Surge Capacity: The Psychological Mechanism to Deal with Acute Stressors
By Jessie Lucas
A lot of us are stressed out about being stressed out. We are experiencing new and depressing levels of anxiety. We feel maxed out, overwhelmed, and our limits continue to take hits with emerging bad news. Every day we face unknowns like new COVID strains and restriction changes. All of this keeps inundating us, and we feel like we cannot handle even one more thing. Our surge capacity is at zero. All aspects of our lives, from work and relationships to our health, are experiencing the effects. And for a majority of us, these feelings of uncertainty get worse as the days pass. And yet, we have to keep going. The question is, where do we go from here?
What is Surge Capacity?
We’ve all experienced that familiar feeling when faced with an emergency. Suddenly, you are running on adrenaline so that you can deal with the threat at hand. This response comes from the fight-or-flight region of the brain which helps you make decisions that guarantee your safety.
When you’re in a state of fight-or-flight for too long, your surge capacity kicks in. Surge capacity is the mental and physical adaptive systems that you lean on for short-term survival, like a natural disaster. The problem is that most emergencies, like natural disasters, last for hours or days at most. Disasters like global pandemics last longer, and that’s where the problem lies.
You’re Feeling Overwhelmed Because Your Surge Capacity is Depleted
When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit across the world in early 2020, we were all thrown into a new normal. Quarantines, curfews, and travel restrictions took effect. Working from home was fun. We were doing alright. After all, most humans were born for moments like these. We found ways of surviving and making the most of that traumatic experience.
But then a few months turned into a year, and the new normal became a sad reality. The pandemic was not even close to ending! Facing each day became more and more difficult. Working from home and Zoom meetings are no longer interesting.
That’s surge capacity depletion. Surge capacity depletion occurs when an otherwise short-term disaster turns long-term. All the changes you made at the beginning of quarantine no longer matter. You’re tired and honestly no longer care. You also start exhibiting cabin fever symptoms — hopelessness, irritability, sadness, and unending depression. You are physically and mentally at your limit.
The concept of “surge capacity” explains why we’re feeling like this. We’re not just feeling inadequate about keeping up with it all, but our brains are forced to operate in a way that’s not natural. So, at the very least, we can feel some relief to know that we are simply humans dealing with hard times.
Even as things seem to go back to normal, surge capacity depletion is still a reality. And now we face even more challenges. New COVID strains like the highly contagious Omicron variant and changing restrictions continue to test us.
Coping Skills: Dealing with Psychological Stressors and a Depleted Surge Capacity
I am an anxious person at my core. Old traumas still lurk under the surface. I have kids at just about every age and stage (eight, ten, fifteen, and twenty), so everything worries me! And living with greater peace on a day-to-day basis is massively important to me. Learning to read my own body’s signals to notice when I’m in overload has been a saving grace. I can feel a layer of tension that tells me it’s time to stretch. I can feel a pressure in my head that tells me to take deeper, longer breaths. And I can feel an ache in my heart that tells me when it’s time to communicate my needs more clearly and ask for support.
So, what happens when an emergency phase becomes a chronic situation? What do you do when your surge capacity maxes out? Is it possible to adjust to a new sustainable lifestyle amid the ever-changing times?
Change Your Expectations
No doubt you want to feel like you can do anything and everything. It’s a great feeling because it lets you feel in control even when the walls are crumbling around you. But, in these uncertain times, you need to be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations and come to terms with the fact that things won’t always go your way. Switching to a “glass-half-full” kind of mentality will help renew your surge capacity.
Focus on What You Can Do
You’re currently surviving on a burst of energy trying to navigate the new territory of uncertainty. At some point, that adrenaline bubble that you rely on will burst. Riding on this kind of negative energy space for so long may lead to feelings of anger and burnout. To recover, you need a period of self-care and downtime.
Learn to Say No
Embrace the idea of saying no sometimes. Saying no is the best way to help you concentrate on other things you say yes to.
Have a Strong Support System
When your surge capacity has maxed out, having a solid support system in your life can do wonders. Spending some time with people who matter supports your emotional and mental health. Having the right people in your life is also a powerful tool when learning how to cope with anxiety.
Focus on the Now
Obsessing over a better outcome when a stressful situation is dragging out is entirely normal. Paying attention to the now and appreciating the positives can help you deal with acute psychological stressors.
Focus on Interests that Make You Whole
Rather than focusing on everything out of your control, find new interests and reconnect with hobbies that make you feel whole. The important thing is to find ways of dealing with depression and the ability to cope with anxiety. It is the only fuel you need when your surge capacity has depleted. Take a walk, discover the benefits of yoga, or go dancing.
Practicing Self-Care Despite a Depleted Surge Capacity
When a traumatic event seems never-ending, all we crave is the sense of control we once had. It can leave anyone feeling helpless, depressed, and anxious. But you can find that sense of control in the little things, like self-care, to get you through the uncertain days. Knowing that you are not alone can be a source of relief. Practicing patience will help you focus on things you can control. These little things add up to a strong resilience to face anything that life throws your way. Whether a global pandemic or a traumatic event, you can get through it.
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