At some point, most of us will have experienced a lack of motivation, disrupted sleep patterns or low energy. We may have felt all of these feelings at once, perhaps even every single day. And given the prevalence of these symptoms, it would be easy to chalk them up to a busy, modern lifestyle. However, they could actually be down to a serious condition called emotional exhaustion.
Emotional exhaustion can occur as a result of excessive or prolonged periods of stress. Some common aggravating factors of the condition – which is sometimes referred to as “burnout” – include pressures caused by work or personal commitments. And a person suffering from emotional exhaustion will usually feel generally drained.
Burnout was defined by the German-born psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger in the 1970s. He described it as a serious stress condition that can cause mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. More severe than regular fatigue, burnout can leave sufferers unable to cope with their stress and take care of their everyday responsibilities.
While it may sound vague, emotional exhaustion can have a major impact on a person’s life. They may feel as though they have nothing to contribute, may even dread facing the day and struggle to get out of bed in the mornings. Furthermore, they may experience feelings of hopelessness and take on a pessimistic attitude.
Usually, emotional exhaustion doesn’t require medical attention. However, it may go on to cause conditions that do, such as high cholesterol and depression, if it goes unaddressed. But more often than not, resting, taking a vacation, or dealing with the thing that’s causing the stress are good remedies to alleviate the symptoms.
However, with that said, serious cases of burnout will not get better by themselves. And if ignored, the condition could go on to cause a number of serious psychological and physical ailments. Some of these include diabetes, depression and heart disease. So, it’s important to deal with the causes of emotional exhaustion before they lead to something more serious.
Burnout can affect many kinds of people from different walks of life, particularly those who are often exposed to stressful situations. For example, people with high pressure jobs in the health profession – like doctors, nurses and first responders – are susceptible to developing the condition.
Alternatively, people caring for children can experience emotional exhaustion. In fact, research has shown that parents are susceptible to burning out in the same way that doctors and high-flying business people are. Furthermore, individuals who are perfectionists and like to be in control are also at risk of developing the condition.
Clinical psychologist Deborah Offner explained the condition in an email to Bustle in January 2019. She said, “Emotional exhaustion refers to a specific state that includes not only physical symptoms of exhaustion, such as fatigue, headaches, sleep difficulties and appetite changes, but a distinct psychological experience of frustration, low motivation, helplessness [and] hopelessness.”
Offner added, “Emotional exhaustion is wider ranging and longer lasting than ‘a bad week.’ It includes a constellation of physical and psychological symptoms that are caused by significant and prolonged stress in our professional or personal lives.”
Emotional exhaustion can lead to a person feeling emotionally and physically drained. They may also struggle to cope over prolonged periods of stress, meaning sufferers become more overwhelmed by perceived problems. Some instances that can lead to the condition include relationship pressures, a toxic work life and chronic illness.
Of course, some level of stress is unavoidable in modern day life. Sometimes, we have the resilience to deal with pressures that come our way. But on other occasions it can feel impossible to cope. And ultimately, we all have our breaking point. So, when you feel maxed out on a constant basis, you could potentially be dealing with emotional exhaustion.
But aside from overwhelming feelings of stress, there are other symptoms to look out for which may be signs of emotional exhaustion. Often, experiences of the condition will differ from person to person. But there are some general ways in which burnout can manifest itself in an individual. So, if you suffer from one or more of these symptoms, it may be worth evaluating your stress levels.
Some common signs of emotional exhaustion include a persistent low mood, irritability and feelings of pessimism. According to Offner the condition can also lead to serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression, whether directly or indirectly. For example, prolonged stress can lead to sleep deprivation, which in turn increases the risk of anxiety and depression.
Emotional exhaustion occurs when a person’s reserves for dealing with stress have been expended. And this drained feeling can have a negative effect on an individual’s mood. As a result, feelings of irritability, depression and hopelessness are not uncommon with burnout. With that in mind, it’s vital to seek help if you’re unable to cope.
The persistent stress associated with burnout can also lead to feelings of detachment or emotional numbness. If you’re feeling disconnected from everyday life, it could be a sign that stress is having a negative impact on your mental health. As a result, it could be worth talking to a friend or therapist to help you to get to the bottom of the problem.
Emotional exhaustion can also greatly reduce your motivation. According to Offner, if you lack enthusiasm at work or in your personal relationships it may be because burnout is draining your energy. So, if you’re struggling to get excited about projects that once interested you, emotional exhaustion could be to blame.
Similarly, emotional exhaustion can leave some sufferers feeling like a failure. Offner explained to Bustle, “The key signs of emotional exhaustion are feeling stuck, helpless and hopeless.” Furthermore, the ailment could lead to some feeling a sense of apprehension about their relationships or career. Alternatively, an inability to cope could lead some to feel ineffective or discouraged to try to alleviate the symptoms.
Moreover, emotional exhaustion is characterized by a depletion of resources – and this includes energy reserves. As such, burnout can cause extreme physical exhaustion. With that in mind, if you’re experiencing difficulties sleeping or feel like your energy levels have swindled, you should seek medical advice to prevent stress taking a toll on your physical health.
Meanwhile, emotional exhaustion can manifest itself physically as well as mentally. As a result, people with the condition may suffer from dizziness and nausea. Indeed, both of these symptoms should be taken as a sign to slow down and try to get some rest. However, that may be easier said than done if the person is suffering from insomnia – another common symptom of the ailment.
