Are You Experiencing Emotional Exhaustion?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While everyone experiences stress from time to time, when people continue to function at full throttle and under excessive stress, they may be at risk of experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion can manifest with a variety of symptoms that affect your physical and mental health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, emotional stress can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, a sense of heaviness in the chest, dizziness, and pain in the back, neck, or shoulders, among other symptoms.

Below, we’ll discuss emotional exhaustion, how to recognize you are experiencing it, and ways to reduce stress while reaching out for support.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Emotional exhaustion is more common than you think

What is emotional exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion tends to cause a chronic state of emotional and physical fatigue that can be a sign of burnout. The signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion may vary from person to person, and it can affect people physically, emotionally, or behaviorally. This exhaustion can begin silently, which can make it difficult to realize there is a problem. It may help to remember that this feeling is not permanent. 

Recognizing the state you are in and working toward reducing stress may help you recover. Also, you don’t have to face it alone. There is support available in talk therapy, whether in person or online.

What causes emotional exhaustion?

The causes of emotional exhaustion may be different for everyone, and no matter the reason you might be experiencing it, your emotions are valid. Typically, emotional exhaustion occurs after a long period of constant stress. This can be the result of something as simple as working long hours or something as complex as bringing a new baby home.

Some causes of emotional exhaustion may have common themes. For example, situations where there is a general lack of control may set the stage for burnout. Circumstances where there is not enough balance between a fast-paced lifestyle and self-care can also lead to emotional exhaustion and associated symptoms of burnout.

Who is at risk for emotional exhaustion?

Any person can experience emotional exhaustion at different points in life. Nonetheless, some individuals may be at greater risk for developing the condition, including the following groups:

Professionals in a high-stress environment

Individuals who work in demanding, high-stress careers may be at risk for experiencing burnout. For example, emergency workers and healthcare staff may experience high levels of exhaustion due to the expectation that they show constant compassion (compassion fatigue) while also managing a physically and emotionally demanding job.

Even if your job does not involve life-or-death situations, everyday work-related stressors could lead to emotional exhaustion. Individuals who feel a lack of control at work and those who have difficulty maintaining work-life balance may also be at risk.

High achievers

While outside influences can cause emotional exhaustion, the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us may also contribute to our level of stress. Perfectionists and individuals with Type A personalities may experience prolonged stress due to their ambition, drive, and sometimes competitive nature. Constantly striving to exceed others' expectations may lead to poor work-life balance and eventual burnout.

Individuals who neglect themselves and/or use unhealthy coping strategies

People who neglect their basic needs or develop unhealthy coping strategies may experience emotional exhaustion. Unhealthy coping strategies may include negative self-talk, substance use, and emotional eating. Individuals who do not sleep or eat well, and those who do not prioritize their physical and mental health, may be likely to experience emotional exhaustion.

Individuals experiencing loneliness

Forming and maintaining caring relationships is essential to our overall health and well-being. Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental and physical health and may contribute to emotional exhaustion. Research suggests that the brain may interpret lonely feelings as physical pain. Individuals who experience loneliness may be more likely to also experience emotional exhaustion, as they may feel they have no one to turn to in times of stress, overwhelm, or hopelessness.

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Signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion

No matter how well a person handles stressful situations, prolonged pressure or pent-up stress may lead to health implications and behavioral changes. Below are some common signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion. While these symptoms are often connected with emotional exhaustion, they may also occur because of a wide range of mental and physical health conditions.

Difficulty sleeping or staying awake

Fatigue, low energy, and difficulty getting through the day can be common symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Individuals with exhaustion may feel physically and emotionally tired and experience a sense of dread or discomfort when thinking about upcoming obligations. For some people, fatigue persists all day, regardless of how many hours they sleep at night. Fatigue can be exacerbated by poor sleep quality, and insomnia tends to worsen during periods of emotional exhaustion. This may lead to a cycle of daytime fatigue and poor sleep that may be difficult to break without the help of an experienced medical or mental health professional.

Mental fog

Feeling “foggy” is commonly reported among individuals experiencing emotional exhaustion. This feeling of cloudy thinking can encompass a variety of symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, confusion, and forgetfulness. In some cases, short-term memory may also be affected. 

Personality changes

Emotional exhaustion can also affect mood and behavior. Burnout can result in unusual episodes of anger or irritability, as well as increased cynicism or pessimism. If your internal dialogue has started to shift from positive to dissatisfied and critical, it may help to evaluate your current level of stress. A licensed counselor may be able to help you determine if what you’re experiencing is emotional exhaustion. 

