Foresight Mental Health
Danger + Safety = Exhaustion
Updated: Apr 3
by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
If you have been feeling tired "for no reason" lately, you are not alone.
Exhaustion during our usual day to day lives may come in waves, whether it is a response to your level or intensity of daily work or the amount of emotional work it takes to get through the day.
When we are stressed, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol increase in our body. Think of adrenaline like the Incredible Hulk, or the Flash - it's that sudden boost that pumps you up, helps you run faster away from danger, or brace yourself for a fight. Cortisol is like the key to unlock the energy you need under stress; it increases sugar in the bloodstream, like a 'stimulus plan' (of sorts) to boost your muscles and sensitivity to danger. In order to do this, however, it also has to cut off or alter certain services, such as your immune system, your digestive system, and your reproductive system. It also controls our mood and our motivation, especially around fear.
These hormones are designed to be used in moderation. We need a certain amount of them in our body each day to wake up and break down in time for us to go to sleep. Cortisol breaks down very slowly in the bloodstream, which can often explain why we feel so tired at night but lay awake unable to rest or get fitful nights of partial sleep.
Under the circumstances of COVID, many of us are living under a very dissonant feeling of being in our homes or at our workplaces, where we have usually felt a sense of stability and safety - and are now experiencing a heightened level of alertness and stress. It has been 52 days of shelter in place in the Bay Area, and to some level, we will acclimate to our circumstances. It's something our bodies and brains have been doing for centuries, and they're not about to stop now.
Regardless, if you are feeling tired, experience mood swings, or still find yourself mindlessly scrolling through media feeds, your brain is using energy trying to fit two seemingly impossible puzzle pieces together: the fact that we are very much safe AND also in danger.
The good news?
Cortisol and adrenaline are not the only hormones your adrenal gland produces.
DHEA, which stands for dehydroepiandrosterone, is the counterbalance of cortisol. And there are practical steps you can take to increase its natural production in your body.
What does DHEA look like when we have increased levels of it in our bodies?
It has been associated in research with 'renewing' or 'restorative' emotions, such as appreciation, gratitude, contentment, dignity, courage, joy, and passion.
How do we bring these emotions more often into our lives? Like exercise, it is helpful to practice them. We don't often talk about emotions as something we "do" - it seems that emotions simply "happen".
However, if you've ever intentionally put on a song to 'set the mood' at a dance party or 'pump you up' before a workout or to 'wind down' after a long day, then you have experienced an intentional shift in emotional state. You took the initiative to experience an emotion that you desired. Some days it works better than others. Sometimes, it doesn't. But the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
One technique I use from my HeartMath coaching is called the "Heart Focused Breathing" technique. It's very simple, and it is the foundation I use to help people slow down and tap into their ability to regulate their own emotions.
The steps are in the name:
Focus your attention on your heart, the center of your chest.
Imagine the air flowing in and out of your heart, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual.
As you breathe, you increase your levels of DHEA, not only because you are slowing yourself down, but paying attention to your heart, simply observing its existence and its steady rhythm - finding an appreciation and awe for what it does every moment of your life, improves your heart and brain's sense of coherence.
When your heart and your brain are in sync, they work together. They compliment each other; they help each other. If you feel the sense of exhaustion, feeling as though your brain and your feelings and your body are working against each other, try this simple technique to begin the process of becoming more coherent. Check in with yourself regularly, and see if there are any shifts in your emotional state or awareness of your own thought processes. We can then build on this technique in future blogs!
If you or someone you care about is in need of support, call Foresight today to schedule an appointment.
All of our therapists are continuing to support our members through telehealth.