surge capacity and burnout

You found your new normal during these busy times of quarantine, and you were doing all right. But now each day seems more difficult than the one before, and you feel like, Why bother? Trying to do any of your everyday activities feels like swimming in molasses... and you. just. can't...

It is hard. And it seems unfair that the world keeps turning while your life is on hold… indefinitely. You are not alone in this feeling. And maybe knowing that you have a virtual community in the same boat will help you through these heavy days. So might knowing that what you are feeling is nature's way of helping you shift your energy to the things that can help you survive in the long run.


Most likely you are experiencing depletion of your surge capacity, which is a collection of adaptive mental and physical responses used for survival during short term stressful situations—like all the adjustments you made to your sleeping, eating, socializing, working and exercising habits to manage at the onset of quarantine. But as quarantine has become long term and continues to disrupt and threaten lives, the more stress you experience wears you out and leaves you lethargic, unable to concentrate or care.

Here's what science tells us about our "surge capacity" for handling stress—and why you might feel more burned out than ever right now.

If someone had told you on New Year's Eve what the next year would hold, you would not have believed them.

Founder of stress research Hans Selye (1907–1983) defined stress as the "nonspecific response of the body to any demand." In his research, Selye distinguished acute stress—like the fight or flight you feel when you run from a bear—from chronic stress—like all the hard things you have to do during an ongoing pandemic.

Calling this the "general adaptation syndrome (GAS)," Selye summarized the total response to stress in three stages:

  1. The alarm reaction
  2. The stage of resistance
  3. The stage of exhaustion

Applying this theory to the journey many of us are experiencing during the pandemic sheds a light of solidarity on how months of uncertainty, anxiety and stress impact our well-being.

The pandemic was a surprise that caught the world off guard. Reeling back on your heels, you entered the first stage of pandemic stress with the fear of catching COVID-19. Adrenaline and cortisol ran through your veins to help you think clearly and act fast to restore your balance as you navigated the new terrain.

Then, the second stage of stress emerged with life under quarantine, where you found ways to adapt and developed defenses to strengthen your mental and physical resistance—you surged in order to manage quarantine on all levels and in all facets of life.

No wonder six months later, as the pandemic continues, you are exhausted—this final stage renders ineffective all that you did before to cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems like it will never end, and the chronic stress it causes is burning you out.

It can be difficult to rally and meet the day head-on when every day feels the same. "This feeling of hopelessness wears you down, leading to a higher level of stress than you're accustomed to, for a longer period of time than you're accustomed to, without access to the usual coping mechanisms you're accustomed to," explains Dr. William Orme, a psychologist and behavioral health expert at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. "As a means of self-preservation, you disengage to avoid the stressors altogether," he continues, and "in the process, you avoid doing things you know you should be doing."

But as quarantine persists, so must you.

When you can't change the situation, "the only thing you can change is your perception of it," said educator and family stress researcher, Dr. Pauline Boss. Her definition of ambiguous loss—a loss that's unclear and lacks a resolution—describes clearly what is being experienced to some degree by everyone these days.

"In this case, it is a loss of a way of life. It's the loss of our freedom to move about in our daily life as we used to," says Dr. Boss. "What we used to have has been taken away from us… all things we were attached to and fond of, [are] gone right now, so the loss is ambiguous," Dr. Boss explains.

This kind of loss can leave you searching for answers, complicating and delaying a natural part of the experience of grief—acceptance. But acceptance doesn't mean giving up, just changing how you look at things. By accepting that life is different right now, instead of resisting or fighting reality, you are able to use that energy elsewhere to be proactive and constructive so that you can find meaning, satisfaction and motivation again during quarantine.

Here are some ways to shift your energy to what you can manage:

Focus on maintaining and strengthening important relationships
Nothing can replace being with family and friends in person, but embracing your way of staying connected —zoom, a text, email or phone call—allows you to feel a sense of control and community.

Focus on what you can do right now, not what you can't
Take care of the little things you can control, like nutrition, sleep, exercise and hygiene. Enjoy the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction they can bring to boost your mood and help face your stress.

Focus on what life holds for you right now
Pay attention to and appreciate what the day brings you right now, finding the hidden positives that could help you face the actual tasks and stressors in front of you.

Focus on new and old activities that fulfill you
Creative activities like cooking, gardening, painting, or house projects can be especially satisfying right now because they have a planning element and a here-and-now experience element that can be grounding.

