Saturday, 23 June 2012

The theory and practice of energy reserves

Today I am coping with what inevitably happens when I exert myself the previous day.

I am exhausted.

Admittedly, I didn't get to sleep until about 3am. And I didn't sleep in past 9, so I only got 6 hours of sleep. I did spend quite a lot of time dancing, and also walking, last night. I also spent more than the usual effort to make dinner yesterday. I had two glasses of wine and a bottle of Coke; this unusually high dose of sugar and caffeine may be a contributing factor to how I feel.

As a result, my usual dose of wakeypills is just enough to keep me from going to sleep sitting at my desk. Barely. If I ate something and took away the vaguely irritating feel of hunger, I'm not sure I'd be awake long. If I went to lie down on the bed, I'd be asleep in moments. I've utterly exhausted my energy reserves - at the moment, I'm trying to work up the energy to go get myself a cup of tea. Probably peppermint; caffeine has funny interactions with other stimulants, and I'm not in a mood to risk feeling even less awake.

For context, a normal person, on 100mg every eight hours, can easily stay awake, with elevated alertness, for 40 hours without side effects. In that same 40 hours, I will typically have had 8 hours of sleep, and 600mg to give me approximately two 12-hour periods of wakefulness, the quality of which is highly variable. There are another 18 hours in which my wakefulness will probably be fairly low grade, and my alertness will almost certainly be low. I will be able to perform simple, repetitive tasks, such as reading, reading internet articles (but probably not remembering them well the next day), or staring at the wall. Tasks like stacking the dishwasher, making a simple, familiar meal, or playing a familiar video game that requires any form of fast reflex action or thought will probably be too high energy. There's quite a big difference between myself and the frontline soldiers (or the students and truck drivers who consume the bulk of modafinil sold).

I note in passing that this current state is a vast improvement over a few months ago.

There's a long way between me and normal. I use 'normal' in the sense that it is medically normal for an adult to not require sleep during the day; to be able to function at a reasonable level of alertness and wakefulness during the day; to have a standard response to heavy-duty stimulating drugs where sleep is prohibited for the time the drug is in the system. Of course, circumstances of disrupted sleep, depression, some forms of anxiety, high levels of stress, bacterial or viral infection, or similar are exceptions to this normal. Even so, I'm aware of very few adults even under those circumstances who would go to sleep sitting upright if they stopped concentrating on not sleeping for a couple of minutes.

Moving on to why I feel so rotten today. I've noticed in the past that I can build up energy reserves over time, so that a particularly active day, week, or month doesn't knock me flat. Everyone has these - everyone can occasionally push themselves further and harder (sometimes hugely so) before they have to go back to a normal level of activity to recuperate. Things like swot vac and exam week, NaNoWriMo, a software release, a two-day hiking trip, a marathon. Those are circumstances where you extend your reach for some sustained period; afterwards, the best word I've come up for the feeling is drained. It's not so much exhaustion, but the sense that even after you rest, you have nothing left to give. Your batteries are flat.

Over the last few weeks, I've had a lot of things inhibiting my ability to build up a reserve - a bad head cold (still not quite over) and the week in Kirkland which drained my reserves to the point I was quite literally in bed for a week. So I've zeroed my reserves, and haven't built them back up much.

Yesterday's exertion (maybe an hour all up of mixed low and high intensity cardio; making dinner using new recipes) was enough to drain me again. Not as bad as the Kirkland trip; I'll probably be back to my normal low level of function tomorrow. I have my generally increased physical and mental activity to thank for this increased resilience. The more you do, the more you can do, as the saying goes.

Obviously, I'm walking a pretty fine line between doing more and doing too much. To a certain extent, I can borrow from my reserves a bit to extend my reach slightly - but only when my reserves are full enough such that I don't drain them by doing so. To recharge my reserves, I need to rest, and not just physically. It's the mental aspect, the energy involved in decision making that's important. During normal times (that is, when I've recovered enough not to be utterly flat, but I still don't have full reserves) this needs to be active rest - a term familiar to anyone who's delved deeply enough into the world of fitness. Mentally, this means learning new (but not overly challenging) things, routine planning activities (like a weekly grocery shopping list and meal plan), or easy creative things, like writing a blog entry.

Clearly I need to plan my time better, and further in advance, so I don't hit bottlenecks like this - at least, not until I have the reserves to deal with it without derailing the following day entirely. Of course, planning activities with that kind of scope are fairly decision-intensive and mentally draining, which is a wee bit on the challenging side when I'm running low.

Sometimes I feel like I'm in a bit of a Catch-22 situation.

Oh well. Small changes will eventually add up to big ones, I hope. One day at a time.