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The Pitfalls of a “Grab the Bull by the Horns” Pandemic Response

Author: Kathleen Nelson-Simley Posted: Thursday - October 1, 2020

It’s great to be back after taking some time off. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken a full week off from work, and at the same time, I can’t remember the last time I felt such an overpowering need to take time off.

But, then again, it’s no surprise. Living through a pandemic these past seven months has been crazy challenging, right?

I feel like I've had two distinct pandemic experiences. The first three to four months marked my "Grab the Bull by the Horns" pandemic response. I was positive! I was energized! I was hopeful and optimistic! I accomplished more around my house during the early months of the pandemic than I have in a long time. I was Ms. Energizer Bunny!


I also began a brand-new workout practice at home and was cooking and eating healthier than I had for a long time. I was on fire with goals and productivity and can-do-it-ness. I was grateful for my health and the health of my loved ones; grateful that I had a job and one that I passionately love; grateful for the birds outside my office window and blooming flowers that brought color during a dismal time.

Then came part two of my pandemic experience, from July to the present, which I call my Ennui pandemic response. This phase has included increases in forgetfulness, disorganization, irritation and fatigue. My daily workout practice dwindled to once a week and my healthy cooking was degraded to take out dining.

Turns out, this Ennui pandemic response is a real thing. I recently read an article that said many of us are experiencing what experts call "surge capacity depletion." According to journalist, Tara Haelle, 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 as Haelle observes, our surge capacity isn't endless; it has to be renewed. She asks, “What happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

Research shows that restless sleep patterns, feeling distracted, having difficulty concentrating or being easily irritated are signs your surge capacity is depleted and you need a break.

ExhaustedSo, I took a break.

Many of us need a break, but the coronavirus doesn’t. And, that’s the problem. The pandemic is still with us and the uncertainty of when it will be over continues. Our stress is compounded because we know it's real and dangerous and threatening, but at the same time, it feels vague and somewhat nebulous. Yet, we are fully aware of its presence in our lives.

So much about our lives has been altered by the virus – how we work, learn, teach, socialize, shop and so much more. The reality is that these lifestyle changes are very real and will have a lasting impact.

The problem is…there isn’t a good answer or a good solution right now to the current situation. Haelle suggests strategies like lowering our expectations for ourselves and accepting what she calls "ambiguous loss" - loss that's unclear and lacks a resolution. She also suggests engaging in activities - both new and old - that we find life-giving and focusing on slowly building our resilience bank accounts back up.

If I’m going to survive this season of pandemic - being the Type A overachiever that I am -  then I’m going to have cut myself some slack without guilt. In normal times, I get a lot done and I have a pretty good amount of energy, enthusiasm and optimism. But, as we've all said again and again these last few months, these are not normal times.

I'm also rebuilding my resilience bank by rededicating myself to simple, daily practices that I know are good for me like getting enough sleep, exercising, drinking more water, limiting my work hours each day and spending time with friends and family. I may not succeed at maintaining this precarious balance, but being determined as I am, I will surely give it my best effort. And, isn’t that the best any of us can do right now?

I share my pandemic experience with you because I know I’m not alone in this. Many of us are simply burned out. We, the “Grab the Bull by the Horns” kind of people, surged with the best of them and then we utterly depleted ourselves. Maybe you are one of them. So, if you are in a state of ennui like me, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Give yourself some slack. Grant yourself patience and grace. Do what is life-giving, energizing and resilience-building for you. Do the little things each day that will maintain or build your surge capacity.

When you take care of yourself, you are a better person for others – your family, your co-workers, your friends and your students. So, if you find yourself at the bottom of the well, try not to respond with a “Grab the Bull by the Horns” reaction and just push through it. Rather, “grab the hand” of someone you trust and who can help you wrangle your way up again. You deserve it and so do those who love you.