What is emotional exhaustion?
Emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives, or a combination of both. Emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.
People experiencing emotional exhaustion often feel like they have no power or control over what happens in life. They may feel “stuck” or “trapped” in a situation.
Lack of energy, poor sleep, and decreased motivation can make it difficult to overcome emotional exhaustion. Over time, this chronic, stressed-out state can cause permanent damage to your health.
Anyone experiencing long-term stress can become emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. In difficult times, emotional exhaustion can sneak up on you, but it’s never too late to get help.
The symptoms of emotional exhaustion can be both emotional and physical.
People experience emotional exhaustion differently, but generally symptoms include:
- lack of motivation
- trouble sleeping
- physical fatigue
- feelings of hopelessness
- change in appetite
- difficulty concentrating
- irrational anger
- increased cynicism or pessimism
- sense of dread
If you need someone to talk to
Emotional exhaustion, feelings of hopelessness, and lack of life purpose can be overwhelming. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Employers whose employees are overworked and emotionally exhausted may begin to notice changes in job performance and overall team morale. For example, they might start to notice that their employees have:
- failure to meet deadlines
- lower commitment to the organization
- more absences
- high turnover rate
Experiencing some daily stress and anxiety is normal, but over time, chronic stress can take a toll on the body. Emotional exhaustion is caused by a long period of constant life stress, whether from personal stress at home or stress related to work.
What triggers emotional exhaustion differs from person to person. What might be stressful for one person can be completely manageable for another person.
Some more common triggers of emotional exhaustion include:
- high-pressure jobs, such as nurses, doctors, police officers, and teachers
- intense schooling, such as medical school
- working long hours or working at a job you hate
- having a baby
- raising children
- financial stress or poverty
- being a caregiver for a loved one
- prolonged divorce proceedings
- death of a family member or friend
- living with a chronic illness or injury
You can make certain lifestyle changes to help alleviate symptoms of emotional exhaustion. These techniques won’t be easy to carry out at first, but they’ll get easier as you begin to form healthier habits.
Making small changes in your daily habits can help manage your symptoms and prevent emotional burnout.
Once you recognize the signs of emotional exhaustion, try the following:
Eliminate the stressor
While not always possible, the best way to treat stress is to eliminate the stressor. If your work environment is the cause of your emotional exhaustion, consider changing jobs or companies. If your manager or boss is causing your stress, you can also consider transferring to a new department or asking to be placed under a different manager.
We’re told to eat healthy all the time, but it can make a world of difference when you’re stressed. Not only will it help you get the vitamins and minerals you need, but it will also improve digestion, sleep, and energy levels, which can have a domino effect on your emotional state.
Any sort of physical activity raises endorphins and serotonin levels. This can improve your emotional state. Exercise also helps take your mind off your problems. Try to exercise for 30 minutes per day, even if it’s just a long walk.
Alcohol may temporarily boost your mood, but the feeling will quickly wear off, leaving you more anxious and depressed than before. Alcohol also interferes with your sleep.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is important for mental health. It’s even more effective if you plan your bedtime for roughly the same time every night. Aim for eight to nine hours of sleep every night. Developing a routine at bedtime can help you relax and ensure better quality sleep. Limiting caffeine can also have a positive impact on your sleep schedule.
Mindfulness is a term you probably hear a lot, but mindfulness techniques are much more than just a fad. They’re scientifically recognized to reduce stress and anxiety and can be the key to balancing your emotions.
Mindfulness is the act of engaging with the present moment. This can help direct your attention away from negative thinking. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Examples include:
- breathing exercises
- going for a walk, especially in nature
- keeping a journal to write down your feelings and thoughts
Researchers recently even found evidence that a single session of mindfulness meditation can help reverse the effects of stress on the body.
Connect with a trusted friend
Talking face to face with a friend is a wonderful way to relieve stress. The person listening doesn’t necessarily have to fix your issues. They can just be a good listener. A trusted friend or family member can listen without judging you.
If you don’t have anyone close to turn to, check if your employer has an employee assistance program with counseling services.
Take a break
Everyone needs a break at some point. Whether you take a vacation or simply find the time to take yourself out to the movies, every little bit helps.
Meet with a professional
Along with making lifestyle changes, it’s important to seek professional help to treat emotional exhaustion. A professional, such as a therapist, can give you the tools you need to work through a stressful period. Some of the techniques used by professionals include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy
- applied relaxation techniques
Talk to your family doctor
In some cases, your primary care provider may suggest medications to help manage your symptoms. Antidepressants, such as selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-anxiety medications, or prescription sleeping aids have been used to help treat emotional exhaustion.
Medications such as benzodiazepines can be addictive and should only be used on a short-term basis to lower the risk of dependency or addiction.
The stress responsible for emotional exhaustion puts you at risk for a total burnout. Over time, it can lead to health problems. Chronic stress can affect your immune system, heart, metabolism, and overall well-being. Emotional exhaustion puts you at risk of:
- high blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart disease
- frequent colds and infections
- weight gain
- premature aging
Emotional exhaustion is a treatable condition. The best way to treat it is to eliminate the stressor or the stressful event. If emotional exhaustion is being caused by your job, for example, it may be time to consider changing jobs.
If you’re unable to eliminate the stressor, take advantage of resources available to cope. Talk to your primary care provider or a mental health professional about ways to manage stress and anxiety.