How to Increase our Mental Capacity

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon


What is capacity? Capacity is defined as “the amount that something can produce”. Emotionally, we have ups and downs each day, and the amount we can produce emotionally or physically can shift based on our external and internal environment. Our mental capacity can change based on many different elements. You could be experiencing an injury, hunger, feelings of tiredness, there could be a global pandemic, or everything in between. What goes on in our lives daily, even if it seems like something that doesn’t affect our day-to-day living, it can shift our ability to tolerate stressors.

Each day, our best looks different, and in turn, our mental capacity is different. There are many elements we can have control of to support our mental capacity such as sleep, food, and routines. There are also elements that are out of our control, like injuries we have, world events, local events, patients that need our help, and other people. When assessing our control of our capacity, we can ask ourselves questions like: “Did I get enough sleep? Do I need something to eat? Do I need a break?” When we have control over increasing our overall capacity to cope with stressors, we should try to meet our needs. However, if we have a lower mental capacity because of an element out of our control, it can be harder to cope with stressors! This does not mean we are doing anything wrong or that we need to cope better, what is the most important aspect is to have compassion and understanding that our best yesterday looks different that our best looks today. We don’t want to start thinking of this as an excuse, but look at it as more of an explanation so we do not feel shame for differences in our mental capacity from day to day. Instead of looking at your day and comparing it to another day, compare the day to your mental capacity. Ask yourself: “Did I try my best today?” 

With all the different stressors we all experience, it can be hard to show ourselves compassion. We tend to compare our ability to cope with stressors to a time when we were able to cope and this can become detrimental to our self esteem and overall mental health. As humans, we have differences in our ability to tolerate different stressors, so where an injury may not decrease your overall capacity, a shift in policies and procedures in your place of work may decrease it! I know when I have a shift in my daily routines without notice, it throws me off! This makes my ability to tolerate other stressors for the day much lower, and that is okay! I know that if I try my best, that is what is important. 

Having compassion and understanding for ourselves and others based on different situations in our lives can be so important to know what we need to take care of ourselves from day to day! Research shows people who display self-compassion have a lower rate of depression and anxiety. 

Here are some ways to increase self-compassion: 

  1. Comfort your body: sleep, eat (something nutritious), take a walk, stretch, or anything you can do to improve how you physically feel! 
  2. Journal Prompt: “Think of a situation that caused you to feel pain (a breakup with a lover, a job loss, a poorly received presentation). Write a letter to yourself describing the situation, but without blaming anyone — including yourself. Use this exercise to nurture your feelings.” (Harvard Health) 
  3. Encourage yourself: Encourage yourself like you would a friend or a loved one, direct the compassion towards yourself that you would have for a friend. 
  4. Practice Mindfulness: This type of exercise can help us nurture and accept ourselves while we are in pain. 

Compassion for self may not change what is happening, but it can help increase our mental capacity over time, so the different stressors are more manageable! What is one thing you can do to practice self-compassion this week? 


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