Body+Soul, March 2009
We answer it 10 times a day, often rejoining with a clipped “Fine” or “Busy!” accompanied by a glazed smile. But when your best friend or spouse asks, perhaps you tell the deeper truth: You’re stressed out and tired. Really tired.
For a while, maybe even years, it’s easy to feel like you can handle this frantic pace — or even thrive at it. But ultimately, it works against you. “Stress is pervasive in our society, and it’s only getting worse,” says integrative-medicine expert Woodson Merrell, M.D., author of “The Source: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger.” “And people do not necessarily have the coping skills to deal with it, even when they think they do.” We often don’t realize how much of our days are spent dealing with stressful situations, and on a physiological level, the effects of stress add up. “You don’t start every day with a clean slate,” he says. “You start the day with all the stress you’ve accumulated in your life, and you add to that.”
Limit your exposure wherever you can, says Merrell. Invest in a good water filter and air purifier, buy nontoxic cleaners, and choose home products (paints, carpets, furniture) less likely to emit harmful fumes and chemicals. Finally, choose organic food whenever possible. Merrell suggests consulting theEnvironmental Working Group to assess which fruits and vegetables are most and least likely to contain pesticide residues.
Start by recording your sources of disconnection and stress. At the end of each day, write down all the things that created stress in your life, how you reacted to them, and the result of your actions. “After a while, you’ll start to notice patterns,” says Merrell. Then record all the things that bring you joy and pleasure.
A negative outlook presents a huge energy drain, but we can overcome it. “You first have to recognize what pessimistic thinking looks like,” says Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., author of “Your Soul’s Compass.” The best time to do that? When you experience a setback — say, your car broke down or you didn’t get a job you’d been hoping for. Take note of whether you experience a trio of qualities that psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., termed the “three Ps”: personal, pervasive, and permanent. “Personal means, ‘It’s all my fault,’ ” Borysenko says. “Pervasive means, ‘I mess up everything I do.’ And permanent means, ‘It’s the story of my life.’ ” If you find yourself reacting this way, consider an attitude reform.
Optimism can be learned, Borysenko insists, “even though we might have ingrained patterns and brain circuitry that support negative thinking.” On the flip side of the three Ps are the three Cs: challenge, commitment, and control. “Optimists see changing circumstances as a challenge to meet,” she says. “They approach it with commitment. And they feel they can influence the situation, so they have control.”
The most empathic among us often pick up negative emotions from other people, too. “Even if we’re in a great mood,” she says, “we can encounter someone who’s anxious or angry or tired, and we end up taking on that person’s emotions.” The net result is a plundering of our energy resources. “If we don’t have sufficient boundaries, we’re like a house with all the windows and doors open,” says Forbes. “Energy is leaking out everywhere.”
Learning to set boundaries is a personal-growth odyssey, and it requires a close and careful inventory of what’s really important to you. But the best way to get started on the path is to start saying no. “If someone drains your energy, say no to spending time with them,” says Forbes. “Say no to checking your emails after 5:30 in the evening, or to that extra committee meeting.” As you scale back, start adding into your life the things that renew you.
Every day, set aside 20 minutes for Savasana (corpse pose), the most restful of the yoga positions.
2. Lie down on your back on a soft yet firm surface, such as a rug (but not a bed). Place a rolled pillow or blanket under your knees if that feels good, and cover your eyes with a soft cloth. Cover yourself with a light blanket.
3. Let your arms and legs roll slightly out from the body as you relax and begin to take a series of long, slow breaths, setting an intention to disengage from the external world. If your mind starts spinning away, simply return your attention to the breath.
4. When the timer chimes, bend your knees, roll to the side, and sit up. After a moment or two of stillness, reengage with your day.
As you make strides to reduce your media exposure, Yarema also suggests creating a stronger center of gravity so that you’re not so easily buffeted on the winds of information. To that end, follow a simple grounding ritual every morning: At sunrise, drink 2 to 4 ounces of warm water with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon. Then warm some sesame oil and, sitting on a towel, massage the oil into your skin, head to toe. Follow this with five minutes of deep breathing, directing the breath to tension in your body. Finally, do some yoga or take a walk. With this nurturing, vata-soothing routine, you’ll be able to strengthen your center in the face of sensory overload.
Forgiving someone — or yourself — comes with realizing that the feelings you’re holding on to have “made your life unmanageable, stealing your energy, your sleep, and your happiness,” Borysenko says. “Forgiveness isn’t about pardoning the offender; it’s about transforming the forgiver.
Studies indicate that seven or eight hours a night work best for most people. To get them, establish a wind-down routine: Keep everything but sleep (like paying bills or watching TV) out of your bedroom; avoid caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, and strenuous exercise within four hours of bedtime; and dim the lights an hour before you hit the sheets. Remember, though, that you can get too much of a good thing. Sleeping more than nine hours is associated with waning energy levels and increasing illness.
The body thrives on a diet of whole foods, with lots of anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables. “Start by trying to make one meal a day perfect,” says Ronald Stram, M.D., founder of the Center for Integrative Health and Healing in Delmar, New York. “Get some lean protein, a monounsaturated fat or omega-3 fatty acid, a whole grain, and a serving or two of fruits and vegetables.” Beyond that, limit your intake of processed foods, sugar and white flour, and artificial flavorings and sweeteners.
If you’re underhydrated, fluid doesn’t move through the body as actively as it should,” Stram explains, and the body has to work harder to keep its processes going. That depletes your energy. If a headache accompanies your fatigue, you probably need more fluid. Stram recommends 1 ounce of water for every 2 pounds of body weight; if you’re an avid exerciser, add another 16 ounces to your daily intake.
Upping your exercise quotient is perhaps the surest bet for more energy. “On a cellular level, it’s mitochondria that produce energy,” says Woodson Merrell, M.D. “You can increase the size, efficiency, and number of mitochondria by exercising. It plugs you into the energy grid.” Cardiovascular exercise also tones the body so it needs less energy to operate, says Stram.
A cup of coffee may be the quickest route to energy, but it comes at a cost. “It doesn’t give you energy, it just bunches your energy up early in the day, says Andrew Weil, M.D. “Then you run out.” Consider switching to green tea.
A number of health conditions can underlie fatigue, so visit your health-care provider if you’re tired all the time.