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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.

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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.

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