Stress and your energy bucket


RUNNING ON EMPTY? We are living in psychologically stressful times, which can be a serious drain on our energy reserves.

Andrew O'Brien

‘How are youse goin’ wif it, orright?’ If that seems a hard question to understand, imagine being asked by a bloke with a nasal drawl and speaking out of the corner of his mouth to keep the flies out.
Years ago, my sisters and I spent a summer working in a vineyard near our home in Australia. Every morning, the boss would greet everyone with the same question, and most of us answered with a variation on ‘Oh yeah, mate, orright’. Admittedly, there aren’t many variations available, but we tried.
While you’re not likely to be bumping into a dusty blend of uni students, seasonal workers and semi-retired folks standing under a gumtree these days, the question is a good one. How are you going with it? Alright? I’d be surprised at the moment if many folks are doing much better than alright, given the uncertainties around health, work and finances that our new reality entails.
What can we do to at least stay alright? Now seems like the right time to talk about stress. Sure, we’re all under psychological stress at the moment, some of us will manage better, and some just differently.
Stress, though, isn’t just a term for the psychologists. In simple terms, a stress can be anything that takes a body away from its happiest homeostatic place, where everything is working smoothly. Some stresses are good and encourage growth – think exercise, and some are bad – think pain.
All stressors require us to use some energy to recover. Hans Selye, the father of stress physiology, was quoted as saying ‘every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older’. Crikey, how old are we all going to feel at the end of this?
When discussing stress with clients, I like to talk about buckets. Imagine you have a bucket full of liquid energy. That bucket has a tap at the bottom that lets out a bit of energy each day in response to stress, how much the tap lets out is dictated by how many different stressors you are subjected to, and how significant they each are. The bucket can be refilled by another tap over the course of the day or week. If we can keep a decent amount of energy in the bucket, we’re ok. If we let it run too low and for too long, things aren’t so good.
The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are useful stimulants in the short term, regulating our basic fight or flight response, but continuously raised levels over the longer term are associated with weight gain, chronic illness, mental-health problems and insomnia.
What drains the bucket? In basic terms, anything relatively negative. Hunger, lack of sleep, extreme temperatures, significant psychological worries, poor diet, extreme exercise (but also not enough exercise) are obvious examples. The bucket is refilled by shelter, sleep, food, relatively gentle exercise and having our psychological needs met, among other things.
The difficult challenge in times like these is getting our balance right. How many things are draining the bucket, and by how much, is important to consider. We are living in psychologically stressful times; there is uncertainty for many of us over health and finances, not being able to see family and friends and having everyone in the house all day. At present, it seems there is nothing happening beyond this cursed virus, so we can’t even escape by watching football or Love Island.
It’s easy to think, then, that a good hard training session or run might help, to blow the cobwebs out and release some stress. But do you really want to drain more from your precious bucket right now?
Considering that there are no matches or races for the foreseeable future, perhaps some relatively gentle, base-building type exercise might be a better option. While we are allowed to get out, try easy runs or cycles, or just taking the dog for a walk. When the seemingly inevitable lockdown comes, YouTube is full of yoga, Pilates and stretching workouts – and skipping ropes work anywhere, regardless of internet connection.
Beyond the exercise, remember to eat well and to get enough sleep. Keep the kids entertained but not overworked; they’re stressed as well remember. Oh, and think of your mates. Pick up your phone, give someone a call and see how they’re goin’ wif it. Orright?

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at