Running on Empty: How to Manage Your Energy Levels After Trauma

A person's legs and feet swung over the arms of a yellow-brown couch. The person is wearing blue pajama bottoms and green striped socks.All too often, compromised energy levels are a lingering impact of traumatic experiences, particularly ongoing or frequent traumatic events in childhood. Compromised energy means that you simply do not have enough energy to tackle certain tasks. In addition, traumatic experiences often prevent people from learning how to manage their energy levels. This encompasses everything from recognizing when you are running low on energy to knowing how to build an energy reservoir and stamina.

Understanding Energy

Take a quick moment and think about all the energy it took to get through today. Think about the physical energy, as well as emotional and mental energy. Of these three types of energy, physical energy is possibly the most obvious. We have all experienced times when we were simply too tired to engage in a task because our physical energy was just not up to it. Many factors, including sleep, nutrition, exercise, medications, and substance use, can impact your physical energy level.

These factors also impact your emotional and mental energy levels. Emotional energy is used when you interact with emotions, whether in a productive or unhealthy manner. You use emotional energy when you identify an emotion, express it, act on it, calm it, understand it, and so on. Mental energy is the energy you use when thinking, planning, making logical decisions, and following through with your decisions and plans.

When traumatic life events have “stunted” your development of energy management tools, it is important to include learning these skills in your healing work. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of skills you will want to learn for each of the types of energy: the skills necessary for monitoring your energy level, those needed in order to manage your energy, and those that will increase the staying power of your energy.

Monitoring Your Energy Levels

How aware are you of your physical, emotional, and mental energies? Is there one type of energy that you are more aware of? Do you recognize when these energy levels are full and geared up for action, when they are at their midpoint, or when you are close to being empty? Or do you only become aware of your energy level when you are past empty and burnt out? Becoming aware of energy levels before you hit burnout will allow you to refuel before you run out of energy.

Physical energy can be a great one to start practicing these skills with. Take some time throughout the day—maybe every hour or two—and check in with yourself. How awake or tired are you? How full or hungry?

Imagine your energy levels as a gas gauge with marks at full, ¾ full, ½ full, ¼ full, and empty. When you check in with each of these physical experiences, determine where you fit on that scale.  Are you past the point of energy, but not quite tired? Are you not full but not hungry? By figuring out where you’re at, you can determine what you need to do to manage your energy and satiation levels: take a nap, go on a walk, eat a snack, say no to the offer of a snack, or whatever works for you.

Managing Your Energy

Once you can identify your energy levels, you can determine what you need to do to keep your energy at workable and beneficial levels. Let’s look at emotional energy. Say your emotional energy is still at the ¾ full mark, despite it being late in the day. Maybe now would be a good time to call a friend and extend support. Maybe you can take time to reflect on, process, or journal about a recent upsetting experience.

If you notice that your emotional energy is close to empty, but you still have a few emotionally taxing tasks to do,  it would be wise to carve out a bit of time to refuel yourself. Reach out to an emotionally supportive friend, take a break and head to an emotionally restorative place in nature (even if it is just smelling the neighbor’s roses), or take a few moments to breathe deeply, read an encouraging piece of prose or poetry, and so on. If you become aware that you have experienced several days on empty, you may want to consider dedicating your weekend to replenishing, rather than extending, your emotional energy.

Building Energy Reserves and Stamina

If learning how to replenish your energy reserves is one side of a coin, then building stamina is the other. This skill requires a great deal of gentleness and care: many survivors of trauma push themselves to have too much stamina, not allowing themselves to honor their limits.

With this in mind, building your stamina is nonetheless an important pursuit. Just like building physical stamina, developing a deeper mental energy reservoir requires practice in small increments. When you notice that you are approaching empty, but not quite there yet—somewhere just less than ¼ full—gather your mental energy and sustain your focus and effort for another 10 to 15 minutes. Rather than exiting the activity to replenish your energy level, stay engaged and practice hanging in there. If you simply do not have enough mental energy to stay with your current task, try switching to a less demanding activity that still engages your mental energy.

Use Energy to Bring Healing to Your Life

Feel free to play with these ideas and apply the ones that resonate with you. Practice each type of skill (monitoring, replenishing, and building stamina) with each type of energy (physical, emotional, and mental). Be as creative as you can be and brainstorm additional ways to grow these skills. In so doing, you reclaim crucial abilities and further your healing.

Practice these skills in a safe environment and in a manner that can only benefit you. Never do anything in the name of healing that could actually bring damage to you. As always, keep in mind that you do not need to heal on your own. Reach out to support groups, loving friends, supportive family, and trained professionals. We are all here to help you grow.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • desiree owens

    desiree owens

    May 17th, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    It’s funny how when your mental staminna ebbs low then ypu find your physical stamina waning too. I used to try to do the things that I could think of to do to pep up and give myself the energy to get through the day, and nothing ever worked. That is until I realized that I was looking at it all wrong. I was only trying to nourish the one side of me, when in reality the body has to be looked at from a holistic point of view. It is no good to only try to take care of one part when the others are so critically tied together. It was not until I took this lesson to heart that I was able to make a real difference in how much I achieved and really how much I was getting out of life as a whole.

  • M.A

    M.A

    May 18th, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    This has happened to me more than once- A relationship ends and I find myself completely down. There’s not much work I can accomplish or things I can concentrate on. I feel my energy is empty in all three departments and I just prefer to do nothing than feeling sad for myself.

    I know this is not good for me but I can’t seem to improve. But some f the things mentioned here do seem to hold promise. I shall see how I can implement these for me. Thank you.

  • Juantavious

    Juantavious

    May 18th, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    feeding the soul, man. . . it’s all about feeding the soul

  • Donna

    Donna

    May 19th, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    When I was young I lost my father in a car wreck. I think that in order to compensate for my mom, I just became this really bubbly and energetic child, trying to make her laugh so that she would forget about the pain.

    And this was not only when I was young. I have carried this need with me all into adulthood, and it has become pretty tiring. I sometimes think that I use so much of my energy to keep others happy, that I leave very little of that energy left over for me.

    I know that I need to find that balance, but trying to do that is breaking a habit that I have had for a long time now. I don’t know who I am really without that part.

  • Meg

    Meg

    May 20th, 2012 at 6:04 AM

    I like a little time for myself and a good brisk walk every day to refuel me and get my spirit back!

  • Michael Bagwell

    Michael Bagwell

    May 21st, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    There are times when you get so run down that you don’t even realize it is even happening until you hit rock bottom.

    It takes a whole body approach to keep the body and spirit going. Eat right, get some sleep, and get the body moving. For me those are always the best ways to get my batteries recharged again.

  • alisa

    alisa

    August 7th, 2014 at 4:29 PM

    I find I hold my breath a lot when I am running low on energy or stressed. Then my body fights to oxygenate the blood and I start yawning a lot. Once that starts I feel weary. It has been a real battle since my man died.

  • Cher

    Cher

    February 25th, 2015 at 9:03 AM

    I do this, too. I catch myself, holding my breath. Ever since my brother’s death. It is a strange phenomenon.

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