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Surge Capacity and How to Overcome It

Ever heard of surge capacity? Neither had I, until a dear friend posted an article that captured my interest and really hit home for me. ‘Surge capacity’ is a term coined by Dr. Ann Masten, PhD from the University of Minnesota. “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters which occur over a short period of time, even if recovery is long.”

Pandemics are different. As we are all experiencing, a pandemic is not a short term period. A pandemic stretches out indefinitely. “This pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” says Masten.

My logical mind argues, ‘but shouldn’t I be used to this by now?’ Yet the rest of me clearly does not agree. To quote Masten in the article written by Tara Haelle, “Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this. This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.” Yet how do we each adjust daily to an ever-changing, seemingly endless situation? “It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.” The answer, Masten says, “is that we have to adopt a different style of coping.”

As it turns out, our popular societal concept of solution-based thinking is not the answer, in fact it’s quite the opposite. What we are dealing with right now is something called ‘ambiguous loss,’ which is any loss that is unclear and lacks a resolution either physically or psychologically. This pandemic has brought about ambiguous loss in our way of life and living. It has manifested itself in many different ways, impacting the things we love and the things we love to do, most likely in ways we would never have imagined would affect us previously.

Ambiguous loss elicits the same experiences of grief as a more tangible loss — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — but managing it often requires a bit of flexibility and creativity.

What is the best way to adapt and overcome?

  1. Radical Acceptance. Accept that life is different right now, and that it is the way it is. Accept your emotions, whatever they may be. Know that it’s OK to feel your feelings, and to ask for help when you need it.
  2. Don’t give up, fight your feelings, or spend your energy on resisting reality. Focus on the constructive things that you are able to do. Expect less of yourself and others. Give yourself permission to expect less of yourself and to spend more down time replenishing yourself.
  3. Use this time as a period of self-discovery to figure out where you get your energy from. Experiment and learn what kind of down time you need. Reflect on what rhythms of life and balance work best for you at this time.
  4. Recognize that you (and everyone around you) are managing multiple ambiguous losses, overwhelm, the impact of trauma, uncertainty, and continual change. What’s more, we’re all experiencing all of this, and all at the same time. Extend grace and compassion to yourself and to others. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others. Remember, we are each doing the best we can under the circumstances.
  5. Understand that we are all experiencing grief from ambiguous loss, and that it affects each one of us differently. Know that the stages of grief express themselves in waves of emotions such up as denial, anger, bargaining, lethargy, difficulty focusing, depression, malaise, and acceptance.
  6. Give yourself permission not to do anything, to embrace the losses and sadness you feel, and to just be. When the feelings dissipate, do something, even something small and simple, that feels like an achievement. This will help you to continue to move forward and prevent you from getting stuck.
  7. Get creative with self-care. Reassess your options and broaden your experiences. Schedule experiences (yes, even the ones at home) that contain hands-on activities, and make this time a priority. Focus on what is meaningful to you, feels good, and replenishes your joy. Start really small and gradually build up regular life practices that promote resilience and coping techniques. If you miss a day, be gentle with yourself and begin again.
    Don’t know where to start? Try exploring these areas: Sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection, and saying no.
  8. Foster and build connection. Maintain and strengthen existing relationships. Build new friendships. Help and volunteer with others in ways that feel safe and important to you, it’s a win-win situation!

Cognitively recognizing and accepting the fact that we are living our way through a global pandemic and emotionally incorporating that reality into everyday life are not the same thing. Our new normal consistently seems to be feeling a little off balance and never knowing when it will all be over, if it ever will. Yet, we humans are resilient, and like anything else in life, we can get better at anything with practice. The power lies within us, all we have to do is take the first step.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, it is important to visit Valeo’s Crisis Center located at 400 SW Oakley Avenue. Valeo’s Crisis Center never closes, it is a walk-in emergency clinic, with no appointment necessary. Valeo’s 24-Hour Crisis Line is 785-234-3300.

–Michaela Butterworth, Health Promotion Specialist

Valeo Behavioral Health Care


Crisis Services      

400 SW Oakley

Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Line


National Suicide Prevention Life Line


Shawnee County Suicide Prevention Coalition

Family Service and Guidance Center  (18 and under)

325 SW Frazier

Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Number


Healing after Loss to Suicide Group  (HeALS)

Sandy Reams – Group Facilitator