7 Ways to Deal with Emotional Exhaustion

No matter what you’ve faced this year, 2021 has been full of challenges and change. With one stressor after another, including the continuation of COVID-19 on top of pressures from a job, raising a family, or managing a chronic illness, you may be wondering what else you will have to face. 

As adversities continue to come your way, you might start to feel more irritable and tired. You may notice an inability to concentrate or feeling less motivated than usual. You may even feel trapped or stuck. Know there’s nothing wrong with the way you’re feeling. You’re just emotionally exhausted.

What is Emotional Exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion happens when you carry heavy emotions triggered by negative or challenging events in life that just never seem to end. This chain of events can leave you feeling worn out and drained. For many, emotional exhaustion builds up slowly over time. Some common symptoms of emotional exhaustion include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • More absences at work
  • failure to meet deadlines

What Causes Emotional Exhaustion?

Life challenges are normal and are going to happen. But experiencing especially difficult challenges over an extended period of time can lead to chronic stress. This can take a major toll on your body and can cause some of the symptoms you may be feeling.

While triggers can vary from person or person, some common triggers include:

  • Living with a chronic illness
  • Being a caregiver
  • Having a high-pressure job
  • Working long hours
  • Going to intense schooling (like medical school)
  • Facing financial stress
  • Facing a divorce or separation
  • Raising a family
  • Passing of a loved one

How to Manage Your Emotions?

Emotional exhaustion doesn’t go away on its own. There are some lifestyle changes and emotion regulation strategies you can implement to help alleviate symptoms and prevent them from happening again in the future. 

Once you recognize some signs that you may be emotionally exhausted, try one (or a few) of the following strategies:

  • Name the Emotions

Feelings Wheel
Photo Source: Calm

When you’re overwhelmed with a mix of emotions brought on by various stressors, it can be easy to confuse them all. Taking a few minutes to check in with yourself about what you’re feeling and why can help you take back control and let things go. 

Set aside a few minutes to ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling?
  • What is going physically (i.e. in my gut, chest, throat, etc)?
  • What triggered this feeling?
  • What do I want to do about these feelings?
  • Is there a healthy way to cope with them?

Explore your feelings with curiosity and not judgment. Remember, there are no wrong or bad feelings, and feelings are not facts. Try to exercise some self-compassion and grant yourself a little grace as you start to identify and let your feelings in.

  • Identify the Message

Once you’ve taken the time to identify your feelings, you can take the next step and figure out what your feelings are telling you so you can deal with them appropriately. Feelings don’t pop up for no reason, sometimes it’s just a little harder to figure out why than others. 

Asking what your emotions are trying to tell you can help you figure out what to do with them. Sometimes the message is as simple as taking a nap or allowing yourself to sleep in. Other times it may be more complicated. Either way, your emotions are trying to tell you something. It’s your responsibility to figure out what that message is. 

  • Eliminate the Stressor

If you’ve identified what you are feeling and the message your emotions are telling you, it’s time to take action. While it’s not always possible, the best way to treat stress and reduce emotional exhaustion is to eliminate the stressor itself. If you can’t eliminate the stressor entirely, try minimizing or setting boundaries around it. Setting boundaries could look like limiting work hours, allowing specific days to provide care for a loved one, or giving yourself a set amount of time to grieve. 

  • Eat a balanced diet

Have you heard the saying “you are what you eat”? While it’s not so literal, there is some truth to the saying. Research studies have shown a link between nutrition and mood. Stress or other negative emotions like anxiety and depression can drive the desire for comfort food and sugar. As sweet treats start to seem more appealing, intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables tends to decline. The combination of stress and poor eating habits can substantially increase visceral fat and the risk of chronic illnesses like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and more. 

One study showed that people who eat nutrient-dense foods report feeling less depressed and anxious, and greater levels of happiness and mental well-being. The study followed 12,400 people for seven years. They found that those who increased consumption of fruits and vegetables during the study reported their happiness and life satisfaction levels as significantly higher compared to those who didn’t. 

Eating a balanced diet means something different for everyone. For some, it may mean following a vegan diet. For others, it means eating low carb. If you’re not sure what works best for you, speak with your doctor or contact a nutritionist. 

  • Intentional Exercise

The physical benefits of exercise are clear; improved strength, increase stamina, and reduced body fat. But the psychological benefits are even greater. Research shows that just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise improves mood, tiredness, cognitive capacity, and performance. 

Exercise helps by improving recovery for cognitive processes and the nervous system so they can function better. Regular exercise can help build cognitive processes over time by improving blood flow to the brain. More blood flow to the brain means more oxygen and improved cognitive ability. 

Cognitive ability is defined by the American Psychological Association as the skills used to perform tasks associated with perception, learning, memory understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language.  These are all skills we use on a daily basis, including managing our emotions. As our cognitive abilities improve, so does our ability to manage our emotions. 

  • Get more quality sleep

sleep to manage emotional exhaustionSleep is one of the most important factors for mental health. Brain activity fluctuates during sleep; increasing and decreasing during different sleep stages. Every stage plays a significant role in cognitive function.  

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. Insufficient sleep means the brain can’t fully process all the emotions you feel during the day. This can influence mood, emotional reactivity, and behavior.  

While improving sleep alone won’t cause stress, anxiety, or depression to go away entirely, it can help reduce the intensity of the symptoms you are feeling. As you develop better sleep habits and get quality sleep on a regular basis, you will start to build up more resiliency when facing emotionally stressful situations. 

  • Practice Stillness

With so much going on inside and outside of our heads,mile-long to-do lists, and at least one screen within reach, stillness can seem like it’s too far out of our reach. But with practice, it can be done. 

The key to practicing stillness is to be intentional about it. Set aside a specific amount of time, like five minutes, and focus on what is in your control at that very moment. When you first start to practice, it may seem strange and uncomfortable. Set yourself up for success by creating the right environment for your practice. This might mean sitting down in your favorite chair, laying on the bed, or lowering the lights. 

Once you’ve gotten comfortable, just be. Take slow, deep breaths, relax any tension you might have in your body, and quiet your mind. If you notice your mind start to wander, gently bring it back to the present moment. 

Trying to keep your mind in the present can be difficult. If you find your mind continues to wander, try to focus on a soothing image like the mountains, beach, or ocean. 

If you find yourself having difficulty in quiet stillness, try putting on soft, pleasant music or repeating calming phrases to yourself. Some common mantras include “I am calm and still”, “I am being”, or  “I am safe”.

Practicing stillness can help you:

  • Maintain perspective 
  • Connect with yourself
  • Connect with the world around you
  • Bring clarity 
  • Help you let go
  • Rease stress and tension 
  • Reduce pain

Remember, there is no “right” way to practice stillness. The only right way is the one that works best for you. 

Don’t give up

Dealing with emotions can be hard, especially when you feel burnt out. These strategies may seem overwhelming, but the more you practice them, the easier they become. As you implement these techniques into your daily life, you start to build a bigger defense against emotional turmoil and are less likely to reach complete exhaustion.

No matter how challenging things get, don’t give up. These things take time. If you find you are having difficulty sorting through your emotions and practicing healthy habits, know you are not alone. There is a huge community a PatientsLikeMe who can help you through it. Join the conversation and connect with others who are just like you. 

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