What It Means When Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 
What It Means When Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted
Scary Mommy and Noel Hendrickson/Getty

As I sit down to write this, my two young children are immersed in a rousing episode of Strawberry Shortcake at 11:00 p.m. in our living room after half a dozen failed attempts to put them to sleep in their own beds. It’s obviously way past their bedtimes, yet these kids are acting like they just arrived at their first frat party and have energy to burn. I have a work deadline that’s already past its expiration date, and I have no plans on stopping this random and welcome creative momentum tonight. So it’s television before bed again for us, and I don’t give a flying fuck anymore if someone judges me for it.

It’s honestly been this way for months now, but tonight is especially trying. Because tonight, I don’t have my husband Matt here to tag-team bedtime with me.

During an emotional conversation yesterday, I finally said what neither of us wanted to fully admit. Matt is majorly struggling, and so am I. We are being stretched thin in every single way imaginable. My husband has finally — finally! — experienced motherload exhaustion, from multitasking alongside me with all the overwhelm of a dozen tired-ass moms pushed past the point of barely functioning. Basically we’re running on fumes, and our kids haven’t let us up for air since coronavirus forced us into our home 24/7 back in March.

Like many of you reading this, Matt and I are two worn-out parents living during a global crisis, and we have both assuredly reached our “surge capacity” limit. According to Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, surge capacity is a collection of adaptive mental and physical systems that we utilize for short-term survival during extremely stressful times. The only nasty hitch with our current situation is that we’re all living during a pandemic, which can last indefinitely and will most undoubtedly lead each of us to surge capacity depletion. Which begs the questions — what happens when we hit that point of no return, and how the hell do we rebound from it?

“The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,” Masten says in an interview for Medium. “When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

In an effort to replenish his surge capacity, I offered Matt the opportunity to stay at his parents’ house down the road for the next few days to focus on his full-time job and catch up on sleep. The space is definitely needed for the both of us, if I’m being completely honest. We’ve been around each other all the damn time as we do the nonstop grind of work and kid duty, and it’s beginning to unravel us both. While I will certainly expect to catch up on some zzz’s when Matt gets home, I’m more concerned about his mental state right now than my own. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve been dealing with some gnarly complex PTSD-related body paralysis this past month and have assuredly hit my personal surge capacity breaking point.

Since I’ve already dug deep into therapy, embraced medication, and regularly ask for help when I feel myself burning out, I know that I’ll have future opportunities to restore myself no matter how difficult this time is. My husband, on the other hand, admittedly does not actively tend to his mental health, and the cracks in his nervous system are beginning to widen. I have no clue if this time away will help, but I do know that he’s been given the loving condition to line up a therapist by the time he comes back. I love my husband way too much to see him dive into a dark hole of COVID-related despair, and counseling will definitely help. I know this to be true because I fell into one back in April and had to go to the emergency room to recover.

While we have thankfully found some relief in our kids being offered spots again at their respective COVID-conscious preschools, we’re still spending all non-school hours at home as we juggle our two jobs, run out of ideas for how to keep the kids entertained, and watch our house get destroyed mere moments after we clean it up. We’re also endlessly grappling with the anxiety of seeing people around us not wearing masks and arguing against science, worrying about our small town potentially reopening in full swing soon, and missing the shit out of our extended family in other states. It’s enough to make anyone totally melt down at least once. My husband and I have already done that dozens of times, thanks to — you guessed it! — surge capacity depletion.

“This is an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives,” Masten tells Medium. “But it’s different from a hurricane or tornado where you can look outside and see the damage. The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing. So many systems aren’t working as they normally do right now, which means radical shifts in work, school, and home life that almost none of us have experience with.”

It’s gotten so damn tough for American families that according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, over half of adults have reported that COVID-19 is harming their mental health. And get this — text messages to the federal government’s disaster distress hotline increased by more than 1,000 percent this past spring when compared to the same time last year. On the plate of mental health professionals is the growing coronavirus-related anxiety of their patients, with mental websites like Talkspace experiencing a 65% increase in clients since mid-February.

Bottom line — we are all pretty much encountering surge capacity depletion in one way or another. And it’s so unbelievably difficult to avoid getting to this point, no matter what we seem to do.

So how do we even begin to cope with a mental, emotional, and physical disaster of epic proportions that just won’t seem to let up? I believe it starts with acknowledging that this is really fucking hard. The unavoidable truth beyond the medical and health impact of COVID-19 is that we don’t have many answers at the moment, our children’s lives have been turned upside down along with our own, and there’s not enough energy to go around inside of us if we keep expelling it all — or worse, if we push our complex emotions down to avoid feeling pain right now.

“Recognize that how you feel is valid, no matter what,” Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tells the Washington Post. “It’s okay not to be okay.”

We also need to lower our standards of living, seek mental health support, and allow ourselves to grieve for the life we no longer have. Perfectionism and productivity at any cost will not serve us right now — if anything, it will dry up our surge capacity. It’s also helped me to realize that there were parts of my prior living that just weren’t working for me, and this pandemic has forced me see those areas and make changes that have unexpectedly felt better in the long run. Finally, one of the most surprising solutions to my burnout has been actively enjoying moments of throwing care to the wind and being silly with my kids, whether it’s making an impromptu fairy garden in our backyard or letting them temporarily tattoo me with face paint.

If your past six months have looked anything remotely like mine, please know that you are not alone. Connect with loved ones, call a crisis line, and be willing to honor your feelings and needs. At the very least, give yourself a frickin’ break and stop trying to do it all at a time when the tide is very clearly hitting up against you. Do not spend this pandemic suffering in silence. And certainly do not judge yourself if your kids end up passing out for the hundredth time while enjoying a repeat viewing of Boss Baby.

This article was originally published on