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What Happened When My Resilience Reserve Emptied

Silver bucket with holes in it spilling out water

The first few weeks of quarantine, I was managing decently. While there were certainly moments of emotional swings, I felt as if I was adjusting accordingly in my personal and professional life, making pivots where necessary. As someone who travels, I was even finding myself savoring the time at home with my husband, albeit with a little guilt. But the end of last week into this week changed all of that. I went from being able to ride the waves to barely keeping my head above water. And in talking to so many of you, I know I am not alone.

At the end of last week, I had things happen that would be difficult under usual circumstances. My dog Seymour had major surgery Friday where they removed multiple aggressive cancer tumors. The night before, my brother and sister-in-law had to make the most awful decision to put down their very sick dog. Together we had to navigate the loss (we are a dog family, so it was like losing our own) while figuring out childcare so they could both be there. Easter came and went without the usual gathering of my whole family at my parent’s house in Dubuque. To top all of this off, I had an accident where I hit my head rather hard in a move I call “Stand up with full force and not see the part of the house sticking out”. House 1, Sarah 0 (*shakes fists at that corner)

I don’t share these examples for pity. I know so many people who are struggling as much and more. But I do want to share what I’ve learned as I believe it will serve you as much as it has me. What I noticed this week is that it seemed like I couldn’t snap out of it. I was exhausted. I couldn’t stay awake during the afternoons. I was incredibly sad (I baked cried listening to Andrew Bocelli Saturday). I felt broken in a way I hadn’t for some time and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t recover as quickly as I did before. 

Thankfully I have an amazing therapist who helps me navigate the hard stuff and understand it deeply so I can help others do the same. And so here we are…

Did you know during prolonged exposure to stress you will fatigue much faster? 

Makes sense, right? And even if you don’t realize it, we are collectively experiencing prolonged exposure to stress consciously and unconsciously. Let me break it down using the research of Dr. Bruce Perry, a childhood trauma specialist who has applied his research to the current state of the world and really connects the dots on our stress response.

We all have a certain level of reserves to help us navigate stress. When stress occurs, it either moves us towards resiliency or vulnerability (and not the Brené Brown kind of vulnerability) but vulnerability to mental and physical illness. So, when our reserve is high, we respond to stress with resiliency through reflection, new perspectives, adaptability and the ability to recover quickly. But when our reserves are low, we react from a place of survival, our system becomes even more unregulated, the amygdala fires up, we have accidents and adverse reactions. And it takes even longer to recover. In times of prolonged stress, our reserves deplete much faster because we have less recovery time.

So, what happened this past week? My reserves ran dry and just when I seemed to start filling them up, something else came along that needed my energy and I was back at the bottom. 

Things that were hard before, are even harder now.

Loss and grief are amplified. I still struggle with seeing my brother grieving over losing his dog, standing six feet away, and knowing that I could not hug him, comfort him. The reserves were gushing out by this point keeping pace with the tears into my mask. 

We must remember that even the most minor stress occurrences can empty our reserves. Everything takes more problem solving or navigating. My colleague Teresa shared that her garage door broke over the weekend. She had to make so many decisions.  “Was safe to have someone look at it?” “Was a necessity to fix right now?” “Would there even be people to come fix it?” She had decision fatigue with a little anxiety, and that drained some of her reserves.

How do we refill our reserves?

Self-care is one answer. Eating well, sleeping, exercising, meditating are all the typical things we know replenish the mind and body. But one thing you might not being think about is repetition and familiarity.

As Dr. Perry describes it, we also have novelty fatigue. We’ve had to adjust to a new routine in nearly every aspect of life. New ways of communicating, working, ordering groceries, celebrating, mourning, etc. Spending time doing things that are familiar is another way to fill our well with resiliency. Instead of trying to cook a new meal for dinner, cook your old standby meal. Watch your favorite movie. Put on earrings every morning like you would be doing to go into work. For me, my familiar routine is going on a daily walk with Nick around the neighborhood (at least when it isn’t snowing). For Teresa, it’s keeping meals at the same time. For Rachel, it’s her morning cup of tea out on the deck. For Aleesa, it’s getting showered and dressed as if she was going to work.

We all have a leak or two in our can right now. Some days that leak is bigger. Other days, it’s hardly noticeable. But water is still draining out. I challenge you – What is something familiar you can do tonight or over the next week to help replenish your reserves? What is something familiar you can do as a family? As a team? 

We would love to hear from you! Share your routines and familiar respites with us! 

Until next week, breathe, do something familiar, give yourself grace, and nap if you have to!

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