What Is Surge Capacity? It Might Explain Why You’re Feeling So Depleted

Originally used to describe a hospitals ability to manage a sudden influx of patients, surge capacity has had a uniquely 2020 makeover. Used by Brené Brown and science journalist, Tara Haelle, surge capacity is a term I recently came across while listening to the Shameless podcast.

And, it perfectly describes the complete exhaustion many people are feeling after so many months of running on adrenalin, which has required enormous amounts of energy as we constantly adapt to the changes in the world.

“Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters,” Haelle wrote for Medium. “But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”

While a natural disaster has an emergency phase that requires you to dig into your surge capacity, this eventually levels out. But, as Halle points out, the pandemic is still going and with no end in sight, your tank might be getting a little empty right about now.

According to Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, it’s completely natural to feel a little worn out by the events of this year. Masten also dismisses the notion that we should be used to the circumstances at this point.

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told Medium. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.

“I think we maybe underestimate how severe the adversity is and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster.

“It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.”

According to an episode of Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, you’ve probably hit the six-month wall and the depletion has set in. After six to seven months of running on adrenalin, your surge capacity has maxed out and you need to find a new energy source.

In order to do this, Brown recommends accepting that, on some days, you’re having a crap time and not doing so well. Give yourself permission to feel the way you do. This is something Masten agrees with.

“We have to expect less of ourselves, and we have to replenish more,” Masten told Medium. “I think we’re in a period of a lot of self-discovery: Where do I get my energy? What kind of downtime do I need? That’s all shifted right now, and it may take some reflection and self-discovery to find out what rhythms of life do I need right now?”

Melbourne-based writers and hosts of the Shameless podcast, Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald note in their podcast how feeling burnout that is not connected to work might feel unusual, it is most definitely happening for many people.

“I think every time we want to have a conversation about burnout, it is career-related,” McDonald said. ‘And yet, when I found myself in bed unable to get out, I kept thinking ‘This is absolutely what burnout feels like and it’s got nothing to do with my job’.”

Moving through the day-to-day can feel difficult, especially for those still living in lockdown, but according to Pauline Boss, PhD, a family therapist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Minnesota, it’s all about riding the waves as they come.

“We can kick and scream and be angry, or we can feel the other side of it, with no motivation, difficulty focusing, lethargy or we can take the middle way and just have a couple days where you feel like doing nothing and you embrace the losses and sadness you’re feeling right now, and then the next day, do something that has an element of achievement to it,” she told Medium.

“Our new normal is always feeling a little off-balance, like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, and not knowing when the storm will pass.”

Boss, who specialises in ambiguous loss, recommends using “both-and” thinking, which means embracing a little of the irrational. This concept is often recommended to the family members of soldiers who are missing or those involved in plane crashes, where a body isn’t recovered.

“He is both living and maybe not. She is probably dead but maybe not,” Boss said. “If you stay in the rational when nothing else is rational, like right now, then you’ll just stress yourself more. What I say with ambiguous loss is the situation is crazy, not the person. The situation is pathological, not the person.”

Whatever it is that you need to do to replenish after an enormously draining year is completely up to you. But, acknowledging that your capacity is reduced and that some days are better than others might prove helpful.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.

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