There are no affiliate links in this post - just great resources that I personally recommend.
I’m a self-confessed health and wellness nerd, and the thing I’m most obsessed with is how to overcome fatigue and have more energy. I want more energy so I can do more of the fun things that make me feel good. But mostly, I want more energy so I can get through the day without feeling like I’m dragging my feet. I want to feel alive. I want to feel good! It seems so simple, but it can be so elusive.
Feeling good is such a basic human need, but I think most people can relate to not feeling it – how can I have more energy? Why am I so tired all the time?
Feeling tired seems to be part of living in the modern world. We fulfill multiple life roles at once and we’re constantly under time pressure. Our phones continuously ping with reminders and alerts and sometimes it all feels too much.
Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash
There’s an overwhelm that happens when we have so much happening in our lives that we feel like we can’t keep up. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels go into overdrive and our nervous systems plateau on a level of constant high alert. This becomes our new normal – living in a constant state of low-level stress which peaks regularly into states of acute anxiety. Those stress hormones have profound implications, though.
The fight-or-flight response
Our brains weren’t wired to live and function like this. We’re wired to deal with occasional high intensity stressful or fearful situations, like being chased by a lion. When our amygdala, that ancient part of our brain, detects what it thinks is a threat, it activates our fight-or-flight response. As a result, a whole raft of physiological responses automatically switch into gear – our hypothalamus and pituitary and adrenal glands release a surge of stress hormones, and within seconds, our heart starts racing to pump oxygen-filled blood to our limbs, our pain response diminishes and our pupils dilate so we can see better, among other things.
We all know this. But we’ve become used to it and we’ve forgotten about the consequences.
What happens after the stress response?
The stress response was all well and good in prehistoric times when we had to either fight or run for our lives. Intense physical exertion – either fighting or running for our lives – activates the brain’s self-calming system by releasing neurotransmitters that restore balance in the autonomic nervous system. You’d run or fight for your life and then you’d calm down, grateful to still be alive. Your system would rebalance itself.
Nowhere to run
The problem is that our brains still work with that prehistoric system, but our world has evolved. Our stress response gets triggered throughout the day when we’re late for work, or when we have to speak up in a group or when we’re trying to meet a deadline… but in all those situations, there’s no opportunity to run and activate the feel-good hormones that our body needs to calm itself down. We can’t just stop everything and run around the block.
This is why exercise is always recommended as a stress management tool. (And by the way, it’s never too late to release those stress hormones with exercise, even if you feel calm already.)
In a nutshell: our brain perceives a day-to-day situation as threatening and activates the stress hormones, but we can’t drop everything and exercise, so the stress hormones stay in our system.
Then our brain perceives another situation as threatening and it all happens again.
The stress hormones build and build in our systems, just from functioning day to day in the modern world. Our brains keep perceiving everyday situations as dangerous, but we can’t drop everything and exercise every time it happens.
Prolonged stress creates scary symptoms
The stress response also disrupts cognitive processes like thinking, problem solving and decision making – this known as ‘brain fog.’
If you’ve ever experienced brain fog, you’ll know that it feels scary. It’s frightening to suddenly forget what you were talking about, not be able to remember words or not be able to think straight. When your brain doesn’t function the way you’re used to, it feels scary.
And what do we know about how our brain reacts to situations that it perceives as frightening?
It triggers the stress response.
And prolonged stress makes you tired
Anxiety and fatigue go hand in hand. The biological fallout from the stress response is tiring. When you’re freaking out because you’re late for something important and those stress hormones get released, there’s often a ‘crash’ that happens afterwards – once it’s all over you suddenly feel drained as your body works hard to readjust and get back into balance.
Chronic levels of stress and anxiety also mess with our ability to get a good night’s sleep, and then the sleep loss creates more anxiety.
If we don’t change anything in our lives, we’re still getting all those daily stressors from pushing to keep up with our lives, and now we’re emotionally and physically exhausted too.
More stress hormones, more scary brain fog, poorer quality sleep, more fatigue, more stress response. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Wow. Now that’s a scary thought!
Graphic by Alan Gordon on Instagram – same goes for fatigue.
Neuroplasticity and re-wiring your brain
We know that exercise after work is one of the best ways to release the stress hormones. But some days are just too busy to fit in a workout. And is there a more proactive way to deal with stress?
How can we manage our prehistoric automatic stress response to fit better in our modern world?
And is it possible to avoid our amygdala triggering the stress response in the first place?
The answer is yes – if we re-train our brain with intention. We now know that our brain and nervous system are ‘plastic’; they have the ability to change and reorganise their structure, connections and functions in response to experiences and stimuli.
This means that we can re-train our brains to feel safe in the modern world.
If our brain feels safer in our day-to-day world, it won’t trigger the stress response as often.
And importantly, if we can train our brains to feel safe while we’re experiencing scary symptoms like extreme fatigue and brain fog, then those symptoms themselves will no longer trigger the stress response.
We effectively break the self-perpetuating symptom cycle.
Graphic by Alan Gordon on Instagram
When our brain begins to feel safe in the world, it stops triggering the fight-or-flight response as often. We have less stress hormones in our system and more feel-good hormones. We feel more secure. Then, voilà! Our fatigue and related symptoms start to lift and we start to have more energy. We become more stress resistant. We feel better. We’re on the upwards spiral.
That’s not to say that brain retraining is a guaranteed magic bullet for everything. And a lot of people won’t even try it because they aren’t ready for change or don’t believe it applies to them. But when it’s done thoroughly, it provides immense relief for most people and can be life changing.
