How to recognize and cope with emotional exhaustion
When people experience emotional exhaustion, it can make them feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and fatigued. These feelings tend to build up over a long period, though people may not notice the early warning signs.
This can have significant impacts on a person’s everyday life, relationships, and behavior. In this article, we discuss the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of emotional exhaustion, and we explore the many ways people can treat it or prevent it from happening.
What causes emotional exhaustion?
Prolonged or extreme stress can trigger emotional exhaustion.
Emotional exhaustion usually arises after a period of stress.
Different things can contribute to emotional exhaustion in people, depending on a person’s tolerance for stress and other factors in their lives at the time.
Examples of things that can triggers emotional exhaustion include:
- going through a significant life change, such as divorce or death of a loved one
- being a caregiver
- experiencing financial stress
- having a baby or raising children
- being homeless
- juggling several things at once, such as work, family, and school
- living with a chronic medical condition
- working long hours
- working in a high-pressure environment
Typically, emotional exhaustion occurs if someone feels overwhelmed by factors in their life. They may believe they have a lack of control over their life or they may not be correctly balancing self-care with life’s demands.
Emotional exhaustion causes both physical and emotional effects that, in turn, can affect a person’s behavior. The symptoms can build up over time and with repeated stress, though people may not recognize the early warnings.
Looking out for and recognizing the symptoms of emotional exhaustion in oneself and others is necessary so that a person can start taking steps toward feeling better.
Here, we discuss some common symptoms of emotional exhaustion:
1. Changing mood
Emotional exhaustion affects a person’s mood and mental health.
People may initially notice that they are feeling more cynical or pessimistic than usual. They may lose their motivation to work, socialize, or perform simple tasks.
Eventually, these feelings can become stronger and cause individuals to feel trapped or disconnected.
Emotional exhaustion can lead to feelings of:
- anger and irritability
- lack of motivation
People who experience anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm should seek help from a doctor or therapist, as soon as possible.
2. Thinking difficulties
Those with emotional exhaustion may experience changes in thinking and memory. Some people refer to these symptoms as “brain fog.” They include:
- difficulty concentrating
- lack of imagination
- loss of memory
Research suggests that burnout, which involves emotional exhaustion, is linked to a decline in three main cognitive areas:
- executive function, such as planning and organizing
Cognitive changes can be especially challenging when a person is trying to juggle stressful situations, including work pressure or emotionally demanding tasks.
3. Sleeping problems
During stressful periods of life, it can be challenging to maintain a regular sleeping pattern.
People with emotional exhaustion also feel physically fatigued and may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night. Otherwise, they may oversleep in the morning.
Low mood and brain fog can make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning or to make it through the day.
4. Physical changes
Emotional issues can manifest themselves in physical ways, including:
- changes in appetite
- digestive problems
- heart palpitations
- weight loss or gain
5. Effects on work and personal relationships
Physical, emotional, and cognitive changes can affect a person’s relationships, and their ability to function in their home and workplace, such as:
- less ability to connect with others on a personal or emotional level
- increased rates of absence from work
- a lack of enthusiasm in work and personal life
- low self-esteem
- missed deadlines
- poor work performance
- social withdrawal from others
Who is at risk for emotional exhaustion?
Anyone can experience emotional exhaustion, especially if they live with long-term stress or if they have recently experienced a significant change in their lives.
But some people are more at risk than others, including people who experience the following:
People with demanding jobs, such as nurses, are at risk of emotional exhaustion.
Those in demanding or stressful jobs are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion and burnout than others.
For example, medical professors in the early stages of their career show higher indicators of emotional exhaustion and burnout risk, according to a 2014 study from the Netherlands.
Research suggests that people with high work demands, and those who are preoccupied with thoughts about work during leisure time, are more at risk.
Police officers, nurses, social workers, and teachers may also be more at risk than others.
The risk of emotional exhaustion increases for anyone who:
- works in a job they dislike
- has a poor job fit
- works long hours
- feels a lack of control at work
Individuals who strive for what they see as “perfection” in one or more areas of their lives often experience emotional exhaustion and burnout. Numerous studies have cited perfectionism as being a risk factor for such conditions.
By way of explanation, perfectionists are more likely to put themselves under excessive stress by taking on more than they can comfortably manage.
