It’s no secret: the past few years have dealt a constant stream of stress, anxiety, and the ubiquitous adoption of a now-familiar term: burnout. An unforeseen pandemic completely uprooted our routines and transformed our lives. For those of us lucky to continue working, many of us did so at home. And while working from the comfort and safety of our home offices was a privilege, it didn’t come without its own challenges. Our social lives (and really, every aspect of our lives) existed solely within our smartphones. And when it felt safe enough to do so, the brief trip to the grocery store became the most exciting part of our day. All of this compounded feelings of loneliness and social isolation and led to the prevalence of something many of us know well: emotional exhaustion.
Although no one would argue the facts above, burnout was already on the rise. A 2019 Gallup study found that roughly two-thirds of full-time employees experienced burnout at work that year. Plus, caregiver and so-called “mommy burnout” isn’t only a concept widely spoken about on social media, but a very real condition that points to harmful societal expectations that women should be able to “do it all.”
If any of the above resonates, you’re not alone. I spoke with Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a therapist and the Clinical Content Manager at Real, a mental health care experience designed to help users cultivate a stronger relationship with themselves. Below, Lucas talks us through what causes emotional exhaustion, shares symptoms someone might experience, and offers six practical tips to help all of us recharge.
Feature image by Riley Reed.
What is emotional exhaustion?
A good place to start. While everyday life can leave us feeling tired and drained, emotional exhaustion defines a specific psychological condition. “Emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling drained and burnt out: mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Lucas. “This burnout happens as a result of living with ongoing stressors in one’s life, whether at work, personal, social, etc.”
Our fast-paced world sets the perfect stage for this type of burnout to run rampant. Again, a little stress and challenging emotions may be present, but emotional exhaustion, according to Lucas “often does not result from a few minor inconveniences or stressors in life—like a difficult day at work or a fight with a partner.”
Instead, Lucas notes that emotional exhaustion is a result of a compromised condition that intensifies over time. “Emotional exhaustion may not be something one notices in the moment, but is more so experienced as a build-up of constant, longer-term stressors.”
Are there people who may be at higher risk of experiencing emotional exhaustion?
Emotional exhaustion is a unique and personal experience, and no two people respond to life and to stressors in the same way. “There is no blanket rule for what stress looks like across the board,” says Lucas. “An individual’s experience of stress, as well as their ability to cope and their access to resources, all influence how emotional exhaustion shows up.”
What are the symptoms of emotional exhaustion?
Suffering from emotional burnout can look different for everyone, but there are a few consistent symptoms people may experience. “Oftentimes,” says Lucas, “someone feeling emotional exhaustion experiences a state of hopelessness or powerlessness, like they lack the ability to create a change in their life or circumstances.”
Unfortunately, the less-than-ideal manifestations of emotional exhaustion don’t stop there. Feelings of overwhelm and a state of discontent or dissatisfaction with your life at present can be common. Again, it’s that feeling of inertia, like you don’t have the support, tools, or capability to make your situation better, that can keep people stuck.
According to Lucas, other symptoms of emotional exhaustion include:
- general irritability
- lack of motivation
- social withdrawal
- physical exhaustion
- difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
“Finding oneself feeling emotionally exhausted can impact a person’s mood, emotions, and how they move through the day and engage with others,” says Lucas.
6 Tips for Treating Emotional Exhaustion
Below, Lucas shares her top six strategies for recharging from emotional exhaustion.
#1 Identify and name the stressors contributing to the exhaustion
Getting specific about one’s experience of emotional exhaustion can be validating and create space to identify possible solutions and shifts one can make.
#2 Connect with social support
This may help you feel less alone or isolated within your exhaustion, not to mention others may have tips for how to manage or make it through those especially exhausting moments.
#3 Prioritize healthy daily habits
Examples include sleep, eating mindfully, drinking enough water, and getting some type of exercise or movement. Often, it’s these seemingly smaller daily habits that get deprioritized. But in reality, they help us sustain a certain level of functioning in our toughest times and can reduce stress.
#4 Take a break (even for a few minutes!)
Demonstrating to yourself that you can look up from the computer for a few moments, or open your window and take a few deep breaths of fresh air, can go a long way—even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment.
#5 Practice gratitude
While gratitude won’t make our problems go away, identifying a few things that we are grateful for can help balance our perspective, not to mention studies have shown it boosts serotonin (the feel-good chemical) and hits our dopamine (our reward) center.
Focusing on breathing (even just one breath in and one breath out), can not only calm our nervous system but can become a mindfulness practice that brings us back to the present moment to recharge. Breathing can give us something to focus on when we’re feeling weighed down by life’s constant ups and downs.
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