Anxiety and depression

Emotional exhaustion can take a serious toll on an individual's mental health and may lead to anxiety and depression. In the earliest stages, the effects of anxiety and depression may be mild, masking themselves as a lack of motivation or general unease. When burnout peaks, untreated anxiety or depression may make everyday tasks, such as getting out of bed, seem almost impossible. At this stage, an individual may feel hopeless, trapped, or disconnected from reality. Anyone experiencing these symptoms may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional, especially if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.*

*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can reach out to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. The lifeline is available 24/7 via phone or online chat.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Emotional exhaustion is more common than you think

What can you do if you have emotional exhaustion?

Although emotional exhaustion can present significant challenges, it is possible to recover. Recovery may require a combination of lifestyle changes and therapy. Some individuals may also need medication or other medical interventions to treat any underlying physical or mental health conditions. The following lifestyle changes may help prevent emotional exhaustion and help stop it in its tracks:

Improve your sleep hygiene

Although restful sleep can be challenging during a stressful period of life, establishing a calming nighttime ritual may significantly improve the quality of your sleep. Approximately 15 to 30 minutes before sleep, it may help to turn off the TV and avoid other electronic devices, including cell phones, tablets, and computers. Research shows that the blue light from electronic devices can make it difficult to get to sleep. According to Harvard Medical School, blue light can affect your circadian rhythm and may even contribute to disease.  

If you have trouble sleeping, it may also help to make your room as dark and cool as possible. Also, if falling asleep in silence is difficult for you, you might invest in a white noise machine, use a small bedside fan, or download a free sleep app. 

Lastly, some herbal supplements, teas, and essential oils may also help you drift off to sleep. Chamomile tea has been used for centuries to encourage relaxation, and lavender essential oil diffused in your bedroom may help you feel sleepy. 

Prioritize physical health

Our bodies need proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise to perform basic day-to-day functions. Although emotional exhaustion can decrease motivation, prioritizing your physical health may provide you with the energy necessary to overcome emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that often accompany emotional exhaustion.

In terms of diet, it may help to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Also, you might benefit from avoiding processed food as much as possible, especially fast foods, as well as soda and energy drinks. Also, although some people turn to tobacco or alcohol during stressful times, these may end up worsening symptoms.

Part of caring for your body typically also involves exercise. This doesn’t have to involve long, strenuous workouts. When you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion, you might set a goal to engage in some type of movement for 30 minutes each day. Certain activities, such as practicing yoga and walking in nature, have been shown to lower stress levels, and they can benefit you physically as well.

Balance socialization and time alone

When you are experiencing emotional exhaustion, it may help to reach out to others and avoid isolation. Although socializing may be more challenging during times of stress, research shows that socializing can be beneficial to both your physical and mental health. If you find yourself isolated at this time, you might try to join a community group that interests you or take part in local sports. 

On the other hand, if you are always around people and need time for yourself, it may help to practice saying "no" when you feel there is too much on your plate. You might set aside time every day to do something you enjoy, even if it is just for a few minutes. 

How therapy may help

If you think you may be experiencing emotional exhaustion, it may help to speak with a licensed counselor. If symptoms of exhaustion make it difficult to attend traditional in-office therapy, you might consider online therapy, which research shows to be effective for a number of mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression.

A recent study investigated whether an online mindfulness program could decrease burnout and compassion fatigue for caregivers. Caregivers can sometimes be at a particularly high risk of burnout because they may neglect themselves while caring for others. Investigators found that the online program reduced caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue, even three months after the online mindfulness intervention.

With online therapy, you may find that you have greater flexibility in scheduling, as it allows you to connect with a therapist from the comfort of your home via live chat, phone, or video chat. Online therapy also tends to be more affordable than traditional in-person therapy. 

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar concerns.

Counselor reviews

"I star[t]ed with Chiralaine feeling pretty lost, overwhelmed and just not myself. She helped me reframe how I see things and realize where I was holding too tightly. She even helped me think through a workshop on stress and burnout that I was hosting for my team.”

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“Charlotte was an amazing match for me. I came to her completely overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted and needing guidance. She always provided reassurance and excellent resources for me to use. Even when life was chaotic, she always checked in and let me know she was available. I would seek Charlotte for anything in the future as well.”

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Takeaway

Emotional exhaustion can produce a variety of symptoms that affect your mental and physical health. If you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion or burnout, you don’t have to face it alone. You may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with an online therapist who has experience helping people with emotional exhaustion. A therapist may be able to offer more evidence-based strategies for addressing your symptoms. Take the first step toward relief from emotional exhaustion and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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