Are You Suffering From Emotional Exhaustion?
By: Stephanie Kirby
Updated April 29, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW
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. 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. Luckily, the condition doesn't have to be permanent. In the following sections, we'll discuss common causes of emotional exhaustion and who's at risk.
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's at Risk for Emotional Exhaustion?
Virtually anyone can experience emotional exhaustion at any point in his or her life. With that being said, some individuals are at greater risk for developing the condition, including the following people:
Professionals in a High-Stress Environment. Anyone working in a demanding, high-stress career is at risk for experiencing burnout. Nurses, for example, report high levels of exhaustion due to the expectation that they show constant compassion on the job. Even if your job doesn't require an endless supply of compassion, or 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, are at risk. If you are unsatisfied with your career, or it doesn't align with your values, you may also experience burnout.
High Achievers. While outside influences can cause emotional exhaustion, the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us can contribute to our level of stress. "Perfectionists," or individuals with Type A personalities, may experience prolonged stress due to their unwavering ambition, drive, and competitive nature. Constantly striving to exceed others' expectations can 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 may experience emotional exhaustion. Individuals who don't sleep or eat well, and those who don't prioritize their physical and mental health, are likely to suffer from burnout.
Lonely Individuals. How we feel about ourselves is directly related to the role we play in society. People who see themselves as "less than" often lack close relationships and spend the majority of their time alone. Lonely individuals are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion, as they may feel they have no one to turn to in times of immense stress, overwhelm, or hopelessness. Forming and maintaining caring relationships is essential to our overall health and well-being.
Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Exhaustion
Some individuals can handle stressful situations seemingly well, but prolonged pressure or pent up stress tends to lead to health implications and behavioral changes. Below are the most common signs and symptoms of emotional exhaustion. If you're experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it may be time to seek help:
Difficulty Sleeping or Staying Awake
Having trouble getting through the day is one of the most common symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Individuals with this condition often report feeling 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 can lead to a cycle of daytime fatigue and poor sleep that is often difficult to break without the help of an experienced medical or mental health professional.
Brain fog is commonly reported among individuals experiencing emotional exhaustion. This foggy feeling encompasses a range of symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, confusion, and forgetfulness. In some cases, short-term memory can be affected. Brain fog has also been linked to physical symptoms, such as frequent headaches.
It isn't uncommon for mood and behavior to be affected by emotional exhaustion. Burnout can result in unusual episodes of anger or irritability. Even seemingly insignificant changes in thinking, such as 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 level of stress.
Anxiety and Depression
Emotional exhaustion can take a serious toll on an individual's 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 tend to become. When burnout peaks, untreated anxiety or depression can 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. It's imperative that anyone experiencing these symptoms seek help from a mental health professional, especially if the individual is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
What Can You Do If You Have Emotional Exhaustion?
In many cases, recovering from emotional exhaustion requires 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 are recommended both to prevent emotional exhaustion and to help stop it in its tracks:
Prioritize Physical Health
Our bodies need proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise to perform basic day-to-day functions. Although emotional exhaustion tends to rob us of motivation, it's important that we provide our bodies with the energy necessary to overcome emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that accompany this condition.
- Diet. Aim to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Stay away from as much processed food as possible, especially fast foods. Avoid soda, coffee, and energy drinks, and stick to water and decaffeinated beverages. Be sure to steer clear of tobacco and alcohol, which can worsen symptoms.
- Movement. Set an intention to engage in some type of movement for 30 minutes each day. You don't have to succumb to an intense cardio or weight lifting session to reap the menagerie of health benefits exercise offers. Simply aim to move your body for half an hour every day. Certain activities, such as yoga and walking in nature, have been shown to lower stress levels, and they count as your daily exercise.
- Sleep. Although restful sleep can be difficult to achieve when dealing with emotional exhaustion, establishing a calming nighttime ritual can greatly improve the quality of your shut-eye. Approximately 15 to 30 minutes before sleep, turn off the TV and banish all other electronic devices from your bedroom, including cell phones, tablets, and computers. Make your room as dark and cool as possible. If falling asleep in silence is difficult for you, invest in a white noise machine, use a small bedside fan, or download a free sleep app. Some herbal supplements, teas, and essential oils may 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. While it might be easy to reach for over-the-counter sleep aids or melatonin, always talk to your healthcare provider before taking any supplement or medication.
Connect with Others
When you are experiencing emotional exhaustion, it's important to reach out to others and avoid isolation. Join a community group that interests you, or take part in local sports. Reach out to old friends, family members, co-workers, church members, or even a neighbor. Meetup.com is a great place to connect with others who have similar interests.
Care for Yourself
Practice saying "no" when you feel there is too much on your plate, and 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 daily stressors.
How BetterHelp Can Help
Whether you're on the brink of emotional exhaustion, or you have been suffering with the above-mentioned symptoms for a prolonged period of time, BetterHelp's online therapists are here for you. In addition to helping you identify stressors that may be affecting your everyday life, online therapy can help you establish goals and routines to improve your overall health while warding off emotional burnout. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Being able to message or chat with Jennifer has gotten me through some really rough emotional patches over the last few months. It's been the difference for me between being stuck in anxiety and moving forward with my life, empowered to build it how I want it. I'm very grateful and I'd recommend her to anyone!"
"Absolutely brilliant! He helped me out of a pretty dark place and was nothing but helpful! For men who are looking for a counselor who understands what it is like to be a man in today's world with a family, with kids and responsibilities, job, etc, I was extremely impressed with his ability to get down to it and understand what I was talking about. He's great at getting to the root of the issue too. No need to slog through 8,000 words to find out what point he's trying to make. He has a knack for asking exactly the right question in about 2-3 sentences. If you're looking for a counselor who isn't the typical counselor, he's your guy!"
During your most difficult struggles, it's important to remember that no feeling lasts forever. By implementing the tried-and-true tips above, you can begin to shift your emotional exhaustion and start living the healthy, happy life you deserve. Take the first step today.