by AIS Fellow Cynthia Ackrill, MD

It is a critical part of finding the energy and brainpower you need to navigate life.  It is non-negotiable for brilliance and resilience. And it is the ultimate burnout antidote.

But sadly, as a culture, we have a personal energy crisis on our hands. A recent New York Times article about recognizing burnout before you burn out, cites depressing General Social Survey data. In 2016 50% of respondents were “consistently exhausted” because of work, compared to 18% two decades ago.

Unless your cells have what they need for proper function—nutrients, water, rest, sleep, exercise, play, and connection—some part of your system suffers. You need physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy to be your best you. Self-care renews these energies and provides the fuel for effective, resilient leadership; energized, wise parenting; and meaningful, adult relationships.

happy mitochondria = happy brain cells = smarter/happier/healthier you

Unfortunately, our culture has taught us, even rewarded us, for delaying and ignoring self-care in the pursuit of “success.” And in the process we learned to disconnect the “check-engine” lights that signal even the most basic self-care needs.

Heck, long before the obvious growling stomach, or pounding head, there are many subtle signs that your brain or body is requesting some fuel of some sort to keep up job performance. Awareness of these lets you make on-the-fly and long-term adjustments that will help you avoid a lot of stress!

awareness = opportunity to adjust = proactive stress management

  1. You are making dumb mistakes.

    What are you thinking? (Answer: You’re not!)
    Unfortunately, without fuel your frontal lobe fails its executive leadership job. And stress compounds this by taking away its blood flow.

    • Misfiring brain cells are desperate for some version of energy. Get curious when you make mistakes. What do you really need?
  2. You get stuck in the weeds.

    Having trouble prioritizing or keeping the big picture in mind?
    Holding priorities, keeping perspectives are frontal lobe duties. In the middle of “hangry” or emotionally or mentally spent, you really can’t effectively weigh choices or see possibilities.

    • Use “stuck” as a cue to do an energy check in. Take a deep breath; move; look out the window or better yet walk outside; or call a friend. What do you really need to reboot your frontal lobe?
  1. You feel kind of “judge-y.”

    Really? You want to be THAT person?
    You know you are more critical, more negative when something in you is “off.” And you know judging never actually leaves you feeling better.

    I recently left a social gathering thinking way-less-than-compassionate thoughts. Truth is: my introvert coping skills had maxed out that week, sending my brain into the negative zone. I needed alone time to refuel.

    Your brain has a negative bias to protect you, but your frontal lobe puts the brakes on that negativity to support empathy and positivity. Wear out your brakes and judging is second nature.

    • Let negativity be your indicator light. Again, check in. What do you need to get back your happier outlook?
  1. Your inner critic is very loud!

    Would you talk to your best friend that way???
    This is just you getting “judge-y” and negative with yourself! The brakes are off and that go-to voice that has motivated you for years takes over.

    • Thank that voice for alerting you that you need something, and then figure out what it is.
  2. Your language is more colorful.

    Need to pay the quarter jar?
    You guessed it! This is another sign that your frontal lobe needs something. Irritability is the most common external sign of stress and in cahoots with impatience and go-to colorful or negative language.

    • Pay the quarter, and then get curious. What’s really draining your patience and what do you need to get it back?
  1. Everything feels like a problem.

    “The problem with that is…”
    Because self-awareness is also a frontal lobe function, it can take a while to realize that you are making mountains out of molehills or feeling like every step of the day requires too much effort. This is not your energized creative problem solver mode! It is your barely hanging on zone.

    • Think back over your week. Where are you on the slogging through problems to “piece of cake!” spectrum? What’s your story about your circumstances? Dig under that story to find what you really need.

Some signs and symptoms of energy depletion are fairly universal, but you may also have your own special indicators. The key is to build awareness and create habits for refueling. It doesn’t have to be a major overhaul. Every tiny tweak you make in your day can add up to happier, smarter, healthier you.

– Build your own dashboard for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.
– Create a habit of accountability to checking in with your dashboard.
– Have a strategy session with yourself to give self-care its proper place in your life…
supporting your best you!

Move those subtle signs into the spotlight and use them to end your personal energy shortages. Model self-care as leadership. Teach your children to manage their energy. Support cultures of well-being. And leverage the science and art of you to live your best life!