The Quest for Greater Surge Capacity

Since Covid-19 restrictions were put into place last March, I’ve been beyond thankful for the tools and strategies at my disposal for coping with adversity and sustaining resilience. That wealth of resources was the reason that I started this weekly email—to share as many of those tools and strategies as possible, despite the unidirectional format limitations.

These past nine months have been trying. Like most of you, I’ve weathered professional and personal challenges. I practiced what I teach, drew on my resources, and yet earlier this week, even with all of the resources at my disposal, I sputtered out.

I felt the exhaustion creeping in on Saturday afternoon. Normally a night owl, I fell soundly asleep shortly after sunset. The next three days I fought to stay awake during the day and fell asleep shortly after sunset each evening. Was I low on iron? Did I have Covid? What was happening?

It turns out, I’d depleted my “surge capacity.”

Surge capacity refers to our ability to adapt, mentally and physically, in highly stressful or emergency situations, such as after a natural disaster. Surge capacity enables us to take on additional responsibilities and function at a high level, above and beyond our day-to-day obligations—for a period of time. Generally, as with earthquakes or wildfires, though potentially traumatic, the event has a defined end, after which recovery begins, and we replenish our systems.

But what happens when the crisis endures, even worsens, with no termination date in sight? At some point, we deplete our surge capacity. It splutters out, leaving us deflated, mentally and physically drained, until our stores are replenished and renewed.   

Perhaps you’ve experienced this already. Perhaps not yet. Either way, how do we prepare for a potential plummet in energy reserves?

According to Jolie Willis, cognitive psychologist and leading psychosocial expert in disaster and disruption, the advice is much the same as in disaster preparedness: have a plan.

Just as we have a first aid kit, know where the batteries are, and keep plenty of water on hand for emergencies, we also need an emergency plan for our minds. Willis says to identify in advance those practices or strategies that you call upon when you need renewal, then share them with a close friend, family member or confidante, so that when you’re approaching overload, they’re able to gently guide you to the very things you need most, when you need them.

Perhaps, like me, extra hours of sleep are called for. Perhaps a reminder to devote some time to something that you value, or to reconnect with people with whom you laugh out loud, is the antidote. It may take a few days. Recognize that even with the best systems in place, such as I had, we’re taking in much more information than we’re fully aware of, and at some point, our cognitive systems say, “Whoa.”

Willis also shares this wisdom:

“Within the word emergency is ‘emergence.’ Disruption on a huge scale signals a departure from certainty, safety and normality. Recovery from deeply stressful events is both about pain and discovery. The question to contemplate is what could emerge in me, my life and my community as a result of this experience?”

What keeps you at capacity? What might emerge in you as a result of your individual, and our collective, experience of 2020?

Dare to thrive,