If you’re feeling run down and mentally drained lately, it’s totally understandable. And it may not be just your abnormal sleeping patterns or that looming work deadline. You may be emotionally exhausted.
Licensed mental health counselor Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC, compares emotional exhaustion to physical exhaustion. “It’s like you did a full workout, worked, ran errands, did some activities with friends and family, and you are just tired,” she says. “But rather than your body being tired, it’s your mind.”
While we typically feel we can manage everyday stress and anxiety (as challenging as they can be), emotional exhaustion can feel like it’s too much to handle. It tends to happen when things pile up, and it doesn’t dissipate over a day or even a week. “If you feel like you can’t catch your breath, you don’t have the energy to recover, or like you’re just above the surface staying afloat,” it’s more than stress or anxiety, explains Kruti Patel, PhD, clinical psychologist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy.
Emotional exhaustion may happen if you don’t process the feelings that pop up as life throws you curve balls. “When stress comes up, even though it may be a time when we feel the need to keep going, it’s a time when we need to slow down most and take care of ourselves,” Patel says. Emotional exhaustion is more likely to occur when you are thinking about many things at once, which is only exacerbated by being flooded with information on social media, in regular media, and during conversations, Johnson adds.
While anyone may experience emotional exhaustion at any time in their life, those who are highly sensitive, grew up in chaotic homes, are caregivers, or have trouble processing their emotions may be more likely to feel this kind of depletion. Plus, we’re all more likely to experience it during times of fear, uncertainty, and collective upheaval, like we’re currently facing.
Additionally, anyone who deals with impostor syndrome “is trying so hard to meet so many different goals at once, so it gets stuck in their mind, and they rethink the same things all day long,” Johnson adds. And perfectionists or those who are highly critical also experience more emotional exhaustion “because they tend to put a lot of excessive stress on themselves and take on more than they can manage without asking for help,” Patel explains.
If you find yourself waking up from adequate sleep and still feeling heavy or tired, or that it’s difficult to form clear thoughts and your normal coping skills aren’t working, it may be emotional exhaustion, Johnson says. In that case, the first step is to pause and ask yourself what you need, Patel says. Then really listen and do that thing, whether it’s taking a nap, going for a walk, or reading a book. “Things won’t get better if you continue at a really fast pace. It may take some trial and error, but slowing down and trying to find what helps is better,” she adds.
Johnson also recommends pausing, and doing so mindfully at least once a day if not several times a day. “Just focus on your breathing and being present in the moment,” she says. Journaling to get your thoughts out can also be helpful, as can identifying if you can take any actions that would help change the thoughts playing on repeat in your head.
Lastly, particularly right now when we’re in a worldwide pandemic and addressing social justice issues, be choosy about how you’re staying informed. “Give yourself a break,” Johnson says. “Turn off the alerts and notifications on your phone, pick one or two trusted sources, and only go to those once a day.”
If you try to use coping skills and make changes but things aren’t improving within a week, or if your emotional exhaustion is impacting other areas of your life such as relationships, work, or your ability to function, consider seeing a therapist or psychologist for extra support, Johnson adds.