Mental energy. Cognitive load. Emotional bandwidth. Whatever we call it, we all have a certain amount we expend each day. And when that amount is used up, we need to replenish it by doing things that relax, nourish, enrich, or sustain us. In this blog I tend to focus on disability parenting and special needs families, but the concept of mental energy is a universal one. We all have it—or don’t have it—at certain times, and our amount can fluctuate according to things like our job, circumstances, personalities, or personal relationships.
When it comes to mental reserves (my preferred term), I like to use the analogy of a tank of gas. All of us need to fill up this tank in order to keep our life running smoothly. When we start to run out and begin coasting on fumes, we feel the enormous mental effort it takes to get anything done. And every once in a while, we are asked to continue operating when our tank has run dry. These are the times when we either decide to get out and push the car ourselves or to simply give up and slump over life’s proverbial steering wheel.
There can be many contributing factors that drain or refill our reserves. For one thing, there is the issue of how you are wired. Are you an extravert or introvert? Do you have mental or emotional issues (such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD) that drain your reserves quickly on a regular basis? Do the things you do regularly come naturally to you? Or are you constantly asked to operate in a way that goes against your natural inclinations?
I’ll offer myself as an illustration of this concept. I am someone who normally operates with a high level of anxiety, so even though I function well, it takes a certain amount of mental energy simply to manage my worries on a daily basis. I am also not a natural nurse, helper, or caregiver, which means I need a lot of extra patience to care for my special needs daughter, JJ, in a calm and loving way. By nature, I am instead an organized, meticulous, conscientious, and detail-oriented person. When I help my daughter in ways that come naturally to me—by writing emails, charting Medicaid hours, managing helper schedules, or juggling medication refills—I feel far less drained than when I have to tend to her physical needs.
There is also the issue of how each of us replenishes our mental energy and the ease with which we can do this. I am lucky because the hobbies I enjoy are low cost and readily available. As long as I can get in a daily run, soak in the bathtub, or read a book, I can replenish my mental reserves. Other people, however, might have more difficulty accessing the things that refill their tank. For example, if you enjoy time in nature but live in the suburbs or crave social connection but are stuck at home with a sick child.
In addition to the hobbies that relax us physically and mentally, our brains also benefit from reaching flow state or the “feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.” In other words, we also need things that stimulate and interest us mentally. For some, that might mean reading, writing, solving puzzles, playing games, or learning a new skill. For others, it could be creating new recipes, building inventions, or tinkering in a workshop. For me, it means writing. However, there is an unfortunate Catch-22 when it comes to intellectual stimulation. All of us need a baseline of mental energy to even want to do something that requires focus and concentration. Even though I know it would be good for me to write and engage my brain, for example, sometimes I simply can’t make myself do it.
And this brings us to special needs parents in particular. Many of us exist in this exhausted state of mind much more often than we would like, or are willing to admit. Some days caregivers like me find themselves longing for more energy but unable to do much more than simply survive. I believe this happens because families like mine operate with a fairly low baseline of mental energy to begin with. Our lives are so steeped in worry, details, and logistics on a regular basis that our parenting duties drain the majority of our daily mental reserves.
For my family, even a simple outing involves a dizzying amount of logistical prep. Let’s use a trip to the library as an example. Before we leave, I have to ask myself a long series of questions about the outing. Is it going to occur during one of JJ’s five daily feeds? Will she be due for any medications at that time? Is our wheelchair van operational? Will there be a place to park it? Are there wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, and doors located in the building? Do we have a helper to accompany us? What is the escape plan if JJ throws a tantrum?
On and on it goes. Before we have even stepped foot in the library, my mental energy is already nearly drained.
But more mentally exhausting than these types of logistical issues are the periods of intensive stress caregivers can experience. Like many medically complex children, JJ has a weak immune system and often falls ill. During these times, I expend a great amount of mental energy just trying to locate the source of her physical discomfort, communicate with doctors, and find the right medications. Often, I am doing these things without a full night’s sleep or the opportunity to refill my rapidly depleting mental reserves. But worst of all, I have to troubleshoot all of this while my child screams with pain and frustration. And trust me—there aren’t many things more mentally draining than watching your child suffer.
On top of everything else, when JJ is brought low for weeks by something as simple as a cold or an ear infection, it also serves as an unwelcome reminder of her fragility. In me, this often awakens worries about the future and dark thoughts about her mortality—using up mental resources I really can’t afford to expend. You can see why during these times of crisis, it doesn’t take long before my tank is completely drained.
Over the last few years, I have been surprised to find how far-reaching the consequences can be when my mental reserves are low or empty. In these instances, I don’t have the energy to expend on anything “extra.” This translates into many domains. I don’t read the news or follow politics. I avoid reading anything intellectually stimulating. I edit my writing, rather than creating anything new, or I don’t write at all. Sometimes, I can’t even muster up the energy to respond to messages left by friends or family members. I simply want the entire world to leave me alone.
It is as though two versions of myself exist: my “full tank” version and the one with depleted reserves. When my tank is full—most often on days when my children are at school and the house is quiet—I enjoy intellectual challenges and have deep thoughts. I draft new posts and sketch out ideas for new essays. I exercise to my full capacity, plan homemade and nutritious meals, and reply to all of my emails. But the depleted version of myself? Often, she cannot bring herself to do anything more than eat potato chips, sneak in a few pages of a rom com, and shower once the kids have gone to bed.
Because my mental energy can be drained so quickly and suddenly by unexpected periods of crisis, I have also had to change the rhythm at which I live my life. Most importantly, since the onset of JJ’s symptoms, I have found it nearly impossible to maintain any type of sustained project. This means that if I have something that requires effort over a long period of time—a different exercise regimen, a new skill, or a regular extracurricular activity for RoRo—I will at some point lose the energy I need to maintain it. Then that particular goal or project will fall by the wayside, creating an overall sense of guilt and failure. I have found that, instead, it is much more practical to pursue smaller projects, like these blog posts, that can be easily picked up and put down at a moment’s notice.
While I don’t have any magical solutions for people struggling to refill their mental reserves, I do think it’s important for us to keep this concept on our radar. We should pay attention to what sustains and drains us, the ways in which we are wired, and the patterns of mental energy woven into our daily lives. And above all else, we need to recognize mental energy for what it is—a precious and finite resource. When we are lucky enough to have a full mental reserve, we can do anything we want with this gift.
Anything, that is, except take it for granted.
What drains or sustains you? Are there other contributing factors for you and your mental reserves? Let me know in the comments below.