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Overwhelm Overload – Why Do You Feel Depleted?

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

The months under the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are adding up and many Americans feel distracted, exhausted, anxious, and depressed. Disappointment and frustration are added to the emotional pile as we judge ourselves for not rebounding quickly enough or performing at our full potential at work and home. In a natural disaster we can look outside and see the wreckage, but a pandemic does not show the same visible scars, leading to further internal confusion. This is part of what is called “ambiguous loss” – the full damage and resolution of the trauma are unclear. Unfortunately, this does not stop us from continuing to ask ourselves, “Why haven’t I adjusted to this “new normal yet?”

Cut yourself some slack! Your body is not made to perform under extreme levels of stress for extended periods of time. Science Journalist, Tara Haelle, summarizes surge capacity as “a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” In layperson's terms, your energy bank is depleted. The fight or flight period has become chronic and you have not been able to refuel. And, you likely have a million good reasons why you have not been able to devote time to refuel…maybe your normal self-care routines are unavailable given safety restrictions in your area or your own health boundaries. Instead of focusing on what you cannot do, think of this as a chance to connect with your inner self and get in touch with what you can do to renew your resiliency bank.

Start by being gentle with yourself. Acknowledge the fact that your feelings are valid. You are living through a crisis and your body is expressing itself. When we are suffering, we often believe we are the only ones who feel this way. Normalizing your pain and emotions can help you feel less isolated and more open to sharing your thoughts with others. Humans as a species are programmed for connection. Connecting with your community is important during times when you feel down or depressed, even if it is the last thing you want to do.

Next, toss your old self-care techniques out the window. Use this opportunity to explore where you get your energy. These activities may vary greatly from how you previously spent your down time. For example, hours on social media usually leaves us with less energy (and confidence) than when we started. What does this mean? It means the activity numbed your feelings for a period rather than filled up your energy tank. The numbing agent was short lived, and you were hit with the full emotional load after you stopped this unfulfilling activity. As Brene Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb feelings.” We cannot numb sadness and feel happiness at the same time. It is all or nothing, so look for activities that are rejuvenating.

A good way to identify a replenishing activity is to take a beat to consider the following questions afterwards. Did it bring you joy? Did you feel more awake? Did it bring a sense of satisfaction? PS - this last question is why you hear about your friends doing more home projects. They are tapping into their natural reward system that triggers a boost of dopamine for completing a task. If your mind is drawing a blank on where to start, a pro tip is to reintroduce play into your life. These are activities that may not have a visible purpose but are satisfying. A good landmark of a play activity is when you look up and realize you lost track of time. Whatever activity you choose, keep your energy pool front and center.


Brown, B. (September 23, 2020). On My Mind: RBG, Surge Capacity, and Play as an Energy Source. In Cadence 13. Retrieved from

Haelle, T. (August 17, 2020). Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful. Elemental.

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