your Brain—21 Factors You Can Control.