Greenery surrounds the house, climbing up the fences. To get in you walk up the driveway under a canopy of oak and plum branches. Flowers peek shyly from pots or the rock walls that hold up the terraces climbing our steep hill. There are greenhouses for the vegetables, a large, semi-wild herb garden and a cluster of quacking ducks wandering around.
I test out as an introvert on those personality questionnaires and this is the world I have made for myself. It took years to build and in the winter it can be pretty rugged. But in the summer there is a balance of solitude and connection. I have friends and connections all over the world. I spend much of the day conversing long distance amid both physical and intellectual work.
Sometimes the conversation is with a friend thousands of miles away, sometimes with a forum on a particular topic and sometimes it is a one-sided conversation in which I argue with authors I am listening to through an audio book while I weed the zucchini bed.
And this past year there has been a troubling repetition in many of those conversations. Friends, family, acquaintances and even a lot of authors talk about a deep exhaustion weighing them down. Some call it depression or burnout and some have diagnoses, but others just feel utterly depleted. Not everyone thinks it's worse than before, and some of us only struggle with it some of the time, but the spread of this malaise is worrying.
Has the purpose and passion gone out of your world? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Is your sleep troubled and full of stressful, anxious dreams? Do you find it easier to sleep in the day time and almost impossible to get through the day without a nap? Do you just feel half asleep, disconnected or out of sync most of the time?
If so, you're not alone. I feel it too, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.
Sometimes these symptoms can herald clinical depression and if they interfere with your daily life, it is helpful to seek out the advice of medical professionals. But often these symptoms come from a kind of deep depletion or "soul exhaustion." This may or may not be accompanied by depression. It can occur following professional or emotional burnout, significant loss and grief, major life changes or periods of intense work and activity.
Soul exhaustion is worrying even when only one person describes it. When it is spread through whole communities the need for a change is urgent.
Ignoring soul exhaustion can lead to severe medical complications, including depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, cancer and a host of systemic disorders. Depletion must be treated as a real expression of need and because it is so widespread in my circle these days, I have decided to address it here.
Most of my home medicine writing is about herbs and there are some herbs that can help at specific points in dealing with soul exhaustion, but much of what we need when we are depleted doesn't come from either traditional or alternative medicine. It comes from changes in our environment and routine.
First, here are a list of symptoms. A severely depleted individual may experience:
- A desire to sleep much longer than normal,
- Disrupted, overly light and restless or leaden and motionless sleep at night,
- Frequent need to sleep during the day,
- Difficulty waking up in the morning or after daytime sleep,
- Difficulty motivating one's self to carry out basic daily functions (getting up, daily routine, work, household),
- A sensation of body heaviness,
- Even small movements may feel like hard work,
- Heightened sensitivity and anxiety, being on edge,
- Great difficulty in dealing with even minor changes in daily routine or small crises,
- A sensation of being out of step with time, a dreamlike sensation even when awake, a feeling that everything is in slow motion,
- Strange physical symptoms without medical explanation, such as deep aching throughout the body, tension headaches, stomach troubles, dizziness and/or ringing ears,
- Muscle weakness and great difficulty exercising,
- Intensified emotions and strong changes in emotion, sudden tears upon hearing a story which may not seem at first glance to be particularly sad, unbearable anger and feelings of helplessness over injustices,
- Feelings of deep loneliness, even when surrounded by people,
- Loss of customary hopefulness and optimism, feeling jaded and hopeless about life or one's purpose,
- Loss of interest in hobbies, causes or passionate work, or where interest may remain energy does not follow,
- Chronic anxiety or panic attacks.
- Individuals who are normally forgiving and warm can become bitter, angry or jealous and have difficulty explaining exactly why or the reasons are much bigger than any momentary disagreement.
It will be different in different individuals but there is a pattern to these symptoms. And moreover, a person struggling with soul exhaustion will often know there is something wrong and those around them will know it, but when asked we cannot give clear or concise descriptions of our symptoms. Yet the sense of deep change and trouble remains.
There are a number of possible underlying causes for soul exhaustion. However, not every person who experiences these types of events will be dangerously depleted. There many factors and depending on the severity of the causes and symptoms, medical help may be needed.
