Last week, during the busiest time of the year, I had to lie in bed for 5 days and binge-watch Modern Family. Why? Because I had ignored my body’s very clever warning signs that my battery was low. I was working a day job, doing freelance work after hours (or during lunchtime), and sometimes playing two gigs on a day, one in the early morning and one in the evening. I was waking up feeling like I hadn’t slept. And because no one knows where the money will be coming from next year, I just had to carry on.
In essence, I was borrowing from my future self’s energy reserves. Which is the awesome thing about being a human and pushing your body past its limits. We all have very deep reserves (like aquifers or reservoirs) that we can tap into when we really need to push through. And it does make you feel like a bit of a superhero. But the process to replenish these reserves is slow.
In nature, aquifers take a very long time to fill up (some take hundreds of years). This is because they are formed by water seeping very slowly through rocks and soil, one drop at a time after precipitation has happened on land. Aquifers are in essence "underground sponges" that hold this groundwater. But aquifers can dry up when they get drained faster than they replenish (eg. in the case of agricultural irrigation) - a process called "aquifer depletion".
(I can go on and on about how amazing these underground resources are, but you can read a lot more about aquifers on this National Geographic page.)
In my sketch above I included a little pipe to indicate the connection between the daily energy source ("the dam") and the deep energy source ("the aquifer"). Much like a well can be built to access underground water, we also have the ability to draw on our underground resources. This happens when our batteries are running low, but instead of recharging, we keep going.
The human aquifer is built up over days, weeks, months, and years of rest, emotional wellbeing, and healthy living. Sometimes it can be replenished with a few nights' deep sleep, and other times it needs something more: a holiday, proper downtime, emotional rest, or time away from technology. Each person's aquifer is different, but they all take a bit longer to recharge. When the aquifer has been depleted (what we call burnout), the body steps in and pulls hard on the "emergency stop" lever - which forces us to slow down and recharge.
There is nothing wrong with drawing from our aquifers. In fact, it is integral to our survival, growth, and productivity. Mothers who haven’t slept in weeks draw on these deep reserves constantly. Soldiers who cannot afford to let their guard down, even for a second. New business owners who work 18-hour days. Even more subtle acts lean heavily on our inner stores of energy: going to a party when you're already emotionally drained, fighting the daily heaviness of anxiety and depression, or just dealing with a loss of income and worrying about the future.
The key to managing our energy levels is knowing when each part of our "system" needs a little boost. Social, mental, physical, and emotional energy levels work in tandem, often influencing one another. Eg. having a lot of physical energy can sometimes help with social fatigue, and being depleted mentally can often affect emotional energy levels. For some people exercise is the best remedy for fatigue, whilst others just need to sleep it off.
Here are some of my favourite ways to recharge:
In essence, using our energy aquifers is a necessary part of life. Sometimes they even get used up, and that’s OK. It means we’ve had good reasons to push ourselves past our normal limits, and we’ve probably got something cool to show for it. But it doesn’t always have to end in a big crash and two weeks of ice cream and series (although this is fun too!).
Get acquainted with your body’s signals, so that you can manage your energy levels like a pro. And make time for the things that replenish that powerful, deep reservoir that helps you do all the amazing stuff, so you can keep doing them :)