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  • Elizabeth Eldridge

How Surge Capacity Depletion Is Impacting Your Mental Health


My regular routine includes an early morning wakeup (5:15 AM) and a hot coffee (usually outside, if the weather allows) while my dog Ruby does her rounds. Sometimes I spend a few minutes journaling and sometimes I throw the Frisbee around with my girl. Sometimes I jump in to a workout first thing. While I don’t spring out of bed full of energy every single day I generally enjoy my quiet time in the mornings and feel motivated to get the day going, picking up on whatever work task I left off on the day before. I genuinely enjoy my job and consider myself a pretty positive person – and I take time out for self care regularly – so the majority of days my energy and mood are great and, well, life is good! This routine normally works well for me… so why isn’t it now?


If you’re more stressed out than usual, experiencing low mood, finding your patience is wearing thin or just generally feeling out of sorts, you’re definitely not alone. Researchers have recently identified a widespread phenomenon that’s profoundly impacting the mental health of countless individuals (and therefore their relationships and work environments). Just like we’re experiencing a new wave of COVID-19 here in Canada, we’re also seeing another wave of mental health related challenges. Your surge capacity may well be depleted.


Surge capacity refers to an adaptive trait we humans have that help us get through acutely stressful situations, either physical or mental. Imagine running a marathon and the juice in your “battery” has been steadily declining as you’ve been running, so you’re feeling more and more exhausted the further you go. You’re not even sure if you’re going to make it to the end. The finish line finally comes in to view and suddenly, out of nowhere, you get a big rush that helps you sprint to the end. That surge was part of a survival tool allowing you to navigate an exceptional circumstance – running a marathon isn’t something you do every day, and you’ve likely been training for a while leading up to the event. Your brain understands this is kind of a “one shot deal” and helps you to rally in the moment, knowing your battery will get a nice thorough re-charge shortly. Your physical capacity has temporarily increased and soon after the event is over your reserves will be restored so you can get that surge again the next time it’s needed.


Surge capacity is equally vital when it comes to exceptionally psychologically taxing experiences too, like traumatic events. Typically a trauma has a finite start and end point and in those circumstances a mental surge can help us ride the tide until we’re through the worst of it, at which point we (hopefully) draw on our stores of mental resilience to process and recover. Without being conscious of it, we’ve all been taking advantage of a surge put forward to get us through the rollercoaster than began in early 2020. The problem is, the surge can’t last forever and unfortunately we’re likely to be feeling the strain of the pandemic in some form or another for a while yet. In other words, your surge capacity has depleted to a point where you no longer have access to that “boost” until or unless you charge your battery significantly. The pandemic continues to impact our lives and mental wellbeing in such a wide variety of ways that it can feel sort of ambiguous and thus more difficult for our brains to process. Compare it with, for example, a natural disaster: the earthquake starts and as the Fight or Flight Response is triggered you feel The Surge. The earthquake ends and you “come down” meaning you’re no longer drawing on that surge. There’s a pretty concrete beginning and end so your brain knows exactly when to start and stop that helpful mental boost. See how processing the pandemic is a little more complex?


Next week we’ll tackle some ideas for restoring your surge capacity, but in the meantime a useful exercise might be to consider what your own “surge” looks like and feels like. How has it helped you? Are you noticing signs of depletion? Before embracing the next practical steps do some self reflection to gain a deeper understanding of your own surge capacity and how it’s served you so far. You’ll probably find you serve a good pat on the back for getting this far.


Have a fantastic week, my friends! Thanks for reading and don’t forget to tune in next week for some strategies on how to address surge capacity depletion. If you’ve got an idea or have found something that works for you, please share it in the Comments section below!

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.


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