Soul exhaustion may result from:
- Family or other significant breakups,
- The loss of someone close,
- The loss of a home, job or business,
- Illness or disability in the individual or family members,
- Life changes that drastically disrupt daily routine and goals
- Being trapped long-term in a toxic, abusive or ostracizing home, work or social environment,
- Unresolved past trauma, either physical or emotional,
- An inability to say no to the constant demands of others without regard to the individual's needs,
- Pushing one's self too hard in work or in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances until the point of burnout or collapse,
- An unhealthy diet, substance abuse and/or electronics or other addictions,
- Exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals or environmentally polluted areas,
- Overwhelming past regrets or events in the past that make it difficult to focus on the present,
- Being unable to break free from repetitive, purposeless or draining work,
- Experiences of discrimination, hate speech or attacks based on characteristics over which the individual has no control (often but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic or social class),
- Physical, economic, geographical and social barriers to fulfilling one's potential and achieving meaningful self expression,
- Worries and anxieties about future security, the safety of loved ones, debts or other looming problems,
- And pressures from social injustices, extreme econimic inequality and ecological devastation.
It is unlikely that one of these causes alone will result in an individual becoming deeply exhausted and depleted, unless that one factor is extreme. However, a combination of these factors can be devastating.
This is particularly significant because many medical lists often leave off the broader social and environmental contributors. I placed them in the latter part of the list, not because they are less important but because they are more complex. In any event, this isn't a list for someone else to use, so much as it is for individuals to look at their own factors.
One theory about the increase in deep exhaustion holds that it is a biological response to our bodies' ability to sense ecological danger. Particularly with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change and extreme whether that have caused economic disruption and large human migrations in some areas of the world, our bodies are reacting to our sense of biological interconnection, which is sounding alarms that cause anxiety and--after lengthy periods in which we can't escape or make a meaningful impact to solve the crisis--soul exhaustion.
That leaves me with the crucial and urgent question of what an individual can do about this deep depletion, given the often on-going underling causes.
Here are some things that can alleviate the exhaustion and give the individual a chance to rectify at least some of the underlying causes.
- Prioritize time for restful and replenishing activities (sometimes called "self care"). We can not take care of those who depend on us, if we are too depleted ourselves. Replenishment isn't selfish or idle. Quite the opposite. Expecting others to pay attention to what we need, figure it out and make sure we get the needed replenishment is far more self-absorbed than taking the time to do it ourselves. Often replenishment comes from adequate sleep, reading or time spent in nature, but it can also come from engaging in one's personal interests without pressure or pursuing spiritual studies.
- Rest as much as necessary. Sometimes--especially when rest has been neglected--this means a great deal of sleep and rest. Illness, disability, extreme types of work, previous trauma and other factors may make greater than average rest necessary over the long-term. This is not a shameful circumstance but rather a fact that cannot be denied without unacceptable costs.
- Turn off technology and spend time doing fulfilling things that use other senses and body movements, such as reading or absorbing stories in other ways, baking, crafting, creating art, listening to music, experiencing nature, singing or playing music, exercising, immersing ourselves in water and being around people who sooth us and bring out our laughter;
- Take time for spiritual practices and growth. This can mean participating in a specific tradition, doing yoga or other movement-based spiritual practices, lighting candles and creating an uplifting atmosphere, meditation, drumming or chanting, going into nature for extended periods, observing the sun, moon and stars or learning about specific things like the healing uses of stones or scents and reading systems such as the Tarot or i-Ching for inner understanding.
- Consume fresh fruits and vegetables which have not been chemically treated. We must adapt our diets to include as much unprocessed or lightly processed foods and as much locally produced fresh foods as possible. Pay particular attention to avoiding highly processed foods that don't contain a lot of nutrients, even though they may be widely regarded as "healthy" such as packaged bread or white rice. It is important to include some foods that simply bring a moment of satisfaction and joy to the individual. Eating healthy should not mean boring food. Find favorite healthy foods and pick a few favorite not-so-healthy foods as well.
- Drink teas made with detoxifying herbs; Because people who experience deep exhaustion have often been exposed to toxic chemicals or heavy metals and because anxiety and other emotional distress actually produces toxins in the body, it is important to consider detox. Dandelion root, nettle, red clover and burdock teas are helpful and should be drunk daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for several weeks. If you have a tendency toward anemia, a blood test for anemia may be in order. In this case, caution is also advised with nettle tea, which can flush iron from the blood as it cleans other, harmful heavy metals out of the body.
