In a previous blog on suffering social atrophy, we looked at how the lockdown easing could lead to many people becoming overwhelmed as they rejoin their social circles and begin interacting with people on a daily basis once more. We talked about how all that new (regained) social stimulation could result in bouts of unusual tiredness, difficulty thinking clearly and even symptoms like headaches.

In today’s blog, we are going to expand on the learnings from our social atrophy post and explore several factors that contribute to tiredness:

  • Activities and activity patterns
  • Purpose of tiredness
  • Different types of tiredness
  • Your current capacity

Finally the focus will be on how to make choices that use your energy well.

Please note that we are talking here of tiredness and not fatigue. Fatigue is more often used to describe tiredness associated with illness like for example Chronic Fatigue or ME/CFS. When tiredness has become fatigue there are multiple factors involved, not least for example the mitochondria which is mentioned later on in this blog. The information in this blog does still apply but do bear in mind that there will be additional physical components not mentioned here.

Activities and activity patterns

Now if you’re thinking, so why the focus on activities, Thor? Well, it’s because tiredness occurs as a result of us doing activities. Whether that’s sports, our duties at work or simply our day-to-day household routines, they all involve activities where we use our energy and when we’re spent we feel tired.

Your ability to function is determined by the way you behave and how you do your activities, this means the sheer volume of activities and your activity pattern. For those affected by illness, there will be a heightened focus on this because of the limitations of your condition. Pain is a powerful motivator and so chances are you are forced to address this in order to reduce symptoms or at least reduce the risk of them getting worse. But even for those who aren’t living with illness, if you frequently go over the edge of your capacity — something we’ll also touch on in this blog — that is do more than you’ve got actual energy for, you risk your ability to function.

Our activities tend to follow a pattern: there are regular activities that we do each day, each week and even each season. Over time patterns of activities become embedded in our behaviour and, importantly, in our bodies. Below are some examples of unhelpful activity patterns:

  • Boom and Bust — Characterised by go full steam ahead for a period and then crashing and doing virtually nothing whilst you recharge your energy. Sometimes this shows up as having a very active week and then sleeping most of the weekend or working flat out alternated with holidays where you rest the whole time. This is a cyclical pattern of high activity followed by low activity and then high activity again and so it goes.
  • Nitrogen Living — When people use willpower, adrenaline, medication and even stimulants like caffeine to push themselves beyond their physical capabilities. While the immediate results can appear impressive, future reliability and longevity are often compromised in the process and this is a high risk strategy in terms of your health. 
  • Barrier Behaviour — Especially relevant for those with illnesses and symptoms, Barrier Behaviour sees someone avoiding a particular activity because of the fear that it may increase pain or discomfort (please note that this is not the same as having healthy respect for the boundaries of what you are able to do). This pattern is all about avoidance, rather than actually dealing with what’s going on. Staying this far within your comfort zone means that you’re missing out on potential joy, happiness, achievements, etc. in order to avoid the discomfort of having to learn something new, risk failure or dealing with people or situations that are challenging for you.

What activity patterns do you follow? Give yourself time to think back over the last week. Use the following questions to help describe your activity pattern:

  • How would you describe your activity pattern? Does it fit any of the three mentioned here?
  • If it’s different, how is it different and how would you describe it?
  • Is your activity pattern during lockdown different to your activity pattern before lockdown? What’s different?
  • What learning can you take from your activity patterns before lockdown and during lockdown to take forward with you as you come through lockdown? What would you like to keep? What would you like to leave behind? Remember it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.

It can be helpful to talk to someone that you trust and who knows you well and ask them what they have noticed about your activity pattern. Why not have a quick chat with that person and check in with what they can see. None of us can see the back of our own heads. We all need that mirror to help us, people who know us well can be a great mirror to help us see what’s in our blindspot.

The purpose of tiredness

Wouldn’t it be great if you never felt tired? You would be able to do everything you wanted and not experience the associated fatigue. Wonderful, right? Not exactly. Let’s consider how it would really pan out.

You would have no idea whether your body was reaching its capacity in terms of energy, strength or stamina, which would result in you literally keeling over with no warning. Think of it in terms of feeling hungry. It’s an indicator that you need to eat. If you never felt hungry you would simply starve to death.

Furthermore, If you never felt tired it might indicate you are not living your life to its fullest and actually doing stuff. After all, tiredness is a healthy response to having done an activity. If you never felt it, chances are you aren’t really living.

Tiredness is often uncomfortable and so we would rather not feel it but actually, tiredness gives us vital feedback. Think of it as an indicator in your car’s dashboard, when you’re low on resources it’ll light up to let you know that you need to recharge.

Tiredness is one of the key indicators for your personal dashboard

The 5 different types of tiredness

When we talk about tiredness, it tends to be generalised. The reality, however, is that there are a number of different types of tiredness, and we can actually experience more than one type at the same time. Furthermore, while many people think that resting or sleeping is the best way to alleviate tiredness, this only works for one type: physical tiredness.

Physical Tiredness

How you feel when you have done something physically or mentally strenuous, such as taken a walk, cleaned the house or written a report. This type of tired tends to feels good, like you’ve achieved something, and it can be relieved by sleeping, resting, or even having some food and fluids.

