Now we were in a pandemic, and I’m a science journalist who has written about infectious disease and medical research for nearly a decade. I was on fire, cranking out stories, explaining epidemiological concepts in my social networks, trying to help everyone around me make sense of the frightening circumstances of a pandemic and the anxiety surrounding the virus.
I knew it wouldn’t last. It never does. But even knowing I would eventually crash, I didn’t appreciate how hard the crash would be, or how long it would last, or how hard it would be to try to get back up over and over again, or what getting up even looked like.
In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. 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. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.
“I think we maybe underestimate how severe the adversity is and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster,” Masten says. “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.”
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