Loneliness may increase feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout. People without many close relationships may have fewer people with whom to share their feelings.
Research suggests that fostering social relationships may help people lessen the harmful effects of burnout, potentially, by promoting resilience and a sense of greater well-being.
People who do not prioritize their own well-being may be more prone to emotional exhaustion. This can include those who do not get enough exercise, sleep, or healthful foods.
For example, some research links insufficient sleep with a greater risk of burnout.
Excessive use of alcohol or illicit drugs may also increase risk, especially if people use these instead of more constructive coping techniques.
Individuals may be more likely to experience emotional exhaustion if they:
- use harmful coping strategies, such as drugs or alcohol, to deal with stress
- feel they have too few personal resources, such as status, money, or support
- live or work in a culture that does not value their freedom of expression
Emotional exhaustion and burnout
Psychologists first began using the term “burnout” in the 1970s to describe the effects of severe stress on “helping” professionals, such as doctors and nurses.
Today, people use “burnout” to describe the results of chronic stress on anyone. Even so, no clear definition of burnout exists.
According to the United States National Library of Medicine, emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout. The other two are:
- Alienation from work activities. Those with burnout become increasingly more stressed about their work. They may feel less committed to their organization, and they may distance themselves emotionally from colleagues.
- Reduced performance. Burnout causes cynicism and feelings of negativity about work-related tasks. Coupled with emotional exhaustion, this leads those with burnout to miss deadlines and otherwise perform poorly at work.
Treatment and tips for recovery
To reduce emotional exhaustion and burnout, people typically need to make lifestyle changes. In some cases, they may require medications or therapy. Treatments and tips to aid recovery include:
Where possible, people should try to reduce sources of stress. They may be able to take on fewer tasks, delegate to others, and ask for help. Another tact is to consider moving to a different role or organization if work is a significant source of stress.
Make healthful lifestyle choices
Living a healthful life can improve physical and mental health and foster resilience. To do this:
- Eat a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.
- Avoid tobacco smoking.
- Exercise for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
- Establish a sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each night and getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep.
Maintain a good work-life balance
Taking a break from work to do something creative can help prevent and treat stress.
People should try not to let work or caring for a loved one take over, and ensure they plan regular vacations and rest days.
People should take scheduled breaks throughout the day and make time for things they enjoy at least weekly. This may include:
- collecting items, such as stamps or coins
- seeing a movie
- spending time with pets
- walking in the park
Regular mindfulness practice can reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood.
According to one research study, people who practice mindfulness report significantly less emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction than those who do not use mindfulness techniques.
Connect with others
Social disconnection is both a symptom of and a risk factor for emotional exhaustion. To avoid emotional exhaustion and other mental health issues, people should try to connect with others whenever possible.
Meeting up with a friend, joining a club or walking group, and reaching out to family and neighbors are all ways of connecting socially.
Change your attitude
Changing a person’s thoughts can alter their moods and behaviors. These small changes can have a big impact on physical and emotional well-being. Examples of ways to change negative thinking include:
- focusing on what is going right in life rather than what is not
- replacing negative thoughts with more positive or realistic ones
- avoiding comparisons with others
- accepting that sometimes negative feelings occur and not fighting them
- staying in the present rather than focusing on the past or trying to anticipate the future
- remembering that these unhelpful feelings will pass
See a therapist or doctor
Therapy can be an effective way to treat emotional exhaustion. A therapist can help people work through stress, anxiety, and depression. They can help individuals challenge negative thoughts and equip them with new coping skills.
Sometimes, a doctor may recommend medication to treat depression or anxiety, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines, or medications to help sleep.
Many of the treatments for emotional exhaustion can also help prevent it from occurring in the first place. These include:
- reducing stressors at home and work
- engaging in enjoyable activities
- taking time out for oneself
- eating a healthful diet
- exercising regularly
- limiting alcohol and avoiding tobacco
- getting enough sleep
- maintaining a good work-life balance
- connecting with friends, family, and others
- keeping a positive mindset
- practicing mindfulness and meditation
- seeking professional help at the onset of anxiety or other changes in mood
People can experience emotional exhaustion after a period of excessive stress. It can have wide-ranging effects of a person’s physical and mental health, careers, and relationships with others.
Looking out for the symptoms can help people take steps to improve them. Lifestyle changes and stress reduction methods can help.