Do you constantly feel run down? You might feel like you are falling behind in every aspect of your life, whether it be with work, during your workouts, or just in general. Everything feels overwhelming and you feel like you are running on fumes trying to stay in the game. Every ounce of gumption has left your being, leaving you destitute of any hope to help you step up your game.
If any of this describes you, then this blog post is for you!
Today’s post is all about physical burnout and why you might be feeling run down. We are going to talk a little bit about the physiology of things, but the goal is to explain as simply as possible what might be going on in your body and to give you immediately actionable steps you can take to move past this.
Let’s start by talking about your nervous system and why that even needs to be in the conversation of feeling run down.
Parasympathetic Nervous System vs. Sympathetic Nervous System
Your body has two nervous systems: the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is in gear when you are in “fight or flight” mode, whereas the sympathetic nervous system – often dubbed the “rest and digest” system – helps keep the body in a rested and calm state.
If you are feeling run down, it’s possible that you have potentially been operating in “fight or flight” for too long, so we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. How do we do that? First, let’s talk about caffeine.
Chemically, caffeine is very similar to naturally-produced adenosine, which is a chemical that builds up in your brain as the day goes on. The longer that you are awake, the more adenosine builds up in your brain. The more it builds up, the more you want to go to sleep, which is when adenosine is cleared from your brain. This is why when you wake up you (should) feel energetic and ready to attack the day.
In order for adenosine to perform this job, it connects to receptors in your brain. Because caffeine is so similar on a chemical level to adenosine, your brain can’t tell the difference. When you consume caffeine, it takes over those receptors and blocks them from the otherwise regular occurring effects of adenosine. The result is probably familiar to you.You consume the caffeinated drink of your choice and you no longer feel tired despite the adenosine build up in your brain that is wanting to tell you to rest and go to sleep.
It takes SIX hours for your body to process only HALF of the caffeine that you have consumed. So while that early afternoon iced coffee sounds great in the moment, it might be a contributing factor to your lack of sleep and probably your lack of quality sleep. As much as you may feel a loyalty to your morning coffee or that afternoon tea, those multiple-a-day pick-me-ups could be what’s hindering your drive and leaving you in a ‘run-down’ state.
“But I HAVE to have caffeine to get through that midday lull!” you might be thinking. Let’s now introduce the concept of “flow state.”
Let’s compare two situations.
One: You have a full work day. You feel overwhelmed by the number of emails in your inbox right now. You have several meetings today, one in which you have to present. You are anxious, you feel reactive, and you think, “Before I do this, I need a double-pump, venti, iced caramel macchiato coffee in order to get through it all. FIGHT OR FLIGHT, baby, let’s get through this day!”
Two: You have a full work day. You have a large amount of unopened emails to get through and you have to be “on” for several meetings today, one in which you have to present. You know that anxiety and caffeine don’t always best serve you, so you prioritize good nutrition and focusing on water intake. You take a few minutes before each Zoom meeting to take some deep breaths. Instead of operating in a heightened state, you prioritize working in a calm and assured flow state. Your brain, now calmly whispering and affirming to your now-assured aura, “Nothing can possibly hinder our success. We are in a flow state. Deep breath in, long breath out.”
Which sounds more appealing to you?
Flow state is when you are fully immersed into your subject: full attention, full enjoyment, and fully in the zone. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines it as “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
Hear me out: sometimes feeling and performing our best might involve a little caffeine help or jamming out to your favorite hype playlist or other high-stimulating activities to hype ourselves up. And OTHER times, feeling and performing our best may mean approaching situations with less overstimulating fanfare and more so with a quiet and resolved intensity.
So the next time that you are dragging through an afternoon – maybe you slept poorly the night before and you are stressed about a work situation – try to operate out of flow state: calm and collected without being in a heightened state.
Another reason that you are feeling run down could be from getting little to no rest and maybe it’s catching up to you. There are several things that you can do to combat sleep trouble.
