This Is Why You Feel Awful

Ever heard of ‘surge capacity’? 

Surge capacity (coined by  Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota) is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. 

But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.

Surge capacity gets depleted and at about the 6 month mark, we hit a wall.  We are passed that point now with the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty. 

Disaster relief workers and burnout experts also know about this 6 month wall.  Adrenaline needed for disasters is meant for short term energy.  What we are in is now is demanding a long term expenditure for many of us.  Even a low grade expenditure of energy over the uncertainty, the little losses, the fear, the what’s next, is a constant drain.

What do you do when your surge capacity is depleted and you need to renew it because the emergency phase has become chronic?

I couldn’t get my column done last month.  It wasn’t as if I didn’t have the time.  I didn’t have the energy.  I could point to a thousand other things that took up my time and energy but I was just spent. 

Author and speaker Brene Brown said it this way, “It’s like the wind is breaking the windows and we are in clean up at the same time, but in a pandemic, the destruction is invisible and ongoing.  It’s not like a natural disaster where you can see the damage.” 

Trying to find the energy like we had before this year is like ‘looking for disaster relief while hurricane is still blowing the shutters off the house.’

So how do we renew our energy source in view of the new ‘abnormal’?

The first thing is to acknowledge that anxiety and weariness is normal.  You will feel more depleted if you spend time thinking there is something wrong with you or that you are alone feeling overwhelmed.  Feeling that way is normal.  So is feeling a sort of disinterested boredom which is another common feeling in research on burnout.

Second, acknowledge that we are in a time of ambiguous loss and grief.  Sometimes, it’s losses that are hard to name or we judge them as small compared to the big stuff that’s happening to others around us.  They may seem too small but they aren’t, especially for our kids.  

For problem solvers and go-getters or those that already tend toward anxiety, they feel even more of a need for control and can’t figure out how with something so ambiguous and forever changing like pandemics and massive social upheavals.  That helpless feeling surges when we see our kids hopes and dreams crushed (or our own) and we can’t help them fix it.  Author Ann Lamont says, ‘Help is the sunny side of control.’  Darn. 

This ambiguous loss can be many things—the loss of a way of life, of freedom, of being able to meet up with our friends and family, to attend funerals, weddings or graduations—or even plan them, perhaps a loss of trust in our government, or just the daily rituals that became the fabric of our lives.  It’s ambiguous but nevertheless, it’s a major, unexpected and unwelcome shift that we did nothing to cause.

So naming it and normalizing it as well as reality checking our expectations sounds simple but it’s not easy.  Accepting things as they are, at least for a while longer than we wanted and expecting less of yourself and others around you are key plugs to the draining of your energy.

We must also restore our energy resources. 

As highlighted in Brown’s podcast, Dr. Maddus a professor at the University of Minnesota and motivational speaker noted a ‘resilience bank account’ is necessary for the long haul. 

“Dr. Maddaus explained why building things and creating is bringing some of us joy and real feelings of restoration and recharge. He explains that there are two ways the brain deals with the world: the future, including things we need to go after and get done, and the here and now, seeing things and touching things. 

He explained that, “Rather than being at the mercy of what’s going on in the world right now, we can use elements of this natural reward system that we have and construct things to do that are good, no matter what.”  Activities that have meaning for you have that ‘here and now element’ and those that have a planning element provide that future orientation element.

Another big source of energy: Play.  In Dr. Stuart Brown’s seminal work on Play he says, “The opposite of play is not work.  The opposite of play is depression.” 

Our biologically programmed need for play can transform us and renew our sense of excitement in life.

Dr. Stuart’s definition of Play is time spent without purpose including activities where you lose track of time and/or where you feel free to be yourself-liberated and uninhibited. 

I agree with Brown’s suggestion that you and your loved ones make a list of play activities that meet the definition of play.  Then look at your lists and see what you have in common.  Build time together based on these activities and time alone on the activities you don’t share in common.  I’ll be you already know some things that could go on the list.  Puttering around and not getting anything ‘done’ can be one.

Research on play has found that we get constant and predictable energy from play.  It’s not quick and gone energy like from a caffeine or sugar burst but one that, when done regularly, provides real sustenance to the body and brain.  That’s why I say F.U.N. truly is a Fundamental Universal Need. 

Often grown-ups say, “This is no time for play.  The world is falling apart!”  I’ll paraphrase what Brown says so well:  We can’t fight on no energy.  We can’t fight for love or joy unless we’re experiencing it.  We need that energy source not only for the fights we want to fight but just to get through the day. 

As I always say, go out and play (and nap)!  Don’t forget the naps. 

If you feel stuck in how to proceed, I can help!  You can contact me for life, wellness and family coaching and/or counseling sessions at and

I am grateful for Brene Brown’s podcast and the article she quoted.  You can look it up on


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