Seeing the world and our symptoms through a lens of safety
How can we re-wire our brains to feel safe?
We need to constantly reassure our brain that we’re safe, that everything is perfectly fine and that there’s nothing to worry about – but we need to teach ourselves to feel it as well, even if we don’t believe it at first. We also need to do this when we’re experiencing our fatigue or scary symptoms – but not in a regimented way, because that creates more stress!
How do we do all that?
Retraining your brain to feel safe
Retraining your brain to feel safe is an ongoing process, a new way of being. It requires patience and trust, and it’s different from positive thinking. It’s very specific and it’s not always intuitive, but it’s incredibly self-loving and self-compassionate. It’s a pleasure; a much more enjoyable way of living.
Graphic by Alan Gordon on Instagram – same goes for fatigue.
In my experience, you need to learn to retrain your brain from a teacher, and you need practice it consistently. Changing how your brain is wired necessarily changes your perception of yourself and the world around you. It’s a delightful journey that’s full of love.
I’ve tried a few different modalities and techniques over the years to re-train my brain. Here are my favourites.
Resource #1: Podcast & book: Tell Me About Your Pain
This is my absolute favourite resource for training your brain to no longer perceive chronic pain – but it also applies to fatigue, brain fog and other ‘brain-created’ symptoms.
It’s a 15-episode podcast called Tell Me About Your Pain, by psychotherapist Alan Gordon and his long-time friend, neuroscientist Alon Ziv, and their accompanying book, The Way Out: The Revolutionary, Scientifically-Based Protocol to Stop Chronic Pain.
This duo is delightful to listen and to read. Their book is informative, full of stories and analogies and is funny – laugh out funny. I couldn’t put it down and I finished it in three days flat.
Both the book and the podcast teach you how to re-train your brain by viewing symptoms through a lens of safety – with very specific techniques.
Although they focus on chronic pain, they affirm (and I can attest) that their technique is also effective for fatigue, brain fog and other chronic brain-created symptoms. And if you happen to live with chronic pain as well, there’s a good chance you could heal that simultaneously – what an incredible bonus!
Their technique is science-based and they even conducted a randomised controlled study on it with outstanding results (98% of patients with chronic pain levels experienced improvement and 66% were nearly or fully pain free, which previous to this study, was unheard of). Yet it’s a beautiful, gentle and loving process.
This delightful technique is a gamer-changer for anyone who experiences chronic fatigue, brain fog, pain, anxiety, depression or any other brain-created symptom.
The premise is very similar to a chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia recovery program I did years ago, when my bipolar 2 disorder was misdiagnosed as CFS, called The Gupta Program, which I found immensely helpful. However, this technique is more flexible and much more enjoyable – plus it’s much cheaper!
Resource #2: Kerry Magnus, vitality coach
I discovered Kerry through an online business course we were both taking and quickly joined her online group membership for women experiencing fatigue. I was 80-90% well most of the time but knew I had more potential in me.
Kerry is a ‘spiritually awake’ psychologist and vitality coach specialising in chronic fatigue and burnout. She teaches how to work with divine masculine and feminine energies (of which we all need both, regardless of our gender) and our inner child, among other things, to regulate our nervous systems and release the life-long patterns of subconscious fear that hold us in states of chronic fatigue.
Kerry’s teachings on fatigue recovery echo the premise of the pain book – that we can’t heal from chronic conditions unless we learn to re-set our nervous systems.
Among other things, Kerry taught how me how to work with divine masculine energy to feel held and safe every day, and that’s had a profound effect on my energy levels and sense of wellbeing.
Kerry’s blog and e-newsletter are full of beautiful stories and ah-ha moments. You can take the free quiz that Kerry put together to see if you’re a match for what she calls the ‘Holding Personality’ and learn if your personality type is linked to your fatigue. You can also download her free guide, Discover 5 Powerful Secrets for Overcoming Your Chronic Fatigue and Adrenal Depletion on her website.
Of course, if you’re experiencing extreme ongoing fatigue, I’d recommend that you see your GP and have blood tests done to rule out iron and other deficiencies or underlying health issues first.
If we’re really ready for change, we also need to look at all aspects of our lives. But that in itself can be so overwhelming that we can sometimes choose to do nothing instead. Retraining your brain and resetting your nervous system gives you the foundation that you might have been missing.
The upwards spiral
When we learn how to rewire our brains and nervous systems to feel safe and held in the world, our fatigue levels and our perception of the world alter drastically and our lives start to fill back up with pleasure.
Then it becomes more manageable to start looking at other things to augment that goodness – sleep hygiene, regular exercise, good nutrition that looks after our gut bacteria, more time to rest and to play, laughter, letting go of ‘shoulds’… Gradually our ability to stay calm and feel good becomes supercharged to a new level.
The point here is to feel safe; not overwhelmed. A teacher or a book will teach you new skills, one at a time, that feel good. Then it’s up to you to cultivate those new small daily habits in a way that’s manageable for you.
I know first-hand that being tired all the time or experiencing chronic pain or brain fog sucks the joy out of your life. But it’s not something we should put up with just because we’ve learned to live with it.
Our brains and bodies are wonderous things. There’s always more to learn and new techniques to try. And it’s always worth trying.
So kick back and gift yourself the time to listen to an episode of that podcast; any episode will do. Or buy the book and commit to reading a little at a time. It’s an easy, self-loving step that could make a dramatic positive change in your life. The whole point of our lives is to enjoy them.
Have you tried retraining your brain? How did you go? Tell me about it in the comments!