With the stress of the holiday season mostly behind us, I figured what better time than now to repost this article that I wrote during the height of the 2020 global pandemic, when the whole world was under a great deal of stress. With the new year approaching, my hope is that this article might be helpful to readers with understanding how to navigate through times of stress.
Originally published July 2020
I never for a second thought I’d be writing about the days I struggled through during lockdown, with all that I know about the human brain, body, its response to stress and stress management. But, here I am and here you are reading this.
A little over a year ago, I came across The MEHRIT Centre, an organization focused on grounding learning and living in self-regulation. I completed two courses with them and I share many of their resources throughout the self-regulation sections of this website. One of their many useful resources is the Thayer-Matrix. I discovered the Thayer-Matrix last year (2019), but it wasn’t until recently when I revisited its connection to motivation.
Being in Lockdown
Around mid-May 2020, as I was nearing the end of the school year, there were days when my motivation was so low that I found myself mentally checking out from online teaching. I had missed being in the classroom and with my students. Prior to school closures in March 2020, I was spending many hours at school each day, so working from home was quite the adjustment for me. As the school year progressed through online learning, I struggled with transitioning into a new routine and there were days when I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed.
Now let me explain what the Thayer-Matrix is.
The Thayer-Matrix was created by Robert E. Thayer, an American psychologist known for his work on the connection between mood, energy, tension and stress which is reflected in his energy/tension (Thayer-Matrix) model (see image below).
(The information and examples provided below are entirely my interpretation of how I’ve applied this model to my own experience, what I’ve learned, and how I understand it.)
When our energy is high and tension (i.e., stress) is low, we are in a High-Energy/Low-Tension state. In this state we might tend to feel:
- Well-rested and energized
- Calm and relaxed
- Ready to start the day ahead
An example of this state might be waking up on a day-off, or while on vacation, feeling well-rested (high-energy) and ready to ease into an open-ended kind of day (low-tension).
When our energy and tension are both high, we are in a High-Energy/High-Tension state. In this state we might tend to feel:
- Motivated with complete concentration and focus
- Able to remain at a task for longer and with the most effort
- Positive and productive
An example of this state might be waking up feeling well-rested (high-energy) and motivated to tackle a busy day ahead (high-tension).
When our energy and tension are both low, we are in a Low-Energy/Low-Tension state. In this state we might tend to feel:
- Tired, especially towards the end of a long and busy day
- Ready to wind down and relax
- Prepared to sleep and replenish our energy
An example of this state might be arriving home, tired from a busy and productive day (low-energy), and ready to ease into the night with a hot cup of tea (low-tension).
When our energy is low and tension is high, we are in a Low-Energy/High-Tension state. In this state we might tend to feel:
- Drained and exhausted
- The least motivated (i.e., listless)
- Stressed, possibly with lots still to do or on your mind
This was how I was feeling on my lowest day. Super drained with little to no motivation (low-energy), but with a lot on my plate (high-tension). These were the days where I struggled with getting out of bed, starting my workday or working towards getting things done.
Moving Through the Thayer-Matrix
Naturally, we should be moving through each of these states and not get stuck in any one of them for long periods of time. If stuck in a HE/HT state, this is likely being sustained through stimulators such as caffeine or energy boosters, and the natural production of adrenaline that works to keep you at a high-energy state to deal with high-tension. However, high-tension naturally drains our energy reserves. When we aren’t restoring enough through natural and essential sources of energy, such as through a restful sleep, eating healthy foods, and engaging in sustainable routines and practices, we may tend to seek alternative (and often maladaptive) ways to do so, especially at times when we really need to, or simply to cope. From what I learned in my course, being chronically stuck in a LE/HT state can lead to mood disorders. Having a support system and stress awareness and management practices are essential. While staying in a HE/LT state might seem nice to some, that is just not how life flows. Stressors from all around and inside us is what keeps us going, and when effectively managed, thriving. Lastly, we also don’t want to get stuck in a LE/LT state, becoming passive and listless. Humans (as well as animals) have a seeking system that exists in the brain and drives us to meet a need, craving, goal, desire and ultimately, to survive1.
