Your Surge Capacity is Full
By Dr. Laura Popoly
I think we can all relate that 2020 felt like the longest year. It was one with multiple challenges and stressors related to COVID-19. As a family with a special needs child, challenges, stressors, and navigating these obstacles are nothing new. As military families, we are some of the most resilient in terms of confronting the unknown. But the pandemic seemed to add in an extra element of worries. Our children’s appointments with specialists were postponed indefinitely, and routine appointments were moved to telehealth. Much needed therapies were canceled altogether or moved to a virtual format. For many of us, homeschooling or remote learning was something we quickly adapted to.
Piling It All On
To top everything off, my family PCSed in July at the height of the outbreak. After countless moves, this by far was the most difficult ever. We were up for orders in April, but COVID left everything up in the air for our military family for months. I probably wouldn’t choose to move during a pandemic, but the Navy had other plans. Not only did we not know when or if it would occur due to both bases needing to be on “green,” (COVID status) but it meant finding new everything: new doctors, new therapists, new specialists and a new school. All of that is difficult anyway, but the pandemic exacerbated the stress of it all.
As routines turned into a “new normal,” the days went on, but the stress remained constant and chronic, at least in my home. Days turned into months, and my family is still very much experiencing the same stressors on an ongoing basis that we started the pandemic. One of my most significant stressors is my daughter’s education. The Blue Star Families COVID-19 Military Support Initiative found that 70 percent of military families stated that addressing content gaps in grade-level standards is a top concern. More specifically, according to the Blue Star Family COVID Pain Points Poll last conducted in May 2020, more than a third of parents are concerned about Individualized Education Plan (IEP) compliance, including progress and/or completion of goals, skill maintenance, and practice.
The Layer of Special Education
As a mom to a child with special educational needs, we are struggling. Online learning is more self-directed. Without a teacher in the room, children can quickly become off-task and distracted. Our home has distractions never imagined in a classroom. All kids need structure, but children with special needs often benefit the most from highly structured environments. With less structure at home, I find my kids getting up for a snack or letting the dog out while in class.
Without the usual special services in place, I fear the word “regression,” although I do not honestly know since standardized testing has been postponed. For those with even more complex needs, not only are grades a concern, but developmental milestones such as motor skills or expressive language may be missed altogether.
Lastly, there is a concern for those not yet identified with an IEP. New evaluations are backlogged. And it isn’t just educational declines, since children with special needs often have behavioral concerns.
Surge Capacity and the Mental Load
As the impact of COVID drags on for nearly a full year, the stress of it all is chronic. It is a different type of stress that we are now experiencing, and our bodies respond very differently to prolonged stress due to changes within the brain. It is well established that chronic stress can lead to depression, disruptions of learning and memory, and negatively impact planning, impulse control, and poor decision-making. These words might sound familiar because these are areas that our special needs children often struggle with already.
I have seen the term “surge capacity” used in medical settings but recently have seen it used in reference to mental health. The concept is that we can handle temporary stress and recovery relatively well. However, your allostatic stress load, which is an accumulation of repeated and chronic stress reaches a tipping point. Your body has adapted to too much pressure for far too long, and thus surge capacity kicks in. Surge capacity explains why we may have done okay during the pandemic’s early months but are now feeling depleted. We have never had a break in stress. Our surge capacity is full. Putting a name to this feeling is a step, as we hope the new year brings positive changes.
“‘I just don’t know how you do it all.’ I can not recall how many times civilian friends have uttered this well-intentioned phrase” said Jennifer Barnhill, Chief Operating Officer of Partners in PROMISE. “I don’t hear that phrase from friends any more. I think COVID-19 has forced the rest of the world to learn about surge capacity. I hope that now we know that sustained stress is not a badge of honor it’s a warning sign.”
About the Author
Laura Pipoly is a proud military spouse (Go Navy!) and advocate for military families as a former Military Spouse of the Year branch nominee. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hiram College and holds a master’s in school counseling and community counseling from Youngstown State University. Laura graduated from Nova Southeastern University with a doctorate in both special education and instructional technology and distance education (ITDE). Laura is a licensed mental health counselor with over a decade of experience and a former school counselor. She is the co-author of the book Meeting the Challenge of Bipolar Disorder: Recovery, Remission, and Prevention and recently presented at the Law and Ethics in Counseling Conferences in New Orleans. Laura has been teaching in higher education for over ten years.