Are You Suffering From Emotional Exhaustion?
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
We often think that emotional exhaustion is something that creeps up on us without much warning. However, our body gives us early warning signs that burnout is about to happen. All too often we ignore these signs and end up in an all-out state of hopelessness. Here is everything you need to know about emotional exhaustion, and how to tell if you are suffering from it.
What Is Emotional Exhaustion?
Emotional exhaustion is a broad term we use to describe the effects of chronic stress. Signs and symptoms can vary from person to person and usually occur over a long period. It can affect us physically, emotionally, or behaviorally, and it is often a combination of the three impacts that cause us the most distress.
Emotional exhaustion can begin silently, and it can be difficult to realize there is a problem until it is too late. Luckily, there are ways we can tell if we are at risk for the condition and clues we can look for to see if we are being affected.
At the end of the day, it is important to know that this feeling is not permanent. We can address the underlying problems. If you feel like you are struggling with emotional exhaustion, there are many things you can do.
What Causes Emotional Exhaustion?
The triggers look different for everyone. One circumstance that someone might consider stressful could be a perfectly manageable situation for someone else. Typically, emotional exhaustion occurs after a long period of constant stress. This can be something as simple as working long hours, or as complex as bringing a new baby home.
Most causes of emotional exhaustion have common themes. For example, situations, where there is a general lack of control, can set the stage for a burnout crisis. Circumstances, where there is not much balance between a fast paced lifestyle and self-care can also jumpstart the condition too.
Who Is At Risk For Emotional Exhaustion?
Anyone can be affected by this condition at any point in their life. However, some individuals are more likely to experience it.
Professionals In A High-Stress Environment
Anyone who works in a high-demand, or high-stress level career can be affected easily. Nurses, for example, report high levels of exhaustion. However, even if your job does not place you in life or death situations, you could be at risk. Anyone who experiences a lack of control at their job, has poor work-life balance or works for a career that does not align with their personal values, can be affected.
While outside influences can cause emotional exhaustion, the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us can contribute to these feelings too. "Perfectionists," or "Type A," individuals who are consistently striving to go above and beyond expectations frequently deal with this condition.
These, "high-achievers," tend to take on too much, often not realizing the enormous amount of pressure they have put on themselves. Those who take on excessive responsibilities often, may not be as likely to ask co-workers or loved ones for help either. This leaves them to endure high amounts of stress all alone, potentially developing an unrealistic "can do" attitude.
People who do not eat well, sleep well or prioritize their physical and mental health can be more likely to experience episodes. Individuals who use alcohol, tobacco, and even food to cope with stress are at risk too.
How we feel is directly related to our role in society. Individuals who lack close relationships, or spend large amounts of time alone, are more likely to experience symptoms. This can be dangerous when one has reached a state of hopelessness and being overwhelmed, as they feel they have no one to turn to.
What Are The Signs and Symptoms Of Emotional Exhaustion?
Some people can handle long-term stress well. However, most of us eventually begin to sense something is wrong. These are the most common early signs that need your attention:
Difficulty Sleeping or Staying Awake
Having trouble getting through the day is one of the most common symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Individuals often report they are physically and emotionally tired and feel a sense of dread or discomfort at the thought of upcoming obligations.
In some people, this fatigue lasts all day, regardless of how many hours they have slept. For a select few individuals, their fatigue is only made worse by poor sleeping habits at night. Insomnia, or an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, is usually worse during a bout of emotional exhaustion. Not sleeping at night contributes to even more increased fatigue during the day, which begins a cycle that is difficult to get out of.
Brain fog is also commonly reported among individuals who experience this condition. This feeling encompasses a range of symptoms including difficulty concentrating, confusion, and forgetfulness. It can even be so severe that memory is impacted. Brain fog is also linked to physical symptoms like frequent headaches too.
It is not uncommon for mood and behavior to be affected. Unusual episodes of anger or irritability are often related to burnout, but even small changes in thinking, like increased cynicism or pessimism, should not be ignored. If your internal dialogue has started to shift from positive and future-oriented, to dissatisfied and critical, it is important to evaluate your current levels of stress.
Anxiety and Depression
Unfortunately, emotional exhaustion can take a serious toll on mental health. Anxiety and Depression are often associated with this condition. In the earliest stages, the effects of Anxiety and Depression may be mild, masking themselves as a lack of motivation, or general unease. However, the longer one goes without treatment; the more serious the symptoms can be.
When burnout peaks, it is not uncommon for anxiety or depression to be so debilitating that simple everyday tasks such as getting out of bed, or caring for yourself become almost impossible. You may feel hopeless, trapped, and feel as if you are losing your mind, or disconnecting from reality. In this situation, urgent medical help should be sought, especially if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others.
If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, immediately contact your country's Suicide Hotline!
What Can You Do If You Have Emotional Exhaustion?
The good news about emotional exhaustion is that it can be dealt with immediately. Even small changes in your daily habits can make a huge impact on your overall well-being. If you feel you are suffering, try the following.
Get Physically Healthy
Our bodies need adequate nutrition, good sleep, and exercise to perform all their basic functions. While the lowest points of this condition tend to rob us of motivation, it is important to give our bodies as much energy as possible to overcome the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that happen.
Aim to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Stay away from as much processed food as possible, especially fast food. Put down the soda, coffee, and energy drinks and stick to water and tea. Avoid tobacco and alcohol as much as possible.
Make a goal of getting at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. This does not have to be an intense cardio or weight lifting session. Simply move your body for half an hour. Certain activities like yoga or walking in nature have been shown to lower stress levels, and they can count as your daily exercise.
Although good sleep is one of the hardest things to achieve when dealing with emotional exhaustion, there are many things you can try to get some shut-eye. Roughly 15 to 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep, turn off all electronic devices in your room. This includes cell phones, TVs, and computers. Try to make your room as dark, and conducive to sleep as possible. If falling asleep in silence is difficult for you, invest in a white noise machine.
Some herbal supplements and teas, as well as essential oils, boast the ability to help one drift to sleep. Chamomile tea has been used for centuries to induce relaxation, and lavender essentials oils diffused throughout your room can help you feel tired. While it might be easy to reach for over-the-counter sleep aids or Melatonin, these options should be discussed with your doctor first.
Connect with Others
When you are experiencing emotional exhaustion, it is very important to reach out to others and avoid isolation. Join a community group that interests you or take part in a local sports team. Reach out to friends, family members, co-workers, church members, or even neighbors who you associate with positivity.
Care for Yourself
Practice the art of saying "no" when you feel there is too much on your plate. Be sure to set aside time every day to do something you enjoy, even if it is just for a few minutes. Journaling and meditation are great for letting go of the days' stresses, but if you feel that you need more, do not be afraid to reach out to a trained mental health therapist.
This feeling can be a scary experience. It may seem like there is no end in sight. Recovery is a process, but the good news is, that it is a process you have control over. Try to connect with your mind and body as much as possible to recognize the signs that burnout is close. If you feel like you are dealing with emotional exhaustion right now, take action today!