Energy Management and your Nervous System

In this article, we look at how understanding your nervous system can help you to manage your energy

Managing your energy is at least as important as managing your time. If you are feeling depleted and run down it is hard to feel productive. And that’s no matter how good your time management system is. Time management is also important – you can read my ideas on that here.

Perhaps, you feel that you have no control over your energy, you might put it down to hormone swings. Maybe you try and push through, and keep yourself going with caffeine or other stimulants? Perhaps you feel that you just have to keep going because there are so many demands on your time.

Yes, it can be hard to juggle everything! Especially when you have a challenging professional role are also raising a family. It is not easy for a lot of people.

One of the things you can do is to look at your daily activities and look at what drains you and what stimulates you. How can you limit those draining activities and people and do things that are more energising instead?

Let’s look at this from the nervous system level.

Why the nervous system? Even though it’s tempting to behave as though we are some kind of ‘head on legs’, the truth is that we inhabit a body.

Image created by Rebecca Rosen

The body is our home! Messages travel between the brain and the body via neurons in the nervous system. There are more messages coming from the body to the brain than the other way round. These messages are transmitted through the vagus nerve

Stephen Porges studied the nervous system. He developed the polyvagal theory to explain how the body responds to stress. You may be familiar with the stress responses of fight, flight and freeze. Porges defined what he calls the Window of Tolerance, which is the calm, neutral state. It’s where we want to be most of the time to stay healthy. We get thrown out of this state when a stressful thing happens. Most of the time stress puts us into an activated state. We get annoyed with someone and either we get irritated and push back (fight response). Or we simply walk away (flight response).

Normally that’s the end of it and our nervous system goes back to neutral. However, if you spend too much time being super-activated in the end you can burn yourself out. The fight or flight response evolved as a stress-response to handle difficult situations. If we stay there all the time it stops the normal functioning of the nervous system. Things like digestion and breathing.

The other state we can fall into is the freeze state. It evolved to help us in life-threatening situations. We can also experience it as a shock reaction. The experience of your mind going blank under pressure, is also the freeze-state in action.

The nervous system was not designed to manage 21st Century stresses, like cyber-bullying, email and traffic jams. It was designed to keep us safe when we lived out on the savanna. Back then, we had hungry lions to contend with! It evolved for a completely different order of problem.

Photo by Francesco De Tommaso on Unsplash

Today we have so many big and small activations in a day. If we are not careful we can spend all our time caught up running from one stressful situation to another. This has a profound negative impact on our physical and mental well-being, and we can end up in burnout or worse. It’s what makes managing our energy so important.

This is not about making sure you always stay in the calm state. In fact, some level of nervous stimulation is a good thing – it keeps us alert and productive. The ideal is to get activated, and then go back to calm, many times throughout the day. Nowadays stressors can come in thick and fast and there is no time to get back to calm before the next one comes in. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of what’s happening in your body

One of the key ways to get yourself back from any of these states is to get your social engagement system working. This is not only about talking to people and engaging socially. Its about face-to-face contact. Our physiology needs this- and its something we share with all other mammals. If you have ever had to lead an online meeting when no-one has their camera on you will relate to this. Its also one of the reasons why the last two years in the pandemic have been so challenging for many people.

One of the things that happen in a boring meeting is a lot of passive listening, and you are not socially engaged. If it’s not an interesting topic or speaker there is nothing to activate you. If you are also tired your body may just take the opportunity to catch up on some rest and disengage you.

So what can you do to stay engaged in those meetings?

  • Ask questions! – find a way to get back your social engagement back online
  • Engage with the content so you can create interest in some aspect of the subject
  • If you are bored and believe others are as well, ask for a break so that you can re-engage
  • Focus on your breathing , this brings your nervous system back online
  • Move your body and let yourself stretch – this also brings your nervous system back into a calm state.

Studying the nervous system is a big topic – there is so much to understand, and it’s complicated! It’s one of the reasons I am running a workshop on this at the Imagination Club next week. We will dig more into how understanding the nervous system can help you manage your energy

More info over here:

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