Running on empty.


Keeping Your Bucket Full: Maintaining Energy by Nurturing Well-being

What fuel do you run on?

What keeps you going? It’s important to look at how you are funding your life, what is your energy source, your motivational fuel?

One of the most often used fuels is adrenaline. When we do not have a fund of well-being and naturally produced energy, the body turns on adrenaline to try and make up for it. This kind of energy leaves you “wired and tired.” When running on adrenaline you feel sped up, hyper-alert, and anxious. It’s hard to sleep and you never have that relaxed, well-rested feeling.

If you are pushing past natural limits, you are likely running on adrenaline. Yet this pushing is endemic. Most work places are built on employees over-functioning. I am aghast at learning of binge-working killing off our young people and making others sick.

“But I love my work,” you may counter. That helps, but it’s easy to get over-focused and over-functioning and seriously deplete reserves.

Leaving the go-til-you-drop cycle

One of hardest things for me to learn was to not use all my energy. I thought that was what energy was for!

What I discovered is that it fed a cycle of periodic exhaustion. Often I wouldn’t notice it coming, because I was so focused on what I was doing and on the need to complete it.

That exhaustion may look like a day in bed every few weeks, or it may have more dangerous consequences. After the busiest year of my life, I collapsed in deep fatigue, which took months to resolve. (And I was lucky. Many fall from here into chronic fatigue syndromes or other serious illness.) Fortunately, I used it as a wake-up call.

Cultivating Well-being: A good growing medium

Many extol the virtues of a slower lifestyle. More savoring, deeper relationships, space for your inner life. Certainly better health.

What I want to add to this discussion is a sense of well-being as a precious resource that can become the fuel for your life. Investing in this well-being is like a gardener enriching soil.

How to nurture and protect this well-being? The secret is to keep your eye on this somewhat subtle inner sense (characterized by calm, satisfaction, peace, a quiet kind of happiness) and when you start to lose it, tune in to what is needed. Do you need to take a break, take in the good, take a moment to connect with someone, move your body? Do you need downtime or to connect with whatever spiritual hook-up works for you?

That’s also what free time is for: to continue filling your bucket with good feelings. Yes, I know sometimes people feel the need to veg out in some form of passive entertainment, but is that feeding you? A friend told me of her Friday evening ritual watching 3 programs on TV, but couldn’t remember the third. She was focused on tuning out. I’d rather focus on tuning in.

How do you replenish when your energy is getting depleted? What brings you well-being? Is it listening (deeply listening) to music? A satisfying interaction? A really good meal?

One late afternoon into evening I lie on my loveseat and looked out the window for several hours. I took in the colors of the changing sky, the twinkling stars at dusk, and let slow, deep thoughts come. Poignant thoughts. It was deeply replenishing.

No one else can tell you what is going to be nourishing for you. An activity that feels just right one day will not necessarily be just right the next. There is no substitute for deep attunement with yourself in tending to this very sensitive medium.

Keeping your bucket full

Some of our ancient healing modalities talk about not letting your energy reserves dip too low.  You don’t want to spend it all. It is like always having some gas in your tank. It doesn’t mean you don’t spend energy, but only the top half of your tank. This keeps the energy healthy, alive, culturing itself in a self-maintaining way.

As I learn this, the periods of exhaustion that have plagued my adult life seem to be disappearing.

Where do you need help? What is the next step for you?

  • Getting out of hyper drive?
  • Identifying what feeds your pool of well-being?
  • Learning to conserve rather than spend all your energy?

What changes do you need to make to begin running off a self-maintaining mixture of well-being?


About Jennifer Shay, LCSW, ACSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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