Why Your “Emotional Runway” Is Likely Shorter Than It Used to Be and What to Do About It

Photo: Getty Images/PeopleImages
Considering *gestures wildly at the current state of the world,* you'd be forgiven if your "emotional runway" isn't as long as it may have been pre-pandemic. First time hearing this term? Dr. Donna Marino, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive coach, defines an emotional runway as the space or path that leads up to emotional overload, which can look like burnout, overwhelm, anxiety, and/or depression.

“When you are under chronic stress you have less bandwidth for other stressors,” she says. “You are constantly pulling from your stress resources, and so you have less to give and hit empty sooner than someone who is not dealing with that stressor.”

Experts In This Article
  • Catherine Zack, Catherine Zack is a corporate lawyer turned meditation & yoga teacher, relaxation guide, and mindfulness-based life coach.
  • Donna Marino, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, executive coach, and leadership trainer
  • Laura Gmeinder, Laura Gmeinder is the founder of Laura Gmeinder Coaching & Consulting, LLC providing services at the intersection of business strategy and leadership development to emerging leaders and entrepreneurs, and their teams.
  • Lisa Anderson Shaffer, Lisa Anderson Shaffer is a podcast host, licensed psychotherapist and Brand Project Development Consultant.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people who live through natural disasters or epidemics commonly report experiencing all of the above. “In the immediate wake of a traumatic experience, large numbers of affected people report distress, including new or worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia," Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD, director of NIMH, recently wrote. "Most people will recover, though that recovery can take some time. People with more prolonged disruptions are more likely to experience enduring symptoms that would benefit from intervention.”

While the list of reasons why our emotional runway could be shorter (or non-existent) right now is long, there’s an equally long list of ways to self-care as you get to know your new bandwidth or decide to work on lengthening it. Here are three places to start.

1. Audit your reality

One of the most difficult aspects of addressing changes to your emotional runway is acknowledging that it’s different in the first place. But doing so helps you cut yourself some slack and practice self-compassion.

Try this exercise from Catherine Zack, meditation teacher, mindfulness coach, and stress reduction expert, to assist them as they work through their reality without being triggered or overwhelmed by it. She suggests breaking up the exercise into three parts: first, take an honest look at what resources (time, responsibilities, energy, health, focus, attention) you’re working with; second, take an honest look at what you’re asking of yourself; third, use your answers from those first two sections as roadmap to properly allocate your energy and time, all while deciding where to plug in practices (like meditation or calming breathwork) in order to increase your runway where necessary.

2. Focus on small and intentional self-care habits

“Don’t try to change everything at once,” recommends Dr. Marino “People usually commit to a wellness or self-care routine, and they create goals that are unreasonable. Set a small goal such as five minutes of self-care a day and build from there. Consistency is more important than time for developing a new habit.”

She also encourages using  a technique called “chaining” to your benefit. It's the act of linking a new habit with an already established habit so you have a cue of what to do,” explains Dr. Marino. This practice can be particularly helpful as re-entry becomes more prevalent and our emotional runways are expected to shift accordingly.

Set boundaries

It’s essential to not only notice your own bandwidth levels, but to protect yourself against overwhelm. “Ruthlessly set boundaries, manage your time, and most importantly, guard your energy,” encourages Laura Gmeinder, certified business and life coach. “Practice saying no, especially as we shift from the realities of COVID-19 to a new normal that is yet to be fully seen in all parts of our country and the world.”

Also, give yourself the grace to change you mind, if you begin dipping a toe back into socializing and find yourself in too deep too soon. “When it comes to re-entry, be open to changing your mind," says licensed therapist and mental health advocate, Lisa Anderson Shaffer, LMFT. "What may feel good initially, could be too much after a few minutes or a few hours. Conversely, what we think may seem scary, may actually feel okay. There are no set rules for the timing or journey of your re-entry. Being transparent with friends, loved ones and coworkers about what feels like a stretch to your comfort zone can help.”

While everyone’s emotional runway likely looks differently right now, it’s important to remember that no one is alone in being impacted by the changes of the last year. “Life during COVID has been a strong reminder of the powerful impact collective trauma and grief can have on our emotional runway,” shares Shaffer. “And this makes sense. Feeling like we have less capacity during a time of enormous physical and emotional stress is normal. We just cannot take in as much, or give as much as we could under more usual circumstances. While having a limited emotional runway can feel exhausting, our limited capacity during these times actually protects us from expending too much energy and attention, when simply staying alive and healthy is the ultimate goal.” Priorities put things into perspective.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cult-fave wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Loading More Posts...