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Running on Empty: If You’re Feeling Checked Out, You Might Have Reached Your Surge Capacity

June 28, 2022

Maybe, at the start of the pandemic, you were the kind of person who forwarded helpful health articles to other COVID-cautious people in your life. Maybe you diligently read up on infection prevention, and took every health risk, pandemic and pandemic-adjacent, very seriously.

But at some point between then and now, for reasons you can’t quite pin down, maybe you just sort of… stopped. New subvariant? I should keep an eye on this, you think. You don’t. Rising threat of monkeypox? I should learn what to look for, you think. You never do.

What gives?

There could be any number of explanations, from a shift in your personal risk tolerance to the protection of vaccines to simply becoming desensitized to bad news.

Here’s another possibility: Some time ago, you may have hit your limit – and then exceeded it – on your mental and physical ability to react to stress.

In other words, you’re running on empty.

What happens when your “backup generator” runs out of fuel?

Mental health professionals have a handy term to refer to our body’s ability to react to stress: surge capacity.

“I think of surge capacity as our body’s backup generator,” says psychiatrist Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director of Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “During a storm, our backup generator kicks on to keep the power on for essential things – like our mood, our stress levels and our sleep.” This happens through a boost of neurochemicals like norepinephrine and epinephrine, which lend extra support to our body’s systems.

It works well for challenges with expiration dates, like a big work deadline, or gearing up for a major event like a wedding. But “when the stress goes on and on, there’s no end in sight, you’ve reached the end of what those chemicals can do,” says Schnitzlein. “The fuel in the tank gets depleted. When that happens, things start going offline. We’re more stressed out. We’re anxious.”

Sound familiar?

“With COVID, we’ve gone from spike to spike these past two years,” says Dr. Schnitzlein. “Just as we start to relax and turn off our surge capacity, we’re back to another spike.” That can take a toll on mood, attention, sleep, appetite, memory and more. It can explain why you’re suddenly numb to news about COVID or monkeypox, or why activities you used to look forward have lost some of their appeal.

The good news is that if you’ve exceeded your surge capacity, you can take everyday steps to refuel.

As a former infantry psychiatrist with the U.S. Army, Dr. Schnitzlein knows a thing or two about exactly this. She’s worked with soldiers in deployed settings and combat zones to develop strategies for dealing with the chronic stress of battle.

The key, she says, is being proactive – by creating a “rejuvenating routine.” For the soldiers she worked with, that often meant establishing a healthy outlet for stress, like physical exercise; creating consistent opportunities for social connection, like a regular game night; and having easy access to mental health counseling.

If you feel like you’re running on empty, you can benefit from a similar approach. Think small, says Dr. Schnitzlein: “Do one enjoyable thing every day, even if it’s only for five minutes.”

As always, reach out to a health professional if you need support. They can evaluate how you’re doing, and help you come up with coping strategies – to replenish your surge capacity today, and in the years to come.

“If we find ways to weather the storm, and create healthy ways to recharge, we can build resiliency,” says Dr. Schnitzlein.