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Feeling Spent? Here’s How To Replenish Your Capacity To Cope

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A worldwide pandemic. Distance learning. Child care concerns. Economic worries. Protests and social unrest. An earthquake. Wildfires. A very heated election year. It’s enough to make anyone say, “2020 we surrender!”

If you feel like you just can’t take one more thing or you’ve completely run out of gas, it’s not your imagination. Doctors said it could be because your personal “surge capacity” is depleted.

Surge capacity is the mental and physical ability to adapt to intensely stressful situations, like natural disasters or the death of a loved one.

Psychiatrists, like Dr. Travis Mickelson with Intermountain Healthcare, said our minds and bodies are designed to handle these situations, but only for a short period of time.

“What has been happening to us over the last nine months is not an acute stressor, not just one stressor, that lasts for a moment in time — it’s a stressor that has been lasting for months and months and months. And our bodies and our brains aren’t inherently designed to manage this type of chronic stress,” said Mickelson.

Sound familiar? It sure does to a lot of people, like Matt and Megan Halversen.

“On the surface, it looks like it’s been great,” said Matt Halversen. “But there’s a lot of stress. And it’s built up.”

“All of the extra stresses that people are dealing with, I feel like all of us are still in survival mode even if we are totally set,” said Megan Halversen.

Survival mode is what it feels like to the Halversens, even though everything on the outside seems fine. They both have jobs, a beautiful home and their kids are perfectly happy. But after seven months of living through a pandemic, the stress of 2020 is getting to them.

“I’m more irritable, particularly with the kids,” Matt Halversen said. “And sleep deprivation is definitely something I feel sneaking up.”

“I’m just getting fatigued more easily and I feel like I’m more in that fight or flight type situation where I can suddenly do a lot but then I’m depleted,” said Megan Halversen.

Here are signs your capacity to cope might be depleted:

  • Restless sleep patterns
  • Feeling distracted
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Easily irritated
  • More frustration
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Acting out (particularly teens)

Mickelsen pointed out there are also physical symptoms to watch for.

Dr. Travis Mickelson with Intermountain Healthcare. (KSL-TV)

“Feeling restless, feeling like we can’t relax, can’t calm our bodies down. Noticing physical symptoms such as increased heart rate,” said Mickelsen. “It’s very common for people experiencing stress to experience stomach aches, headaches.”

Mickelson said once you’ve hit your surge capacity, it’s perfectly normal to feel this way.

How you deal with it is up to you, but you should take steps to address it.

The body releases a surge of hormones to help us cope with stressful situations. Once a stressful event passes, those hormone levels return to normal. But if a series of stressful events or a long-term event keep those levels high, that can put us at risk for many health problems such as memory impairment, depression and heart disease.

Doctors said one of the worst things we can do is continue to push through when we’re not feeling replenished.

The Halversens said exercise has helped. They also dance together, which relieves stress, and they get outside a lot. “There’s a lot of evidence that supports that being outdoors, being in nature, doing physically active activities, have a direct effect on our emotional state,” said Mickelsen.

Matt and Megan Halversen enjoy dancing with their kids to relieve stress. (KSL-TV)

Other coping strategies experts recommend include:

  • Maintain a routine
  • Stay socially connected, even if socially distanced
  • Help others

“Being helpful, not only does it make us feel good and gives us a sense of meaning, but it distracts us from our own challenges,” said Mickelsen. “As the days go on, we’re continually trying to figure out new things that will work that will help,” said Megan Halversen.

The Halversens are also planning a vacation and Matt Halversen said he’s going to start seeing a therapist.

Finally, Mickelsen said one of the most important things you can do is to focus on things that are going well in your life.

“For every one thing that’s not going well in our day, try to identify at least three things that are going well,” he said.

The Halversens are already trying that and say they’re crossing their fingers everyone makes it out of this pandemic with their surge capacity intact. “I just hope that things will simmer down a little bit for all of us,” said Megan Halversen.

If you try some of these coping strategies and your stress level isn’t coming down after a few weeks, that might be a sign it’s time to reach out to your doctor or a therapist for more professional help.

Intermountain Healthcare also has a free hotline available to help people struggling with their mental health during the pandemic. The hotline is 833-442-2211.

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