Making sure that you are well is good for your family and good for you. When we are well, we are able to handle challenges with intention and grace. When we are unwell, it becomes easier to say and do things that we later regret. I’m going to go over three categories of self-care–ways people manage their energy balance–and how to decide which activities work best to help us go through life with at least some grace. This post is an extension of an earlier one on compassion fatigue.
Why Having Enough Energy Matters
When my energy balance is low, things feel generally hard. The world is more ominous and threatening, I am more sensitive to negative experiences, and I sometimes act impulsively in ways I later regret. Personally, I know that when I’m tired, I become a very unpleasant person. When I’m emotionally drained and stressed, I become even more sensitive, reactive and impulsive.
This makes sense. When my energy reserve gets low enough, a part of me starts to jealously protect my remaining energy, and to look for ways to quickly increase the amount of energy I have. I become faster to perceive insults (a kind of hypersensitivity to threats), feel a great need to end disagreements quickly and decisively (in other words: act unpleasantly, rather than work through them thoughtfully and productively). I look for quick calories (fat, sugar). A lot of me becomes oriented toward preserving the little bit of energy I have remaining.
And the opposite is true as well: As I feel healthier and more centered, I seem to make better decisions, and I become more intentional and kind in my interactions. I don’t crave quick calories, and the idea of making a healthy meal is actually appealing. I am patient and kind toward those I love. I might even exercise!
But how do we make sure we have enough energy? With the three types of self-care activities. Which are…
Three Categories of Self-Care
People generally manage their energy levels by doing a mix of the following:
Here’s a summary of how each of these ways work:
Escape. Behaviors in this category help disconnect us from current stressors. Escape requires little or no effort, and helps stop the feeling of stress, at least temporarily. Things like stress-eating, watching Netflix, and scrolling through social media can all fit this category. Escape is usually temporary; when we’re done escaping, the world often feels just as oppressive and difficult as it did before the escape. But escape can be very helpful when we are getting overwhelmed, and don’t have the energy to do anything other than escape. If nothing else, it can help us ride out the storm.
Recharge. Behaviors in this category help increase the amount of energy we have right now – they leave us feeling better. Recharging usually requires at least some energy to start, although once we start it’s usually pleasant enough that we keep going without feeling like it’s effortful. It also has the same benefit as escape: It disconnects us from the immediate stress we’re experiencing. Different people are recharged by very different things. For me, talking with friends, playing my guitar, doing jiujitsu, or spending any kind of time with a dog is recharging; some people recharge by going through old photos, cooking, gardening, or running. Whatever the specific activity, the hallmark of a recharge is that when we’re done doing it, we generally feel better about ourselves and about life, even though the world hasn’t changed.
Invest. Behaviors in this category help improve our ability to deal with life in the long term – whether by building our skills, adding to our resources, or changing the external world to be more agreeable to us. Investing usually requires at least some energy to start and maintain. Examples of investing include meditating, creating a sustainable budget, preparing healthy meals, exercising (and stretching!), keeping in touch with uncle Irwin, and taking classes that make our lives better (like our Parenting For Humans Foundations Class). Performing the actual activity may or may not feel good in the moment, but it usually gives us a break from current stressors. When we’re done investing, we feel a little better, in part thanks to the feeling of having more agency in our lives. Over time, investing in ourselves helps improve the likelihood that we will deal with life in a way that we feel good about.
Life, of course, isn’t set up in neat rows and columns. In reality, one activity may fit into more than one category. Some activities are fun AND improve our ability to deal with the world (for example, spending quality time with our children).
What Are Your Self-Care Activities?
What may be recharging for me could be draining for you. What you may consider a mindless escape activity may be something I do as an investment. Take a couple of minutes and think with yourself: What are your escape activities? What helps you recharge? How would you like to invest in yourself? This is a very handy list to have. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. Just put 2-3 things in each category and keep it nearby. We’ll use it in a minute.
Choosing The Right Self-Care Activity
There are, in the big picture, two ways to start self-care: Reactive and Proactive.
Reactive Self Care
Life keep on happening. Sometimes it gets to be a lot. Reactive self-care happens because of circumstances around us. Something happens, and we react to it. Theodore Roosevelt said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. Sometimes all we can do is escape. We are overwhelmed by emotion, or we have absolutely no energy, and we just need a way to, well, escape. So, by all means, escape. It may be helpful to to look at your list of escape activities and consider which ones you would prefer to do (the watchful reader will recognize that I just suggested an an “investment” kind of activity). This way, when the time comes for you to escape, you can choose an activity that is effective and has costs that are acceptable to you.
Escape activities don’t offer much benefit other than the benefit of escape (although that can be a substantial benefit). If you have any kind of energy, I recommend opting for a recharge activity. You might initially choose an escape behavior and then, when you’re sufficiently less stressed, switch to a recharge activity. For example, let’s say I witness my mother and my sister arguing, and I realize I’m getting upset because it reminds me of horrible fights that happened in the past. I might disengage from them and do some escaping by watching stand-up comedy on YouTube (a favorite go-to mood fixer for me). After the third video clip, I realize I’m less upset and go for a walk, maybe while listening to an audio book (a combination escape/recharge activity). Or maybe I call a friend and talk, which generally makes me feel better (a pure recharge activity, which I didn’t have the energy for earlier, but now I do).
Proactive Self Care
I usually need to schedule “investment” self-care activities in advance, and work on developing the habit of doing them. Exercise, meditation and learning to play piano are all things I don’t just spontaneously do. Planning in advance, in a way that makes me more likely to enjoy and feel successful, is incredibly important.
It’s also a good idea to schedule recharge activities, and treat them with the same respect you treat anything else on your calendar, like medical appointments and birthday parties. Schedule a few recharge activities over the course of your week. See if you can make it a regular thing.
We often think of ourselves last – until we become depleted, get overwhelmed, enter emergency mode, and respond either over-aggressively or by shutting down. Being mindful of our energy balance is good for us and good for those we care for. I hope you will take some time to consider ways for you to take good care of yourself, to protect and nourish yourself so that you can be more of the person you wish to be.
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