Listen to the audio version of this post here.
You can hardly count the ways life has changed—for all of us—in the past six months.
You can certainly feel them. And feel them, and feel them, and well, you know. Your clients and colleagues feel the changes too. So do your friends and your family.
How are you—and they—holding up?
Me? I seem to have about used up my surge capacity. Maybe you can relate.
Manufacturers and medical centers have long used that language, referring to how much work they can handle in a pinch. Turns out there’s a psychological surge capacity too.
Science writer Tara Haelle says it’s the collection of mental and physical adaptive systems we draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.
When everything goes kablooey in a hurricane or a tornado or a wildfire people often survive, and even thrive, thanks to that spike in physical and emotional energy. Many do things they never imagined they could do.
Then there’s a pandemic.
When I read Haelle’s Elemental essay, the way I’ve been feeling lately began to make sense. Her title is “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted – It’s Why You Feel Awful.”
Listen, I think of myself as being pretty resourceful. I’ve weathered all kinds of personal and professional storms. And I’m resilient; I always bounce back.
That’s what healthy humans do, right? A crisis hits, that surge capacity kicks in, and we find ways to get through it. Maybe we come out even better on the other side.
Remember back in the spring?
Some of us were bravely putting on masks and gloves and going to our essential jobs in spite of COVID-19.
Some were scrambling to set up home offices and new routines so we could be productive working from home.
We were suddenly in charge of our children’s online learning, not to mention keeping them safe.
And of course, many were nursing a sick family member back to health or grieving for one who didn’t survive.
All of it required energy. A lot of energy. To keep going, to do what we needed to do, we drew on our surge capacity.
By definition, though, surge capacity doesn’t last forever. And it feels like forever, doesn’t it?
Ann Masten is a psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. She told Tara Haelle the pandemic is “an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives” and it’s expecting a lot to think that we’d be managing it all really well.
She thinks we’ve underestimated the adversity. Masten says these feelings we’re experiencing now may be “a normal reaction to a severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster.”
And she points out that it’s normal in “situations 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.”
So many people feel they’re at the breaking point.
All those anti-mask meltdowns in big box stores, the fights about schools opening—or not, even the Tweets that the whole pandemic is a hoax and a conspiracy … none of it should surprise us.
And that goes double for our own listlessness and procrastination and those mad bursts of activity followed by a sense of profound loss.
We have lost a lot. Jobs and whole careers have evaporated in an instant. Family members and friends have died. Social activities and religious services have been curtailed. Life as we know it … well, we don’t know it anymore.
Surge capacity was fine, but when this kind of thing drags on and on and on, we need a different style of coping. Here are a few things to try.
Accept what is.
Much as we’d like it to be otherwise, what is, is. Some people call it radical acceptance. Not fighting the situation or even trying to change it or wish it away. Just being with what is. And breathing—that always helps.
It also helps to remind ourselves that many things are true.
Yes, all the crappy stuff that goes with the pandemic, not to mention the protests and counter-protests that never seem to stop.
And … that moment sitting on the deck with a friend. The amazing meal you cooked even though you never thought of yourself as gifted in the kitchen. The wonderful book you just finished because now you have time to read.
Those little things can be a counterweight to the negativity if we remember to count them.
Maybe we expected to have all our closets cleaned by now. To have our kids back in school and ahead of their grade level because of all that stellar at-home learning they’d done. And to be in line for a promotion for everything we’ve accomplished in those long hours at our laptop in the den.
People can put a lot of pressure on themselves. It’s past time to take the pressure off. Acknowledge that this is hard for everybody, including us. Support we’ve counted on is not available. Losses are piling up.
And it’s normal to feel a stew of emotions. The precise ingredients of yours may differ from mine, but we can guess that most people are experiencing some combination of stress and sadness and loss and fear and anger and flat-out exhaustion.
Give yourself some grace.
It takes more effort when we don’t just automatically see people at work or religious services or neighborhood events.
It’s worth making the effort. We need those human contacts more than ever. For me, virtual meetings with my mastermind and networking groups have been a Godsend. Frequent phone conversations with my brother and sister. And, lately, the occasional outdoor dinner with friends.
Social contact, emotional support, lending a hand to someone who needs it. Those things sustain us. And will continue to, if we make the effort.
I value my connection with you, especially when it’s mutual.
Post a comment below—how are you doing, six months into this unprecedented experience? And what suggestions do you have for the rest of us?