For starters, let’s say you go to sleep at irregular and inconsistent times; instead, work towards going to bed around the same time every night and waking up around the same time in the morning. This will help your body know when to naturally wind down and when to naturally feel awake. Going to sleep around the same time helps regulate your body’s natural circadian rhythm so that your body starts releasing melatonin around the same time, which helps you feel more ready for bed and fall asleep faster.
If you watch TV, stare at your phone, or use any other technology right before bed, the blue light from those systems might be creating poor quality sleep. Exposure to blue light before bed prohibits the production of melatonin in your body. Try to limit your exposure to this light before bed or find something to aid you in reducing the effects, such as blue light glasses or turning on “night mode” on your electronics.
What about supplemental melatonin? While melatonin can help your body better regulate the timing of when sleep occurs, it does little to help actually generate sleep itself. Instead of turning to melatonin, work on helping your body’s natural melatonin release by prioritizing regular sleep times and turning off screens a couple of hours before bedtime!
If you struggle often with your sleep, check out “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. It’s an excellent read.
If you are feeling run down, then activating your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) by doing rigorous HIIT or spin classes isn’t going to help your body recover. Instead, opt for a lower intensity workout such as yoga, a walk or jog, or a slower-paced strength workout. More is often not better, so take this as your permission sleep to slow down, pick lighter weights, and scale back however is needed so that your body can catch up!
This wouldn’t be a “how to stop feeling run down” post if we didn’t also address breathing. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the composed “rest and digest” system). It is extraordinary that we can activate this with just our breath, just intentionally slowing down and breathing slowly and deeply into our lungs! It’s a remarkably easy way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and yet it is often under-utilized.
Deep breathing gets more oxygen to your brain and also communicates to your body that it is safe, thus helping it leave the “fight or flight” state. Again, if you are feeling run down, it might be because you are spending too much time in “fight or flight” mode and perhaps you need to give your body permission to come down and relax.
To practice deep breathing, lie on your back with one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly. Start taking some breaths and focus on breathing slowly and deeply into your torso so that your belly-placed hand rises and falls, not your chest-placed hand. We often breathe in a shallow manner and don’t even realize it, especially when we are feeling anxious. So, focus on breathing into your belly hand, not your chest hand.
There are multiple ways that you can extrapolate on deep breathing:
- Changing your position
- Increasing how long you breathe in, hold your breath, or breathe out
- Focusing on box breathing, which means expanding also out to the sides of your torso so that your lungs are fully filling
- Stay away from caffeine in the afternoon and be sure to not abuse it in the morning. If you feel like you are dragging, make sure that you aren’t dehydrated by drinking some water and ensure that you are providing yourself adequate nutrition!
- Implement more flow state into your day instead of being reactive and creating anxiety. Eliminate unnecessary distractions, put on a music playlist that best supports you, and dial into the task at hand with a calm focus.
- The goal is more sleep so that you wake up feeling more refreshed, so audit your sleep habits. Pick one thing to work on: regular bedtime, no blue light right before bed, keeping your room cool, no lights in the bedroom, or even not eating immediately before bed.
- If you have had a long day, pause before your evening workout and ask yourself, “what would best support my body at this moment?” “More” is often not better. Also, ask yourself, “what kind of workout would actually benefit my body now that I’m tired?” And be willing to accept the answer if it is “no workout and early bedtime would be the most beneficial.”
- Set aside 5 minutes to practice deep breathing a day. Many of my clients do this right before bed and not only do they feel more calm afterwards, they usually fall right to sleep and sleep well.
To close, the biggest takeaway that I want you to have is to know that you don’t have to feel this way. Your job might not change and the stressors in your life might not change, but you have complete control over making small changes in your life that will compound immensely with practice. Pick a couple that stand out to you and focus the next couple of weeks on truly becoming a practitioner of it. Here’s to more rest, more calm collection, and more intentional relaxation!