Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

The pandemic has depleted people's surge capacity. Here are ways to recharge: Jennifer Moss

Surge capacity is the mental and physical ability to adapt to intensely stressful, acute situations. But it's meant to handle emergencies that last a few hours or days, not a months-long pandemic. Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss offers tips on how to regain some capacity.

Most emergencies last hours or days, not 18+ months

When a person's surge capacity is depleted, they may experience restless sleep, persistent fatigue, feeling distracted, difficulty concentrating, reduced motivation and feeling burned out at work. But there are things people can do to help, writes happiness columnist Jennifer Moss. (panitanphoto/Shutterstock)

Most people are familiar with that feeling when an emergency hits and suddenly we're running on adrenaline in order to deal with the urgent threat.

This chemical response originates in the fight-or-flight part of the brain so we can make decisions that protect our personal safety.

If we have to be in that state for a period of time, we turn to surge capacity, the mental and physical ability to adapt to intensely stressful, acute situations. 

Most emergencies last hours or days. In the case of this global pandemic, we've now been living in surge capacity for more than 18 months.

Unfortunately, that's not sustainable for our minds or our bodies. After being in this 911 state for so long, it's taking a massive toll on our mental health. 

When we deplete surge capacity

Dr. Ann Masten, psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, shares in an interview with Tara Haelle, a science journalist, that the COVID-19 pandemic "has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity."

When it's depleted, it has to be renewed. But how can it be renewed when the emergency phase is chronic? 

If left unmanaged, some of the long-term impacts can include depression and chronic anxiety. We will see physical effects from loss of sleep. All of this can make us more vulnerable to illness. On a societal level, we've stopped investing in making time for our relationships and friendships which is making us feel less connected.

Living in crisis mode for too long can cause additional stress for people who tend to be highly solution-focused or driven by meeting or exceeding goals, particularly in the workplace.  (fizkes/Shutterstock)

When the tank is completely empty, we start to experience symptoms like: 

  • Restless sleep patterns or loss of sleep.
  • Persistent fatigue.
  • Feeling distracted.
  • Having difficulty concentrating.
  • Being easily irritated.
  • Struggling to keep on top of tasks.
  • Reduced motivation and drive. 
  • Feeling burned out at work.

Although almost everyone is experiencing the effects of living in this crisis mode for too long, it's causing additional stress for people who tend to be highly solution-focused or driven by meeting or exceeding personal and external goals. For them, this inability to meet those standards because of fatigue and distractibility is decreasing their sense of effectiveness, particularly in the workplace. 

Dr. Pauline Boss explores this and says that it's harder for high achievers because they are accustomed to solving problems, to getting things done, to sticking consistently to a routine.

For many of us, it has been hard to accept that we can't just solve the pandemic. And, for those who feel like they are doing their part, it's even more challenging to accept that there are parts of battling this virus that are out of our control. This inability to solve the problem then increases feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 

It doesn't help that we exist in a world that likes to solve big problems.

On one hand, that innovative thinking brought us vaccines.

On the other hand, it can be an unhealthy and maladaptive way of thinking when we're facing a problem without a solution. And with the pandemic likely becoming endemic, we need to find other ways to cope. 

One way to help increase surge capacity: Nurture one good friendship because social supports are everything right now, Moss writes. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

We have to refuel the tank

I've mentioned this before, but it's important to remember that emergencies are defined as unexpected. This is no longer the case for the pandemic. Yes, we are in a crisis, but we are no longer in an emergency. That means we may need to accept that this is our life — at least for now. 

Some psychologists refer to this as "radical acceptance" a commitment to accepting whatever is put in front of us. It's extremely hard to do when it means a ton of sacrifice. But, it may be our only way forward. To do that, we need to change the baseline for what we need to make us content. 

Here are some ways to change the baseline: 

  1. Change self-expectations. We may not be able to accomplish the same daily and weekly goals as we did before. The kitchen may have to stay messy for longer. We might not be able to meet increasingly higher sales or productivity goals. We may need to accept that every time we try to accomplish those same goals, it could lead to being exhausted. Organizations need to stop acting like this is business as usual — growth right now may be destroying the sustainability of your workforce so companies, so please ease up. 

  2. Fall back on interests that fulfill you. Reconnect with old hobbies or engage in new passion projects that fuel and don't deplete you. Take time to nurture the quiet moments. Read a book. Go for a walk. 

  3. Nurture one good friendship. Social supports are everything right now. We really just need one safe space and that can help to fill us back up. 

  4. Use "both/and" statements as much as possible. Here is an example, "People are really sick from COVID-19 and some are dying. I'm struggling with that — it's really hard to accept. And, I am finding that the pandemic has made me reprioritize what really matters in my life which includes my health and that of my family. Because of that I am spending more time focusing on what I have versus what I don't have. 

Essentially, it goes back to acceptance — radical acceptance of a life that has now changed. We can mourn that loss, but in order to move forward from grief, we have to adapt to living without.

Once we get to that level of adaptivity, we can start living again. Because if you're anything like me, then you're also sick of just surviving.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.


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