Episode #17: Running on Empty Series (Part 4)

This episode is the fourth in a five-part series exploring signs that stress is starting to wear away at your effectiveness, health and overall well-being as reflected in different areas of life and health. Each episode also presents one, research-based recovery practice that can help you start to restore your equilibrium. Consider that your body and its symptoms may be indicative of the health of your "root system." Speaking of roots, time in nature or even exposure to nature has been proven to have positive affects on your well-being. This podcast explores more!


Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.

This episode is the fourth in a 5-part series exploring some of the life circumstances that can lead to burnout and how to identify some of the signs that stress is starting to wear away at your effectiveness, health and overall well-being. Each episode will also explore one of the research-based well-being activities or rituals that can help you recover and begin to restore your equilibrium.

If you have been listening to this series, you have heard this next information before as it is a fundamental premise behind the series itself.

According to research by Tony Schwartz, CEO and Founder of The Energy Project and Jim Loehr who co-authored “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time” we have 4 sources of energy--mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Each of these sources can be challenged, and their capacity increased, much like a muscle, but also, just like with a muscle, recovery is where the growth actually happens. Most of us overexert, and fail to recover, in some areas and underexert in others. Overexertion without recovery leads to illness and injury. Under-exertion leads to atrophy.

At the conclusion of this podcast, I hope you will go to @theboothandrews on Instagram and comment how YOU know that you are starting to run on empty, and what type of recovery rituals help you start to recalibrate using the hashtag #freedomfromempty.

Today’s episode explores health-related symptoms that may be indicators that you are running on empty and in need of recovery. Many of these symptoms are correlated by research as indicative of toxic stress, burnout, and exhaustion.

In 2009, two years before I began to experience mental health symptoms, I was on antibiotics for 9 out of 12 months. You would think that would have been a red flag. It was to the extent that one of my doctors ordered an immunoglobulin study; particularly because my Mom had died from blood cancer. But it never occurred to me that the poor state of my immune system had something to do with chronic stress.

Over the years, each time I got sick, it seemed that the infections got worse, and took longer to heal. It also became more common for me to have more than one infection at a time. Another immunoglobulin study was ordered, but nothing was found.

I went from running a half marathon and doing two olympic-distance triathlons in 2012 to no longer being able to run without having an anxiety attack, or having my intestines revolt. A once-regular crossfitter, I could no longer work out 3 days in a row without getting sick.

Even though I began to sleep in 2013, with the assistance of medication, all I really wanted to do was sleep. 10, 11, or 12 hours. I felt so deeply exhausted all of the time. And sleep had become an escape. When I was asleep, I didn’t have to take care of anyone or to do battle with my anxious and depressed thoughts.

As my mental health continued to decline, so did my physical health--rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, and even a full heart work up. And at the same time I was gaining weight, I couldn’t eat, because anxiety made me nauseous for a significant portion of each day.

So, if you are keeping track as you listen (or even if you’re not) here is a list of physical indicators I personally experienced over an approximately 6 year period on my path to crash and burn. Are any of these symptoms things you are living with too?:

You are sick often (a lot more than you used to be)

  • When you get sick, you don't recover quickly OR you seem to experience complications or multiple infections

  • You am not sleeping OR all you want to do is sleep

  • You recently had a health scare

  • Your blood pressure is elevated

  • You are having anxiety attacks

  • You are gaining OR losing weight for no apparent reason

  • You have lost your appetite

  • You are always exhausted and cannot seem to recover

  • You are unable to participate in physical activities you used to enjoy (or used for stress management)

  • You have symptoms that doctors cannot seem to explain

  • Or you were recently diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness

Let’s spend a minute on that last one--recently diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness. I have talked about how chronic stress breaks down the immune system, and ultimately results in the deterioration of basically every major system in the body. Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation which leads to chronic disease. Period.

For me, the chronic disease was mental illness. And here are just some health problems that can be caused by or made worse by stress:

  • Heart disease

  • Asthma

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

  • Headaches

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Alzheimer’s

  • Accelerated aging

  • And premature death

If you are like I was, you may have a tendency to treat your physical symptoms as just the cost of doing life or as the result of “bad” choices such as poor eating habits or lack of exercise.

It took me a long time to really integrate the awareness that my visible, physical state was, and is, perhaps just a mirror of what is happening inside; often invisibly at first. I once heard someone say that the canopy of a tree mirrors its root system. If the canopy is large and healthy, so is the root system. And vice versa. If the canopy is weak, or sick, such is the root system.

What if we start to reflect upon our physical symptoms--not just as something to be remedied as quickly and painlessly as possible--but as a reflection of our internal well-being and an indicator of whether or not we are adequately recovering in measure based upon the stressors in our lives? And what if, as symptoms arise, we act with intention and purpose to build recovery into our lives until, and so that, our physical manifestations begin to reflect a healthier root system.

Speaking of recovery, and trees, let’s explore the positive benefits of nature in terms of counteracting the impact of stress in our lives. According to an article from the University of Minnesota:

  • Nature Heals: Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to public health researchers. Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.

  • Nature Soothes: In addition, nature helps us cope with pain. Because we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing, we are absorbed by nature scenes and distracted from our pain and discomfort.

  • Nature Restores: In one study in Mind, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside; changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced. Other studies show that time in nature or scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood, and psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness, and vitality. Furthermore, time in nature or viewing nature scenes increases our ability to pay attention. Because humans find nature inherently interesting, we can naturally focus on what we are experiencing out in nature. This also provides a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks.

  • Nature Connects: According to a series of field studies conducted at the Human-Environment Research Lab, time spent in nature connects us to each other and the larger world.

Finding time to be in nature, even a few minutes a day, or even ten intentional minutes a week, bears benefits. If you cannot get outside for any reason, you might be relieved by the research that says even a plant in a hospital room can have beneficial effects.

I love driving with the windows down when the weather permits; opening doors and windows to let the nature in. And, I am becoming more intentional about planning outdoor activities.

Even when I cannot get outside, I keep a healthy dose of nature-based photographers or aggregators in my instagram feed. I find myself breathing more deeply even as I scroll upon a beautiful nature scene. My laptop lock screen? Nature.

This is also why I am intentional about including pictures of nature in my own instagram feed. We cannot always be in the most beautiful, majestic, natural environments in the world but we can certainly access pictures of them when we need to remember to breathe.

When your physical health starts to indicate that your root system may be lacking in recovery and resources, I hope you will heed these signals as potential indicators of a larger imbalance. That doesn’t mean that you should panic every time you catch a cold. But what it does mean is that our body is constantly sending us signals which indicate the health and well-being of our root system.

I hope you will pay attention to those signals better than I did. If we get a little out of balance, it doesn’t take as much time or energy to restore. If we get WAY out of balance or stay out of balance for an extended period of time, the amount of recovery and time required to heal and fully restore will likely be commensurate with our measure of depletion.

LISTEN to your body. And if time or exposure to nature is not a regular part of your life, I encourage you to incorporate a little bit of nature as often as you can.

As you wrap up listening to this episode, I hope you will go to @theboothandrews on Instagram using the hashtag #freedomfromempty and comment how YOU know that you are starting to run on empty, and what type of recovery rituals help you start to recalibrate.  

For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.

Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I look forward to being back with you next time!