What is ‘surge capacity’ and what can you do when it’s depleted?

What is ‘surge capacity’ and what can you do when it's depleted?

As someone who thrives under stress and deadlines, I approached 2020 with an all-systems go attitude.

I was pivoting in my career to working entirely remotely and also juggling as much freelance work as I could take on. I was committed to weekly Zoom catch-ups with friends and family, I was pressuring myself to try out new hobbies, read a stack of books, exercise more and practise mindfulness every day.

Everyone seemed to be crushing it in lockdown and I wanted to be involved in it all. Even though the world slowed, I definitely picked up the pace.

I now know I was running on surge capacity. And come the middle to the end of 2020, I crashed and I knew whatever source I was getting my energy from was well and truly depleted.

What exactly is ‘surge capacity’?

In a medical sense, surge capacity is the ability of a health system to maintain a sudden and unexpected increase in patients.

In a more general sense, surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems (both mental and physical) that we draw on for short-term survival in extremely stressful situations.

Do you know that feeling when disaster strikes and suddenly you’re running on adrenaline in order to cope in an acutely stressful situation? In essence, that’s exactly what surge capacity is.

During the height of the pandemic last year, the term was thrown around between journalist Tara Haelle and even the likes of Brené Brown as a way to explain the systems many people were relying on when the world was flipped on its head. Since then, it’s resonated with so many who had to drastically adjust their lifestyles when COVID-19 struck.

Humans generally turn to their surge capacity in highly stressful and unexpected situations, like natural disasters. Because natural disasters are never ‘indefinite’, many people can eventually shift their life back into some norm, and they don’t need to rely on surge capacity for long stretches of time.

Unfortunately with a pandemic, the end isn’t exactly in sight. And for those forward-thinkers and future planners, imagining this stressful scenario stretching out indefinitely often results in cutting off your surge capacity all together.

What can you do when your surge capacity is maxed out?

Whether you’re still in lockdown or are thinking back to the height of the pandemic last year, there was likely a moment where your surge capacity became well and truly depleted.

It would have felt something like an extreme lack of motivation, exhaustion and both physically and mentally not having the energy to do anything at all.

This is because nobody can rely on their surge capacity forever, which is why it’s important to learn how to adapt to a new way of living in stressful situations that span for a long (or indefinite) period of time.

So, where do you turn to when your surge capacity is maxed out and how do you adjust to a new lifestyle that’s sustainable amidst an ever-changing environment?

Lower your expectations where you can

We all know it would be great to do everything and anything perfectly but unfortunately, it’s just not possible.

The first thing to do to banish those unrealistic expectations is to treat yourself kindly. Expecting that things will always go perfectly your way is never realistic and will only cause unnecessary stress and disappointment.

Switching your mind to a ‘glass half full’ mentality might not come easily but pointing out your harsh critique on the things you do and any negative thoughts about things out of your control is essential to your mental health.

If your surge capacity is feeling particularly maxed out, focus on practising kindness to yourself and lowering your expectations because this is going to be vital to gaining back your energy and motivation in both your work and personal life.

Do things that fill your cup

Some essential life advice: You can’t run on adrenaline forever.

If you’ve been thriving on a ‘burst of energy’ as you navigate new territory, whether that be during the pandemic or another similar stressful scenario, your adrenaline bubble is guaranteed to burst at some point. That’s because working in this high negative energy space (think burnout, anger, and a constant state of urgency) is not sustainable.

In order to move to a positive high-energy space, you need to fit in time for self-care practices and downtime that may include dabbling in new hobbies or resting.

Block out the time to do the things that fill your cup because rest is sometimes just as important as doing the work.

Remember that you can say ‘no’

Whether you’re a people-pleaser, an overachiever, or just have serious FOMO, many of us fall into the toxic loop of always saying ‘yes’.

There is still some stigma around the idea of saying ‘no’ because everyone wants to be the perfect person who can do anything and everything.

If you’ve fallen victim to the trap of always taking things on and agreeing when maybe you shouldn’t have, it’s probably time to retrain your brain to realise that saying ‘yes’ to everything is impossible and saying ‘no’ is actually healthy and will help you do the best you can with the other things you have agreed to do.

We shouldn’t feel guilt, shame, regret, or fear when we say no but instead feel confident in our decision. Only you can know how much you can take on and the reality is, most people will understand why you’ve turned down an offer.

Lean on your support network

Having a strong support network is essential in times of crisis, especially when your surge capacity has reached its limit.

Whether you need emotional support and assistance or just want to spend some downtime with people you care about, leaning on the people you trust is so powerful for your mental health.

Your social support network will help you cope with stress and improve your motivation. Studies have shown that poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness which in turn can lead to high blood pressure, diminished immunity, and cognitive decline.

So, the next time an opportunity comes up where you can lean on those you trust and care about, jump on it! These relationships help boost your overall wellbeing and will encourage you to create a more sustainable lifestyle.


This article was written by Laine Fullerton and originally published on A Girl In Progress.

A Girl In Progress

A Girl In Progress

This article is syndicated from A Girl In Progress, a former lifestyle blog for women who are working on themselves, for themselves. They believe it’s possible to strive to become the best version of yourself, while simultaneously accepting yourself exactly as you are.