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Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Capacity Wave: Depression, Burnout, and Feeling Overwhelmed

How much can you do in a day?
Our capacity varies day by day

It’s hard to quantify.  Some days you have energy, some days you haven’t had enough sleep.  Some days the task is a pile of paperwork, some days it’s gardening.  Some days you get an invigorating variety; other days you have to focus and push through one chore.  The amount you can do varies accordingly.

But through all of that, you have a general energy level and a capacity to get things done.

Now: How much is demanded of you in a day?  We all have a list of projects we can’t get done by sundown.  Cleaning out that storage closet will have to wait.  Organizing the family photos can hold off until next spring.

But external pressures demand that you get a certain amount done.  The kids have to be fed.  You have to produce a certain amount at work.  Your night school course demands that four chapters of the book are read.

Sometimes the level of absolute demand – the list of things you really think you have to do – approaches or exceeds the amount you are physically capable of accomplishing.

Maybe that sounds okay.  If you can sustainably do 10.2 hours of productive activity a day, then maybe you should get a demand of 10.19 hours.  That way you’d be making the most of your abilities.

And in fact it IS okay.  Every now and then it’s fine to have a day that demands, say, 14 hours of useful activity from us.  We can stretch and do it.  We can even do two days in a row like this.
With excess demands, our capacity drops

But when the level of external demand routinely approaches or exceeds our capacity, the capacity itself is affected.  After a week of demands beyond our sustainable limits, the capacity begins to decline.  Now we can only manage 10.1 hours a day.  Then 9.3.  Then 7.5.  Sometimes the decline is steep.  Maybe it drops to 2.0 hours.  Or 0.3.

At Changeways Clinic one of our specialties is the treatment of clinical depression.  During depression, people’s energy is usually extremely limited.  They buy four items at the grocery store, then go home and collapse, exhausted.  They concentrate enough to pay a single bill, then lose focus and give up on the paperwork.  The bank account of energy and capacity is so low it sometimes seems to have disappeared.

Part of our job is to help the person eliminate the excess demands that they can’t meet anyhow, then set a limited number of goals that they can achieve with the tiny amount of capacity they still have.  By succeeding at these, the capacity begins to come back up.
Reduce demands to the achievable; capacity recovers

Sooner or later almost everyone has a burst of unhealthy enthusiasm that causes them to take on more demands than they can realistically manage, and then they have another dip.  If we can help them reduce expectations enough that they can get back on top of their schedule, their capacity begins increasing again relatively quickly.

Whether you are prone to depression or not, you can feel the capacity wave operating in your own life.  When the snowdrift of chores and paperwork gets too high, your capacity falls.  If you cut back on your expectations sharply enough (and give yourself credit for what you actually accomplish), your capacity begins to rise again.

What is a nervous breakdown?  Psychologists often roll their eyes at the term, because there is no such formal diagnosis.  But the idea persists, because it seems to describe a common experience.  Life builds up to an unmanageable extent, and then your capacity to cope drops.  In the extreme, we might call this a major depressive episode.  To milder degrees, most of us have experienced the problem.

Burnout is another term for it.  We push ourselves (or get pushed by the boss or organization) to excel a bit more and a bit more.  We learn how to “do more with less” or work more efficiently and we genuinely get a bit better at things.  But sometimes we take on more than we can sustainably handle.  “Hey, I’ve shown I can work til 9 pm, so let’s do that every night.”  Or external forces (a major project, a tax audit, a downsized workforce) make a sharp increase in effort imperative, and we discover too late that it cannot be sustained.

The key is to recognize the difference between our temporary capacity (the amount I can do today if I push it) and our sustainable capacity (the amount I can do on an ongoing basis).  We can readily exceed the sustainable capacity now and then.  But if we – or our job or life – makes it important to exceed this routinely, we are on a collision course for trouble.

Online Course

Want additional ideas and strategies for working with life dissatisfaction, inertia, and low mood? PsychologySalon has developed a cognitive behavioral guide to self-care for depression. Though not a substitute for professional face-to-face care, UnDoing Depression may be a useful adjunct to your efforts.  The preview is below. For 50% off the regular fee of $140 USD, use coupon code “changeways70” when you visit our host site, here.

We also have courses for professionals and for the public entitled What Is Depression, What Causes Depression, Diagnosing Depression, Cognitive Behavioral Group Treatment of Depression, How to Buy Happiness, and Breathing Made Easy. For the full list with previews and substantial discounts, visit us at the Courses page of the Changeways Clinic website.

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