As a form of long-term stress, emotional exhaustion can weaken the immune system, which protects us from disease. With that in mind, those who are experiencing burnout tend to be more susceptible to illnesses like the flu and colds. Consequently, sufferers may become frequently ill as a result of their relentless stress.
Another sign of emotional exhaustion is an inability to concentrate, which could be compared to a brain fog. That’s because burnout can negatively impact cognitive capacity. Offner explained to Bustle, “Cognitively, those of us suffering from emotional exhaustion may have trouble concentrating, feel a sense of dread, or become scattered in our thinking.”
The intense feelings of stress associated with emotional exhaustion can take a toll on mental health and may lead a person to isolate themselves. This could have a negative effect on an individual’s relationships and work, especially if they call in sick regularly. As a result, we should not only look for symptoms of burnout within ourselves, but also in loved ones too.
Offner explained to Bustle, “It’s important to look for signs of burnout or emotional exhaustion in friends or partners who are in notoriously high stress occupations or education and training programs.” She continued, “In addition, some personal situations can lead to emotional exhaustion. [It could be] a protracted, hostile divorce; or caring for a disabled, chronically or terminally ill child, spouse, or parent.”
Aside from avoiding social interactions, those suffering from burnout may grow increasingly irritable around family, friends and work colleagues. They may also struggle to cope with everyday stressors including the school run, work meetings and household chores. Such tasks may also begin to seem impossible to them, particularly when things don’t go as intended.
Furthermore, emotional exhaustion may lead people to feel there is no escape from their stressful job or difficult personal life. As a result, people suffering from the condition may come up with escape fantasies, dreaming of running away or jetting off on vacation. Furthermore, in severe cases, individuals may even turn to food, alcohol or drugs in a bid to numb their anguish.
But even if you have recognized signs of emotional exhaustion in a friend or family member, supporting them through the condition can be challenging. Offner told Bustle, “While supportive, close relationships can be essential for those of us experiencing emotional exhaustion, it can be hard for partners or close friends to understand why we might seem negative, withdrawn, even help-rejecting.”
Offner added, “Dealing with an emotionally exhausted significant other or friend is much like dealing with a depressed person. The helplessness and hopelessness that sets in is part of a real syndrome, but it appears – and may well be – irrational, so it can confuse and frustrate people who are trying to help. It’s also hard to get much back in a relationship with someone who is emotionally exhausted, as they are, by definition, so depleted.”
But while emotional exhaustion can feel all-consuming, there are ways to remedy the condition. First, Offner recommends trying to figure out what is causing the stress. And if family life or work is contributing to your overwhelming feelings, consider which factors can be modified and which are permanent.
Offner told Bustle, “Sometimes help is as simple as quitting a job or taking a leave of absence. Other times it might mean creating a longer-term plan to find a better employment situation or career.” She added, “In personal situations, help might be as simple (not easy, but clear) as separating from a partner, while other times it might mean getting help from other family members or paid aides to care for a disabled or ill loved one.”
And while stress is largely unavoidable, burnout can be prevented by a number of relatively simple measures. Partaking in exercise is one such way to improve both physical health and emotional wellbeing. Even just incorporating a short walk into your daily routine could help to ward off stress and improve your mood.
Another way to beat burnout is through healthy eating. Incorporating more omega -3-rich foods, such as walnuts, flaxseed oil and fish, into a healthy diet can improve mood. That’s because the omega-3 fatty acids act as a natural antidepressant.
A good sleeping routine can also help reduce the chance of emotional exhaustion. Indeed, our bodies require sufficient rest and recuperation, so healthy sleep habits are a must. To get the shut-eye you require, the National Sleep Foundation recommends establishing a relaxing bedtime routine. This includes quitting caffeine before bed and banning smartphones in your sleeping quarters.
Another way to help combat the stress that causes emotional exhaustion is to ask for help. But while reaching out and asking for assistance sounds easy, people often find it challenging to do so. Consequently, it may be useful to get into the habit of checking-in with loved ones, so that you can be there for one another when required.
Furthermore, if you believe that someone you know may be suffering from emotional exhaustion, there are things that you can do to help. Simply listening to their problems can be a very positive thing. Often people can really benefit from having someone to talk to so that they can share their situation with them.
It may also benefit someone who’s suffering from burnout to have their thoughts and feelings validated. Sometimes reassuring phrases such as “it’s not so bad” and “things will get better” serve to invalidate someone’s experience. As a result, it could increase their sense of hopelessness. So try instead to be understanding of their situation.
If someone is emotionally exhausted, they may be too drained to even consider how someone else could help. With that in mind, it could be useful for friends and family take a proactive approach. Instead of asking what to do, offer to cook, run errands or complete a chore in order to assist the person in need.
Alternatively, simple kind gestures can go a long way in helping someone suffering from burnout. Flowers, cards and thoughtful messages can demonstrate that a person is appreciated and not alone. As a result, acts of kindness may help to boost their mood and help them realize that they do have a support system to lean on.
And if you are unable to help out yourself, you could look into resources that may make things easier for someone with burnout. For instance, if they’re feeling emotionally exhausted, they may benefit from the help of a cleaner or childcare. You could even help them to find a psychotherapist who could better address their needs.
So while dealing with emotional exhaustion may be challenging to navigate, there are ways to combat the condition. Adopting simple measures like exercising, eating healthily, and sleeping well may help to reduce stress. And taking time out of your busy lifestyle to perhaps see friends, take a walk, or enjoy a book, film or TV show can help keep stress levels in check.