What is surge capacity? The stress-busting tactic that's being wiped out by the pandemic

If you're feeling particularly burnt out at the moment, this could be why

Surge capacity is the way humans mentally and physically manage particularly stressful situations. Unsplash
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If you were to search the term surge capacity, the majority of results relate to a hospital's ability to manage a sudden influx of patients.

However, there is a more modern definition that's particularly pertinent in 2020.

The phrase can also refer to a human's ability to mentally and physically manage particularly stressful situations, drawing on in-built systems when survival mode kicks in.

These survivalist reactions give us a "surge" that helps us cope in such situations. This boost can help people adequately manage troubling times in the short term – but what are the ramifications when a stressful situation drags on for months, weeks or perhaps years?

That's the reality many of us are now facing owing to the coronavirus pandemic, according to psychologist Ann Masten.

The professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, US, has revealed that a depleted resource of surge capacity could be why many are feeling so burnt out and exhausted.

"The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity," Masten told Medium last month. "When it's depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?"

Because the pandemic has raged for many months, with its severity seemingly ebbing and flowing across the world, many of us have not had sufficient time to relax and restore our coping mechanisms.

This can result in feelings of anxiety, fatigue and depression.

“This is an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives,” says Masten, adding that compared to natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes, the devastation is, for many, invisible.

We don't have a lot of control over the global pandemic but we do over our daily lives

With work lives and social lives undergoing radical shifts in the past six months, many people – particularly those who have never experienced war, famine or political instability – are living in a state of uncertainty that is completely alien.

“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,” said Masten. “It’s important to recognise 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.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

But, how should those experiencing burnout try to restore their surge capacity?

Embracing acceptance and lowering expectations, both of ourselves and others, without guilt is key.

Make sure to find ways to indulge in a little self-care, to replenish your survival mechanisms. Unsplash
Make sure to find ways to indulge in a little self-care, to replenish your survival mechanisms. Unsplash

"I think we're in a period of a lot of self discovery: Where do I get my energy? What kind of down time 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 we need right now," said Masten.

Make sure you draw boundaries when it comes to things that might play upon anxiety or stress, for instance, turning away from social media or limiting the amount of news being consumed.

"It's good to stay up to date with current affairs, but if this is heightening your levels of anxiety, it would be helpful to step back from time to time," Bene Katabua, an educational psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre in Dubai, told The National earlier this year.

"It's also advised to make sure you're connected to your community. Reach out to loved ones who can help you feel more centred and stable."

Learning to find ways to indulge in a little self-care, in a time when many luxuries aren't as free to hand, is also important.

Perhaps you don't yet feel comfortable returning to a spa for a massage, but instead why not carve out guilt-free time to kick back and read a book?

“We don’t have a lot of control over the global pandemic but we do over our daily lives," added Masten. "You can focus on plans for the future and what’s meaningful in life.”

If you find your symptoms are severe and prolonged, however, then it is advised you seek help from a professional therapist.