Now, here’s how I was able to get through some of my lowest days in lockdown.
Moving from a LE/HT to a HE/HT State
First to begin, I needed to be aware of when I was in a low-energy/high-tension (LE/HT) state and what that felt like for me. I knew I had low energy because I felt physically, emotionally and mentally drained, listless, and a lack of motivation or desire to do anything. At the beginning of lockdown, a telltale sign of this was when I started losing track of the days. I woke up one morning thinking it was Sunday, when in fact, it was Thursday. I eventually realized this was happening because I wasn’t getting outside and in the sun. The sun sends signals/cues to regulate our circadian rhythm which is our internal sleep-wake 24-hour body clock. It also gives us energy, makes us feel good, and increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter in our body that is responsible for mood, well-being and feelings of happiness. BINGO! So, I knew I needed to get outside more, or as much as I possibly could, considering the circumstances. In addition, the sun is our ultimate source of energy and if we could eat it, we probably would! Instead, we must settle for eating the foods that absorb the sun’s energy for us (to learn more, google: “high vibration foods”). As I think back to it now, that seemed so obvious, right? But at that point in time, it actually wasn’t as clear cut, and I guess that came with adjusting and transitioning to being at home, rather than at school, teaching and preoccupied for most of the day. While I was getting enough sleep, I wasn’t waking up feeling energized and refreshed. (I highly recommend this podcast episode: How to Sleep Well). Having been physically active my whole life, my body wasn’t used to not moving around as much. Because I wasn’t moving around as much as I had been (I was working with toddlers), I wasn’t exerting as much energy, nor was I able to reach a high-energy state. As a result, I knew I needed to resume more physical activity which had always been an energy booster for me. I recognized I was in a high-tension state because of the stressors that were affecting me. Not being able to leave the house as much, see my friends or go out. The list can go on. I was looking at a screen way more and for longer periods at a time for online learning, meetings, program planning, corresponding with colleagues, attending webinars, social media, etc. Because my eyes were feeling strained near the end of the day, I knew I needed to be as mindful as possible of my screen time. I couldn’t change the fact that I still needed to work, be online and in front of a screen, but what I could change was my energy state to match it. Therefore, once I started getting outside (while taking the necessary precautions), working out at home and managing my screen time better, I was able to move myself from a low-energy to a high-energy state in order to meet the demands of my high-tension work week.
Moving from a HE/HT to a LE/LT State
As soon as I was able to balance my energy and tension to a HE/HT state, I began feeling motivated, greater concentration, was able to remain working for longer and with more effort, and overall, I felt good, productive and accomplished. By the end of my workday, my meetings and online learning were done for the day. This is where I transitioned from the high-tension state I was in throughout the day into a low-tension state. By the end of a busy day, our body naturally transitions into a low-energy state, depending on the amount of energy that was exerted, and the tension experienced throughout the day. When the things that are a source of high-tension (i.e., stressors) in your life are recognized, managed and reduced, you can begin to move into a low-tension state. Although this may not always be the case, ideally, LE/LT is where you want to be at the end of the day and it’s all a matter of finding what works for you to maneuver your way in, out and through these states, while knowing your stress load capacity. Some people can cope with and under more stress than others. It’s important to note that children experience and transition through these states as well, but their capacity to deal with stress is much lower than adults. Therefore, supporting them with navigating through these states is very important.
