Over these last couple years, we have all seen people bemoaning their inability to “get off the couch”. Many of us have experienced it ourselves. Knowing there are so many things we could do, things we actually want to be doing, and yet we simply can’t muster the energy to get up and do them.
Now that things are opening up again, and we have access to so many activities that were off-limits during the pandemic, a lot of us are still struggling with that lack of energy and motivation. It’s super disheartening, and can trigger feelings of guilt and shame that we somehow lack discipline. We often feel like there’s something “wrong” with us.
But there are a number of psychological and physiological reasons why we feel enervated. Recognizing the cause is the first step to resolving it.
1. REST AND RE-INTEGRATION
With so many changes happening so rapidly these days, our brains need time to catch up to the new normal — which continues to be in flux. This is such a complicated neural process, and takes place below the level of consciousness, so we’re generally not aware of all the hard work and machinations that are happening within the deep recesses of our minds.
The thing is, our brains don’t have much processing power to spare while it’s undergoing this re-integration. Kind of like a computer with too many applications open; when the RAM is fully utilized, everything slows down. This is why sleep is so important. Everything in our bodies slow down so the brain can do its thing.
But lately there’s so much extra to be processed that our brains sometimes need to “steal time” while we’re awake. This is why we often find ourselves attracted to simplistic storylines on television or endless scrolling on our phones: it reduces the brain’s workload, so it can continue its process of re-integration.
Ideally we would reduce that workload even further, by spending time that is not focused in any way. Allowing our minds to wander. Allowing our Default Mode Network (DMN) to take over. Meditation has been found to be supremely helpful for this.
Give yourself plenty of time to rest with “mindless” activities, without guilt or shame (which increase the workload and extend the duration of the needed downtime). Before you know it your brain will flash UPDATE COMPLETE and you’ll find yourself having plenty of energy again.
2. CUMULATIVE STRESS or FEAR
If you sit down and write out everything that is causing you stress, and everything in the world that elicits fear, chances are it will be a long list. Items might include: Catching COVID; losing a job or not being able to find one due to economic instabilities; the global impact of climate change and resulting political instability; relationships struggling due to communication issues (or simply the impact of all the other stressors); and those are just some of the big ones that are affecting all of us!
Below the surface, our brains are constantly tracking all of these. Constantly. And gauging in each moment the likelihood of how these individual issues will impact us.
When any of these potential dangers feel like they’re imminent, our nervous systems activate an eons old process to keep us safe. Our heart rate increases, our vision and hearing adjust to be more focused rather than wide-band, our muscles tense in preparation for fighting or fleeing from the danger at hand.
The problem is none of these dangers are things we can run from or actively fight. But they’re still looming ominously, so our brains remain stuck in that activated state. This is why chronic stress can lead to heart problems or muscle and nerve pain — our brains are trying to help us escape things that are inescapable.
But there is a limit to how long that state of activation can be maintained. At some point our brains emulate Scotty on Star Trek and cry, “She can’t take much more of this, Captain!” Then a switch gets flipped in our nervous system to drop us into a parasympathetic state of collapse. Everything slows down. We tend to curl into a ball to protect our inner organs from the ominously looming danger.
The metabolism in our brain reduces, making it difficult to think clearly. And every part of our body focuses on conserving energy, in preparation for when the opportunity arises to fight or flee again.
This is a process that has evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of keeping us alive. And it’s an autonomic system, meaning it happens without our conscious control. I say again for the people in the back, this is a survival mechanism that our bodies just do. It’s not a question of weakness or brokenness or laziness, quite the opposite! This is your body taking care of you the best way it knows how.
If you can’t get off the couch, take a second to check in with your body and see if it’s trying to keep you safe from some fear you haven’t been fully aware of. If you bring that fear up to conscious awareness, and “Name it to tame it” in the words of Dr. Dan Siegel, you can begin to short-circuit that survival strategy and tap into the energy your body has been conserving.
3. ENERGY LEDGER
This is a very similar issue to #2. If your brain doesn’t think the task you want to spend energy on is achievable, or if it thinks the value of completing it isn’t worth the expenditure, it simply won’t allow your body to spend that energy. This is an evolutionary adaptation that stems from how animals identify what food will give them the best return on the investment of collecting and consuming the food.
Because it’s such an ancient adaptation, it also happens way below the level of consciousness. You might think “of course I want to get up and mow the lawn / work out / scrub the floor / etc.” but if some part of you is saying “but why though?” and doesn’t come up with a good answer, it’s going to be a herculean feat to override that lack of “why” to get up and get it done.
Energy is like currency. We accumulate it by eating, and spend it in millions of different ways — including just the act of breathing. Our brains keep a kind of ledger below the level of consciousness tracking what’s coming in, and what’s going out. Totally essential for keeping us alive! Imagine if we didn’t have that safety switch, and could just keep going and going and going until suddenly there’s not enough energy to keep us breathing. Not a great way to keep a species on the planet!
Look at the ways you are bringing energy (nourishment) into your body. Are you missing any key nutrients like protein, healthy fat, water, etc?
Look at the ways you want to spend your energy. Engage with your thoughts and feelings about those activities. Does any resistance come up? Or uncomfortable emotions? Often there is something lingering beneath the surface that is keeping us from wanting to “spend” in that way.
This is the most frustrating one, because it’s the hardest to control. Newton’s First Law, an object at rest tends to stay at rest.
When we have developed a pattern of sedentary behavior, it can be really difficult to break that pattern. Some of it is physics, some of it is neurology (our nervous systems develop pathways to make it easier to do the things we always do, which conversely makes it harder to do new things), and some of it is physiology (our muscles and supporting systems atrophy and require more energy to create motion).
If you’re dealing with inertial response, give yourself some grace. Take it slowly. But be intentional about building over time. Remind yourself that #PracticeMakesPathways, and every action you take makes it easier to take additional ones over time. That’s the other side of Newton’s First Law, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Help yourself build momentum slowly over time, and you may well be surprised with the outcome!
The long and short of it is if you or someone you care about is having difficulty getting off the couch, there are a bunch of reasons why that might be, most of which are not under conscious control. But we can build conscious control over time. Paying attention, asking ourselves questions, being gentle, recognizing that these all take time and grace to work through. Having the support of a therapist, coach, or loving friend can make that process a lot less painful.
If you'd like to talk about how I can support you through this, let's set up a FREE consultation call!