One January I went to the Caribbean to teach a relaxing, week-long personal growth program. The waters were a superb shade of aquamarine. The sunsets were magnificent. And I was a crispy critter, exhausted and disheartened. I had traveled more than 200 days the previous year, with too little support on the work and home fronts. Then, over the Christmas holidays, a long-time employee had left under the most difficult circumstances. I had spent my precious time off fielding phone calls, getting my taxes ready and finally hiring and training a new staff person. Busy to the max, I had failed to keep track of my energy reserves and found that the "well" had run dry.
One afternoon, my husband and I went for a sail with some of the people from the group. A vivacious redhead by the name of Donna and I began talking. And as women often do, we went straight to the heart of the matter. A corporate trainer and coach, Donna was also used to a heavy travel schedule, but she’d learned to manage it. At one point, she leaned in close to me and took my hand. "Do you know that the life force is almost gone from your eyes?" she said. I could only nod affirmatively and sniffle a little. "Would you let me help you?" she asked.
"Dr. Donna," as she is known, became my friend, corporate consultant and self-care coach.
One of the most important things she asked was elegant in its power and simplicity: "On a scale of one to 10, where one is empty and 10 is full, how full is your well?" I knew immediately what she meant. Was I joyful, creative, rejuvenated and frisky, or was I despondent and dragged out.
I answered immediately, "I’m sucking mud." This, I knew from long training and experience as a mind/body medical researcher and psychologist, was dangerous ground. My immune system was at a low ebb, my muscles were achy and I felt poised on the brink of physical disaster. I was a poor advertisement for mind/body health and centered living. By failing to pay attention to my energy reserves, I had let myself wander into hazardous territory.
The "well scale" gave me a handle for recovery and a way to stay honest about taking care of myself. Awareness is the prerequisite for change. Realizing that you’re at the bottom is a wake-up call. You have two choices: to rise or to die. I decided on the former. I also committed to staying alert to my energy levels so that I wouldn’t use up my reserves, run on empty and risk either emotional or physical disaster again.
During the period of extreme stress that had led to sucking mud, I did exactly what most people do when their backs are against the wall. I regressed. Bounding out of bed to deal with the office meltdown, I neglected to eat until late afternoon. Then I grabbed anything that was convenient. As my sons say, I ate a balanced diet from the four food groups: candy, cake, pies and cookies. Nonetheless, I lost five pounds. This is called the high-stress diet. For a person who normally favors liberal quantities of fruits and vegetables, poor eating was a danger sign. I’d gone into survival mode. Exercise, which above all, fills my well, was a thing of the past. I couldn’t tear myself away from the office. The only positive coping strategy that remained was the support of my husband and the love and counsel of good friends.
If I have a single favorite gripe with God, it’s this: Good habits are so hard to form and sustain, while bad habits are a breeze. Most of us have times when we forget everything we know about taking care of ourselves, and then we have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.
So, reform was mandatory. I started exercising again and eating well. Several times a day, I would check the well scale, and once a week I’d report in to "Dr. Donna."
"Hey, I’m a five, a seven, or even a 10." Over the next several months, it became clear that seven was the cut-off point for feeling peaceful. Below that, anxiety and obsession kicked in and creativity was hard to tap in to.
Fancy scales aren’t required to measure your stress level, although many of them exist. The simplest way to find out how you’re coping is to draw a horizontal line on a sheet of paper. Mark the far-left point "1" and the far-right "10." Then put a vertical line wherever you think it belongs to represent your stress level. Research shows that this simple measure is as good as the sophisticated scales. The well scale is really a vertical version of the same thing, but I think it’s even more powerful because it’s such an engaging and positive metaphor.
Your objective is to fill the well and stay aware of exactly where you are. When my well drops below 7, a mental alarm goes off. Energy reserves are getting low. I know that I need to do something rejuvenating or I’ll start a downward slide. Restorative things fall into two categories: (1) things that you can do immediately—such as taking a walk, adjusting your breathing, doing some stretching, getting into a hot shower, having some fun, talking to a friend, cuddling up with your pet and the like; and (2) developing long-range life strategies.
Some of the long-range strategies that worked for me revolved around two more scales. When deciding what jobs to take, they had to fall below a 7 on the schlep scale, a measure of wear and tear. Going to India is a 10. Having someone drive me the two hours from Boulder to Colorado Springs is a one on the schlep scale. So I learned to make less stressful choices.
Then there was the service scale. Did a particular job match my vision of service? Running a retreat for cancer patients was a 10, consulting on the development of graduate programs was a one on the scale. Administration and evaluation are not my gifts. Developing my vision and realizing what my time was worth led to other changes. I hired more staff and put an end to driving home from the airport late at night, contributing to public safety as well as personal peace.
This week, start keeping track of your energy reserves. Try using the well scale. At least three times a day, determine how full your well is. What is the cut-off point when you start to lose steam and feel overwhelmed? Figure out what raises the water level for you quickly and take action right away when you need to revive yourself. Taking a ten-minute walk instead of returning the next phone call can change the course of your entire day.
Once you have a handle on immediate ways to fill the well, you can begin thinking about long-term strategies. While many people can’t afford to hire a coach, everyone can do a little reciprocal coaching with a friend.
Reprinted from Soulful Living.com