Mental Tiredness

This type of tiredness occurs when you have done lots of often adrenalised and fast thinking. It can show up particularly at bed time when you are trying to sleep, characterised by your mind racing. This type of tiredness doesn’t feel good, and isn’t relieved by sleeping or resting. It can be helpful when facing this type of tiredness to identify the thought patterns you are running and use the ABC for Feelings technique to make beneficial changes.

Emotional Tiredness

This type of tiredness shows up when you are emotionally drained. This can happen gradually or all of a sudden. Again, it doesn’t feel good and sleeping or resting alone does not relieve it. What can help is identifying when this type of tiredness appears. Get curious about whether it is associated with something in particular like a person, activity or emotion. What action can you take to address this. People working in the caring profession for example are likely to feel very emotionally tired after the intensity of the last few months. Here the solitude and quiet time can be essential as well as addressing the triggers.

Environmental Tiredness

This type of tiredness occurs as a result of the environment you find yourself in and the level of stimulation that is present. For example, you could be sat in your kitchen seemingly resting, but there is a washing machine spinning in the background. While you may not be aware of it, the sound of the washing machine is being processed by your brain and that consumes energy. What can help relieve this type of tiredness is a change of environment or changing the source of the stimulation. It can also be factors like lack of oxygen in a space so think about ventilation or even room temperature.

Repetitive Tiredness

This type of tiredness occurs as a result of doing the same thing too many times and for too long. You may have heard of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) which often affects for example people who spend a long periods working on a keyboard. It could be gardening, standing in a queue or even laying on the sofa. Doing anything for too long can lead to agitation and discomfort. The body is not designed to stay in the same position for too long.  Even when you sleep, there are micro movements. 

What can be helpful in relieving this type of tiredness is making yourself aware of the activities you are doing and mixing things up wherever possible. For example, if you’ve been sitting or lying down for a prolonged period, change your physical position, move about and have a stretch.

What is your current capacity?

A really helpful approach is to map your daily activities and identify your baseline and current capacity. In other words, establish how much you can do without it having an unhelpful effect. For example, while you may be able to read a book for several hours, you might find yourself feeling uncomfortable in social situations after just a few minutes. While realising your actual capacity can be quite sobering it is ultimately helpful.

To help you with this, we provided a free, downloadable activity mapper in a previous blog post [here]. You can use it to discover which activities you can realistically fit into your day/week, establishing your baseline.

With your baseline established you can now begin to prioritise your activities and delegate/remove the ones that aren’t really that helpful.

Remember, there are only 24 hours in each day and there’s nothing you can do about that. Are you attempting to fit five hours worth of activities into just three hours. You won’t be able to. However, you can make decisions based on what is realistically achievable and prioritise activities to ensure you are doing the most helpful ones each day.

It’s the same as the image above. Your car boot only has so much space, so it is pointless in trying to cram more into it than will physically fit!? Prioritise and only pack the stuff you really need and actually want to have in your day. 

A great example to help you understand this concept better can be seen in this YouTube video on rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar:

For those of us who have worked more because of lockdown, we maybe need to come back to a more realistic baseline. But others, who have been doing a lot less because of lockdown, might need to build up their fitness and stamina as they fill their diaries again. Just be sure not to overload yourself and risk experiencing social atrophy.

Getting the best out of your day

It’s important to note that making changes to your activities and activity patterns won’t necessarily be easy. After all, you’ll likely have been following certain patterns for a while and they will have become habits. Changing them now will take time.

Therefore, it’s often a good idea to aim for the quick wins, the changes that are easy to make and provide the biggest boost. Take a look at your activity map and consider which activities give you the least joy / benefit and cost you more than you’ve got in terms of energy. For example, does all the laundry really need ironing in one go? Is watching 4 hours of TV every night helpful?

The bottom line is don’t try to do more than you are capable of. Think of your energy bank as though it was an actual bank (the financial kind). If you’ve got an energy account and you’re always overdrawn on it, there will come a time when the burden of interest is too high (see Boom & Bust and Nitrogen living above). The body’s primary ‘overdraft’ facility is adrenaline which means your body is more in the stress state than maintenance state. In the long term this is likely to impact your health, your body’s energy producing mechanisms called mitochondria and even your fertility.

Increasing your capacity

There are actually two types of capacity: fixed and trainable. The number of hours in a day is an example of fixed capacity. How much it takes to overwhelm you is an example of trainable capacity. Whilst you can’t add more hours into the day, with the right preparation and training you can actually increase your trainable capacity over time so that you can now have 30 tasks on your to do list before you become overwhelmed whereas before it might have only taken three.

For example, if you knew you couldn’t lift 40kg, you wouldn’t attempt to lift 60kg. But if you worked out at the gym and focussed on improving your lifting capacity, there’s a good chance you’ll reach a point where you can lift 40kg and 60kg. This is an example of your trainable capacity baseline moving as you build your strength, stamina and fitness.

You got this

Focus on what’s in your sphere of influence and change things that are within your control. Live your life deliberately, making choices about how you live each day and which activities you include and exclude.

We are at an unusual crossroads right now as the lockdown is easing and have a rare chance to refocus and reboot our lives. With the loss and gain we have experienced through lockdown and the lessons and information we are taking forward from that, we can all start as we wish to go on.

Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor

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