Create Your Own Ground: Tip#2: Balance Your Energy Bank Account
In my last post on "Corralling", I recommended cordoning off spaces in the midst of uncertainty and stress that are free from uncertainty and stress. This first 'hack' of corralling creates a reliable cadence that acts as footing amidst external chaos. It provides the brain with a sense of psychological safety, your own ground separate from the subterfuge of constant change. From this solid footing, the body and the brain can begin to unfreeze and move forward. It is therefore critical to start here.
Tip #2 is to start thinking of your energy the way you think about your bank account. In times of extreme uncertainty and stress, you spend more energy. Powering through these times requires you to have a reserve of energy in the bank to cover those spending sprees.
Invest In Your Resources
In 2016-17, I took a year-long course on traumatic stress from The Trauma Institute in Boston. I learned that people can experience the same stressful event, but that it will produce a traumatic effect on the brain and nervous system only in some. The impact of the stress was largely dependent on one's access to sources of stability such as a strong family unit, close relationships or a safe home environment. A 2011 Harvard Study on stress shows something similar, that the same stressors can produce either a positive or negative impact on the body based on how well-resourced the individual believes herself to be.
One of my main learnings during my "groundless phase" in Shanghai (mentioned in my first blog post), was that I couldn't control or reduce the churn happening around me. I couldn't keep waiting for things to "just settle down and become clear" before moving. I read a lot of articles about reducing stress. I found that reducing stress is often not possible and sometimes trying to keep out all the stressors actually ended up stressing me out more. It felt like playing "whack-a-mole"--by which I mean it felt futile.
By contrast, when I accepted the churn as the way things were and, instead, began to focus on resourcing myself to face the chaos, I began to experience immediate benefits. I couldn't control what was happening, but I could control how I went through it.
I remember meeting with my team after months of telling them to "just sit tight until we see how things are going to land" and watching them suffer in a suspended, immobile state. I remember telling them, "I think we need to assume that this is our new normal. Now, what do we need in order to move forward in this new normal and how can I ensure you have that?". I could almost hear the shifting of teutonic plates on that call. We began to move forward, resourcing one another and taking decisions again based on what we had.
The White-Knuckle Approach is Not Sustainable
This was very counterintuitive to the way that I normally dealt with stress. My strategy up to that point was always to white-knuckle it. I would isolate. I would clear out all "nice to haves" like exercise, time with friends and family, healthy food, adequate sleep, outdoor time etc. Exhausted from this constant depletion of energy and denying myself any refuelling opportunities, I relied on caffeine, adrenaline and cortisol to power me through, remaining in an extended sympathetic nervous system response. I would finally emerge burnt out and frazzled and unable to function. I would then go on a yoga retreat to try and recover and prepare for the next frenzied stress-fuelled push. I would say that this was my model in life. It was how I got things done.
It's not sustainable. In short bursts, stress boosts the immune system. But that is only if we return to a state of rest quickly after. Riding on a sustained stress cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol and a spiralling sympathetic nervous system destroys the immune system, creates inflammation in all the organs and, according to the American Center for Disease Control, is linked to 90% of all illness and disease.
So, basically, my college all-nighter approach was not suited for long-haul states of groundlessness like the one we are in today with the pandemic (and general 2020-ness). What I found to be very helpful in these more prolonged stressful environments was thinking about my energy like a bank balance. If situations were requiring big energy spends, then I needed enough deposits to cover them. I realized I needed to actually invest MORE in the things and people that energize me in order to get through my most stressful periods.
Balancing Your Energy Account
I found it helpful to create my own Energy Account. In it, I identified the activities that required or took energy from me (withdrawals) and those things that revived my energy (deposits). I could then list these out and look at my ending balance to get a sense of how I was doing and what I needed to change.
This is a sampling of some withdrawals and deposits.
Looking at my days this way helped me see myself as a living organism, one that is not above very basic mammalian needs like sleep, nourishment, social connection and exercise. I saw clearly that my energy and ability to handle uncertainty was directly connected to how well I resourced myself with these basic things.
Over the long term, tending to these basic needs no matter what demands were placed on me externally created a strong sense of safety and grounded-ness from which I could make better decisions and sustain a sense of equanimity amidst chaos.
Five years on in this journey and I notice a stark difference to how I respond to high stress periods. If I sense a busy period coming, if I am stuck in a painful decision, if I don't know what to do or am facing a difficult conflict, I will do start my day in a way that was not even in my toolkit five years back. I will prepare for it by investing in MORE quietness and stillness, getting up early to just sit still with myself and let myself be. The decisions and actions that come from this kind of start are very different from those I take from a frenzied, action-first approach. In sustained periods of ambiguity and flux, I will now reach out to my husband and friends rather than isolate. Resourcing myself in these ways, I experience stress very differently. Namely, stressful situations very rarely stress me out these days. They become challenges I can handle, standing on my own ground.