I’m sitting in a boiler room, my chair strategically positioned between two pressure gauges so I can monitor each. My goal is to balance the boilers by making sure the pressure coming in matches the pressure going out. If the pressure gets out of whack, alarms go off.
As I sit, watching the gauges, I can’t help but think about the sensation when my own emotional pressures get out of whack and my internal alarms go off. Usually, this happens when I’m exerting more emotional energy than I’m able to replenish. Like when I have to do tasks at work that require a lot of willpower to accomplish but don’t provide much satisfaction in return. Or when I have to expend a lot of effort to maintain a relationship that doesn’t provide nourishment for my spirit.
Most people are pretty familiar with this imbalance when it comes to physical exertion. If we’re engaging in strenuous physical activity and we don’t replenish ourselves with calories, water, and rest, we risk “bonking”—a term athletes use to describe the point when their body shuts down and they can go no further.
The same thing happens to us emotionally when our daily activities, responsibilities, or interactions are a “heavy lift.” This might show up in a job that isn’t intrinsically motivating, obligations that are part of a challenging role we assume such as parenting or caregiving, or a relationship that involves a lot of conflict.
Losing pressure on my wellness gauge isn’t always obvious, but I’ve come to recognize the familiar indications that I’m feeling depleted:
I become suddenly fatigued and woozy. This might happen early in the day or at times when I wouldn’t ordinarily feel tired, or I may quickly fade in the evening well before it’s time to prepare for bed.
I start scrounging for food. It’s as if my brain and body are working in tandem to solve an apparent problem (lack of energy) by replenishing my calorie stores. But I’ve realized this is often in response to emotional depletion, not physical depletion. So this compulsive snacking ends up doing more harm than good.
I seek distraction from my discomfort. Social media “scrolling” is like Novocaine for emotional distress. It allows us to get some temporary relief without actually resolving the problem.
I check my email accounts incessantly throughout the day. Let’s be honest here—for most of us, checking communication channels two or maybe three times a day is totally sufficient (especially channels unrelated to my job). But when I’m emotionally or energetically depleted, I find myself on my various devices, compulsively clicking all my accounts in hopes that something interesting or exciting will come my way to reignite my energy.
I become irritable over things I have no control over, such as traffic, technology glitches, or my sweetheart’s quirky and harmless habits.
I become irritable over things I do have control over, which undoubtedly leads me to be exceptionally hard on myself for mistakes I’ve made and my character “flaws”.
It’s easy to interpret each of these scenarios as the emotional equivalent to a “bad hair day”—something you can’t change and just have to deal with. But I’ve come to find that each of these are simply small alarms going off to signal that my pressure gauges are out of balance and in need of attention.
One of the best ways I’ve discovered to create a quick and positive shift in my emotional gauges is to connect with my “Wiggles”. As those of you who follow my writing already know, Wiggles are nourishing activities that help to renew your spirit. They’re opportunities to connect with possibility, creativity, and personal expression. Wiggles are interests or fascinations that cause time to disappear when you’re engaged with them. They’re connections to your innermost desires. When you’re engaged with a Wiggle, it feels like your inner spirit is doing a little dance.
Wiggles might be certain types of music, particular themed podcasts or movies, conversations about certain topics, physical activity that feels really good, or creative projects that make you feel like you’re firing on all cylinders. When you’re engaged with your Wiggles, you experience a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and wellbeing.
Everybody’s Wiggles are different and unique. So exploring, ahead of time, the activities and interactions that you find energizing will help you identify, in the moment, what positive resources are available to you when your emotional pressures alarms go off.
Here are a few ideas for doing this:
Create a playlist of songs that inspire you using a music app and keep headphones or wireless earbuds handy. You can tap into this playlist when you’re engaged in tedious work or chores.
Maintain a library of engaging and inspiring podcasts or audiobooks that you can listen to when your mind craves stimulation. Some of my favorite podcasts are Good Life Project, Jane Goodall’s Hopecast, WorkLife with Adam Grant, On Being with Krista Tippet, Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, and The TED Radio Hour.
Get your body moving. Make a note of nearby walking or hiking trails you can visit when you’re feeling depleted. Though your body may be feeling lethargic, you might be surprised at how much more energy you have simply by giving it something active to do. You can even encourage your coworkers or family to join you so others can feel the benefit too. Or you could combine a physically energizing walk with a mentally energizing podcast or audio.
If your job or career is feeling tedious or draining, start keeping a Wiggle journal where you take note of each activity that feels stimulating and engaging throughout the day. Then have a conversation with your boss or restructure your work to incorporate more of these activities into your daily work.
Identify your Love Language (if you’re not familiar with this, I highly recommend the book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman). Communicate with your loved ones about what you need to feel a greater sense of connection and harmony in your relationships. My love language is physical touch and my sweetheart knows that when I’m feeling depleted, cuddle time is really therapeutic for me.
Text, email, or write a letter to a friend letting them know you’re thinking about them and express all the ways you appreciate them. Gratitude is a really powerful way to replenish your energy.
Allocate time for old or new hobbies. Get your family involved if necessary. Creativity can energize and inspire you in ways you might not have predicted.
Many of us go through life with the mindset that we just have to push through the discomfort and ignore the pressure gauges. This is how we break boilers and it’s how we break ourselves. Pressure and stress are normal experiences in life. Checking in throughout the day to assess our emotional pressures allows us to address imbalances before our internal alarms go off.
Learning to create a balance in life by actively seeking experiences that feel nourishing, fulfilling, and joyful is an important form of self-care. And just as a well-cared-for boiler can provide heat to an entire building, caring for your own well-being allows you to show up fully and energetically for the people in your lives.
For a deeper dive into exploring your various Wiggles, be sure to check out my blog post about Your Hierarchy of Wiggles. And for a short video about how spending time on your joy and fulfillment benefits everyone around you, check out my post about “filling your cup” on Instagram.