Bottom Line: A sense of control in your daily life can be the self-care that gets you through these uncertain days. And knowing that you are not alone in this experience can be a relief. By being patient with yourself and with the situation we're all in now, you can use your energy to tend to the things that help you build the resilience to face anything that comes your way. You've got this.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Burnout is not depression. If you suspect what you are feeling goes deeper than you feel you can manage, contact your medical provider for prompt attention.

In This Article

    These challenges from Nike PLAYlist are exactly what my child needs to stay active

    Plus a fall family bucket list to keep everyone moving all season long.

    While it's hard to name anything that the pandemic hasn't affected, one thing that is constantly on my mind is how to keep my family active despite spending more time indoors. Normally, this time of year would be spent at dance and gymnastics lessons, meeting up with friends for games and field trips, and long afternoon playdates where we can all let off a little steam. Instead, we find ourselves inside more often than ever before—and facing down a long winter of a lot more of the same.

    I started to search for an outlet that would get my girls moving safely while we social distance, but at first I didn't find a lot of solutions. Online videos either weren't terribly engaging for my active kids, or the messaging wasn't as positive around the power of movement as I would like. Then I found the Nike PLAYlist.

    I always knew that Nike could get me moving, but I was so impressed to discover this simple resource for parents. PLAYlist is an episodic sports show on YouTube that's made for kids and designed to teach them the power of expressing themselves through movement. The enthusiastic kid hosts immediately captured my daughter's attention, and I love how the physical activity is organically incorporated in fun activities without ever being specifically called out as anything other than play. For example, this segment where the kids turn yoga into a game of Paper Scissors Rock? Totally genius. The challenges from #TheReplays even get my husband and me moving more when our daughter turns it into a friendly family competition. (Plus, I love the play-inspired sportswear made just for kids!)

    My daughter loves the simple Shake Ups at the beginning of the episode and is usually hopping off the couch to jump, dance and play within seconds. One of her favorites is this Sock Flinger Shake Up activity from the Nike PLAYlist that's easy for me to get in on too. Even after we've put away the tablet, the show inspires her to create her own challenges throughout the day.

    The best part? The episodes are all under 5 minutes, so they're easy to sprinkle throughout the day whenever we need to work out some wiggles (without adding a lot of screen time to our schedule).

    Whether you're looking for simple alternatives to P.E. and sports or simply need fun ways to help your child burn off energy after a day of socially distanced school, Nike's PLAYlist is a fun, kid-friendly way to get everyone moving.

    Need more movement inspiration for fall? Here are 5 ways my family is getting up and getting active this season:

    1. Go apple picking.

    Truly, it doesn't really feel like fall until we've picked our first apple. (Or had our first bite of apple cider donut!) Need to burn off that extra cinnamon-sugar energy? Declare a quick relay race up the orchard aisle—winner gets first to pick of apples at home.

    To wear: These Printed Training Tights are perfect for when even a casual walk turns into a race (and they help my daughter scurry up a branch for the big apples).

    2. Visit a pumpkin patch.

    We love to pick up a few locally grown pumpkins to decorate or cook with each year. Challenge your child to a "strongman" contest and see who can lift the heaviest pumpkin while you're there.

    To wear: Suit up your little one in comfort with this Baby Full Zip Coverall so you're ready for whatever adventures the day brings.

    3. Have a nature scavenger hunt.

    Scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to keep my daughter preoccupied all year long. We love to get outside and search for acorns, leaves and pinecones as part of our homeschool, but it's also just a great way to get her exercising those gross motor skills whenever the wiggles start to build up.

    To wear: It's not truly fall until you break out a hoodie. This cozy Therma Elite Kids Hoodie features a mesh overlay to release heat while your child plays.

    4. Have a touch-football game.

    Tip for parents with very little kids: It doesn't have to last as long as a real football game. 😂 In fact, staging our own mini-games is one of our favorite ways to get everyone up and moving in between quarters during Sunday football, and I promise we all sleep better that night.

    To wear: From impromptu games of tag to running through our favorite trails, these kids' Nike Air Zoom Speed running shoes are made to cover ground all season long.

    5. Create an indoor obstacle course.

    Pretending the floor is lava was just the beginning. See how elaborate your personal course can get, from jumping on the couch to rolling under the coffee table to hopping down the hallway on one foot.

    To wear: These ready-for-any-activity Dri-FIT Tempo Shorts are perfect for crawling, hopping and racing—and cuddling up when it's time to rest.

    This article was sponsored by Nike. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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