- Take herbal teas, tinctures and extracts of herbs for energy and mood regulation. If you feel a slump of low energy in the morning or the middle of the afternoon and have a tendency to go for coffee or cola in order to power on through the work, try to schedule rest, while drinking green tea and eating lightly sweetened chocolate instead. These also contain stimulants and taste delicious but they act in a more sustainable way in the body. Rhodiola supplements can also help to stimulate the brain once a lot of rest has been had.
- If negative thinking accompanies a lot of the low energy and keeps rest from being fully absorbed, some anti-depressant herbs such as lavender, lemon balm and St. John's Wart can be helpful. For these purposes I often use tincture because it is best to take them for several days (up to two weeks) in a row but tea will also work nicely if you can make sure you will be able to take it every day. Observe carefully because moods are a matter of delicate body chemistry. Not everyone will find the same herbs useful. St. John's Wart relieves depression for me, but a friend of mine experiences insomnia instead. Be aware of any allergies you may have, take notes on what you are trying, pay attention to any adverse reactions and consult with medical professionals.
- When negative thoughts and critical "self-talk" intrude, we shouldn't either deepen it or push it away automatically. Feel the emotions associated with this self criticism and any assumptions of the judgments of others. Acknowledge those feelings and hold the part of yourself that is criticized gently. Spend the time necessary to understand the negative thoughts without falling into them.
- Consider negative words you say about yourself, such as "I'm so fat!" or "What an idiot!" Even if you mean them ironically or as a kind of joke among friends, consider changes to the words that will help to relieve negativity. "That's my attempt at prepper storage" can replace "fat" comments. Or "obviously I have too much on my mind" can replace recriminations over forgotten items or errands. Those are just examples which don't deny reality or outlaw humor, but they are less blaming and judgmental.
- Set aside a few moments, perhaps as part of spiritual practice or at some other time when the daily routine is not too hectic, to focus on breathing exercises, smile-muscle exercises and/or meditation on loving yourself and absorbing the love around you. This may also be a time for a practice of gratitude. One year I listed at least one truly good thing that happened during the week at the end of every week in my calendar. Then I read them at the end of the year. It seemed like a bit of a hockey exercise but it turned out to be really astonishing. I know good things happen, of course, along with the hard stuff, but reading it all together was more of an experience than you might think.
- Read jokes, tell jokes and find ways to increase laughter. Laughing really matters and in times of hardship and strife, it may be at a deficit. You may have to actually seek out jokes and plan silly things in the beginning, if you have been really depleted by difficult circumstances, but bringing back laughter is as important as anything else on this list.
- Practice grounding and balancing our energy. Many of the people who are so depleted today are depleted precisely because we are high-energy, active and passionate people. This energy is a great gift, but it can also come with its own challenges. Whether you currently have abundant energy or feel depleted, exhaustion can be helped and prevented by grounding. Grounding can be as simple as spending time in nature. Gardening and other sustenance-producing activities that get your hands into the earth are particularly helpful. But it can also be done even when nature is temporarily unavailable. You can stand or sit during your daily quiet time or spiritual practice, take a few deep breaths and visualize tree roots going down from your feet and/or tailbone into the earth. It may mean visualizing the tree roots twining down through a few floors of a building, through some foundations and concrete, but get them there in visualization. Continue a few more deep breaths and focus on absorbing the steady, sustainable energy of the earth.
- Find useful things to do to improve the environment and community around ourselves, when energy permits. This last is crucial and yet it can't be done very effectively at the deepest points of exhaustion. Research and specify things you personally can do to improve the ecological and social environments. These may be very small things or large things. Use your particular abilities, talents and blessings. If you have money, that may help a great deal. If you don't, there are other ways. While you may have physical difficulties, many people who are doing the work of environmental and social justice need help with non-physical tasks. The opposite is also true. You may not know precisely what to do, but many organizations can use a pair of strong and quick hands. Doing this kind of work, either as part of your "real job" or during your off hours not only helps to elevate the conditions that exhaust you, it also plays a vital role in preventing exhaustion and rebuilding strength after you have rested.
It is important to remember through all this that the time it takes to recover from soul exhaustion varies widely and depends on the same factors that cause depletion in the first place. Every person's circumstances are different and healing doesn't always abide by human schedules. Judging ourselves or others for a slow recovery will only slow that recovery further because such judgments contribute to depletion. In the end, resilience is fostered most by a combination of solidarity and intuition.
Be well and nurture joy. I welcome your comments and especially any typos found in my blogs. this week I am particularly exhausted as well, so you may just find some.