Strategies for Moving through Energy & Tension States
- Become aware of what your mind and body feel like in each state of energy and tension. For example:
- Energized (e.g., during or after a workout)
- Feeling well-rested and healthy
- Having positive feelings (e.g., when laughing or talking with others)
- Feeling motivated
- Having complete concentration and focus
- Having lots to do
- A busy day ahead (e.g., a heavy workload, working on tasks)
- Feeling stressed or overwhelmed (see: Stress & Stressors to identify the source of your tension)
- Feeling tired and exhausted
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling sick (when we are sick, our body naturally produces chemicals that make us sleepy)
- Drained from high-tension
- Feeling calm, relaxed, at ease
- Having stress management strategies in place (e.g., meditation, yoga, deep breathing, prayer, listening to music)
- Relying on a positive support system, such as family, friends, community and/or professionals
- Maintaining effective routines and practices
- Know what personal strategies work to move you to the state you want or need to be in:
- Getting into a High-Energy state:
- Getting good sleep: amount, quality, timing, state of mind (these are mentioned in the podcast)
- Eating healthy and nutritious (high vibration) foods and drinking lots of water
- Movement (e.g., working out, going for a walk)
- Re-fuel by practicing self-care (see: Self-Care Begins With You)
- Entering a High-Tension state:
- We usually don’t choose to enter this state. Our body naturally enters high-tension states because of the stressors that exist within (e.g., hunger) and around us (e.g., morning traffic). Stressors affect each of us differently, so it’s important to know which ones have the most impact on you. For example, feeling too hot, feeling sick, excessive screen time, watching the news, changes in routine (see: Stress & Stressors).
- Entering a Low-Energy state:
- Again, we don’t choose to enter this state. Our body naturally enters low-energy states as we exert energy and experience stress, which is what drains our energy reserve throughout our day. However, we can settle into this state at the end of a long day with an evening routine that might consist of low-tension practices such as reading a book, drinking a cup of tea, praying/spiritual practices, expressing gratitude in writing, meditating, taking a bath, or doing bedtime yoga.
- Getting into a Low-Tension state:
- This requires recognizing your stressors, reducing and/or managing them. Engaging in self-care and low-tension practices is also important here. This isn’t always easy, but with time and support, you can develop these practices and habits. For example, I know that too much time in front of a screen strains my eyes so I balance and manage my screen time by taking breaks from it, adjusting display settings, and shutting my devices down at the end of the day and long before bed.
- Getting into a High-Energy state:
- Build and maintain a routine:
- Humans like routine; however, the pandemic disrupted what our normal routines used to be. People lost jobs or had to shift to working from home. When our schedules are different than we are used to, we may be doing less (or more) than we had been before. Develop a morning and an evening routine to move yourself through the energy and tension states you want or need to be in to be productive, make the most, and meet the demands of your day.
- Engage in movement and physical activity:
- Our bodies are designed to recover from energy exertion through our parasympathetic system. When we don’t move, our body doesn’t know what to do with the extra energy and this can impact sleep. Go walking, running, bike riding, to the gym, do gardening, spend some time out in nature, sweat and burn energy whenever and however you can.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself:
- We are human and we do the best we can in each moment. Remember that the human body consists of a nervous system that responds to stress. What’s most important is understanding this and how to manage it. A great place to start is by learning about self-regulation (see: What is Self-Regulation?) and reframe your understanding about how your body naturally responds when under different types of stress. You can then start to identify what are sources of high-tension (stressors) for you and develop personal stress management strategies that help you navigate through energy and tension states. Realize when things are beyond your control and when needed, seek professional support and connect with people you can talk to and that you trust.
I hope that this article was helpful or useful to you in some way or another. Please feel free to share it with others. Wishing you the very best for 2023. 💞
Reference: 1Shanker, Stuart. Reframed: Self-Reg for a Just Society. University of Toronto Press, 2020.
More Articles & Resources:
A Guide to COVID-19 and Early Childhood Development
Ontario Mental Health Supports
Mental Health Commission of Canada Blog
25 Motivational Journal Prompts – Wondermind
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This website is provided only for informational purposes and not intended to be used to replace professional advice, treatment or professional care. Always speak to your physician, healthcare provider or pediatrician if you have concerns about your own health or the health of a child.