Energy Depletion & the Practice of Relaxing Our Threat Detector — by Leo Baubauta

I’ve been working with a large number of people who are very often exhausted, not just from sleep problems but from their daily activities.

A lot of us are drained by being around other people, doing video meetings, going out in public … and so we start to avoid those activities to preserve our energy.

Setting boundaries and giving ourselves space to rest is absolutely an important thing to do. But too much of these kinds of self-restrictions over time can result in us not being able to interact with people, increasing our isolation and loneliness, which only drains us more.

Here’s an email from a reader the other day:

As a person struggling with burnout symptoms, I find it hard to resonate with the idea of antifragility and pushing your boundaries.

That because the first step towards moving away from burnout symptoms is acknowledging your boundaries and NOT crossing over them to depletion.

However, I am in this state of depletion for over 2 years now and it seems that trying to hold on to my boundaries has lead to my boundaries getting closer and closer to nothingness. I can put up with less stress and excitement. I am getting weak and fragile instead of stronger.

I would like to break this circle and slowly build some stamina.

Where can I start?

We start with boundaries and creating time for self-care, rest, and replenishment.

But we can also practice being more relaxed and less drained by our lives — through a practice of relaxing our "Threat Detector."

Let’s talk about the Threat Detector and how it works, before we talk about the practice of relaxing it.

How the Threat Detector Works

Part of our beautiful human brains is always looking around for threats — predators, other humans that might want to attack us, and social cues that we might be kicked out of the tribe (which in our early days would often mean death).

So we scan for these threats, and the body tenses up against them in fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses. It tenses up, ready to take defensive action to protect us.

That’s how it’s supposed to work — but because we’re in a modern environment, our Threat Detector is almost always going off. We worry about being judged by others, about not meeting the expectations of the group, about not meeting our own expectations in these interactions. Email, messaging and social media also trigger these same kinds of worries about being judged or not meeting expectations.

It makes us tense and anxious. This is simply exhausting.

We get drained from all of this. And again, boundaries and self-care is absolutely crucial — but by shrinking our social activity, we can confine ourselves to loneliness and reduced ability to interact and do meaningful work wiht others.

So we might include a practice of relaxing the Threat Detector, to allow ourselves to be less drained when we interact with the world.

The Practice of Relaxing the Threat Detector

You can practice it right now, as it’s likely that your Threat Detector is activated in this very moment. If not, you might notice the next time you’re interacting with anyone, in person, in video calls, or even messaging/email.

Here’s how to practice:

  • Pause. Turn your attention to your bodily sensations, and see if you can notice a place where you’re feeling tense. There might be a tightness in your chest, stomach, head or jaw.
  • Stay. Keep your attention on the sensation of tightness for a few moments, just resting the attention gently and with openness, no judgment. You might even bring an attitude of warm compassion or friendliness towards the sensation, which after all are just trying to protect you from perceived threats.
  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths into the belly, letting yourself be filled with a sense of spaciousness with every in-breath, and letting go of tension with every out-breath. Do this for 5-10 deep slow breaths, seeing if you can relax the tension a bit.
  • Change your view. Here’s the key: can you change your view of the threat to something that gives you a sense of possibility, curiosity or gratitude? If you’re with another person, instead of thinking of them as somoene who might judge you … can you see them as someone who you might feel a sense of connectedness? Could you be curious about this beautiful being? Could you feel a sense of possibility about collaborating with them? Could you be grateful to have them in your life? Try out these kinds of views, and practice trying to see them as non-threatening and someone who can fill you with a sense of wonder.
  • Breathe in again. With this new view, can you breathe and relax your tension, and feel a sense of openness, connectedness, warmth and gratitude?

This obviously doesn’t happen with a flick of a switch. It takes practice. You won’t necessarily "get it right." That’s OK, just keep practicing. Be encouraging with yourself.

With practice, you might be able to relax in a group of people, on any meeting, and in online social interactions and messages. What would it be like to be less drained, and instead feel a sense of connection, wonder, and love for the world around you?

gratefully,

Leo Babauta
Zen Habits