22 ways to treat and navigate emotional exhaustion

June 1, 2021 - 18 min read
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What is emotional exhaustion?

What causes emotional exhaustion?

Which careers are more at risk of emotional exhaustion?

37 symptoms of emotional exhaustion

How to treat and manage emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion vs. burnout

Have you ever emotionally felt like you were at a breaking point? If you’re nodding your head, it’s possible you’ve experienced emotional exhaustion.

The good news is there are helpful ways to treat and manage emotional exhaustion so you can flourish both at work and in your personal life. But before we share some tips, let’s explore what emotional exhaustion is. 

What is emotional exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion is the state of feeling emotionally drained or emotionally tired because of stress build-up.

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Can stress make you tired?

Yes. We all experience stress, but when stress is too high, we lose our sense of control and our energy. When that happens, our emergency response system triggers an adrenaline rush. Our natural mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin, gets used up or starts running low. 

Now, on top of dealing with stress, you’re also dealing with adrenaline side effects which may include a racing heart, sweating, or rapid breathing. 

If you’re feeling drained and don’t think you can’t bounce back naturally, you may be experiencing emotional exhaustion.

What causes emotional exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion usually happens after a period of prolonged or chronic stress, such as having a baby or losing a job. 

Other potential triggers include: 

1. Lack of social support

Not having anyone to turn to during times of immense stress can lead to loneliness, hopelessness, and emotional exhaustion. 

2. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors 

Poorly regulated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can increase stress and cause a poor emotional response.

3. Being a caregiver

Caregiving can be a lonely uphill journey that demands patience, time, and self-sacrifice. Caregivers who sacrifice too much of their needs while caring for a loved one can experience emotional and mental exhaustion

4. Low job satisfaction 

Feeling unhappy at work (due to a lack of meaningful projects or recognition) can create chronic stress. It can also cause a feeling of lack of purpose, and emotional exhaustion.

5. Relationship struggles 

Relationship difficulties such as a divorce or parting ways with a friend can reduce social support and increase stress. Co-parenting can also contribute to the feeling of mental fatigue. 

6. Lack of control 

Believing that you don’t have control over your life, or struggling to balance self-care with life’s demands, can make you feel overwhelmed. This ultimately can lead to emotional burnout. 

7. Grief after losing a loved one

Losing a loved one can make you feel a variety of emotions, such as sadness, anger, or loneliness

If grief turns into what doctors call “complicated grief,” you may experience depression, self-blame, and chronic stress.

8. Living with a chronic illness 

When you’re in chronic pain or living with an illness or disease, you may feel isolated, hopeless, and stressed out. 

9. Working too many hours

Working too many hours can lead to chronic stress, depression, and an increase in the hormone cortisol. Ultimately, this can increase your risk for cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

10. Raising children 

Parents have to navigate difficult challenges, like not getting enough sleep, being on call 24/7, and not having enough downtime. These high demands can cause physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.

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Which careers are more at risk of emotional exhaustion?

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Anyone in any career can feel emotionally drained. But those in stressful or demanding jobs are more likely to experience it than others. 

Here are five professions that are more at risk of emotional exhaustion:

  1. Educators: between pleasing parents, satisfying board standards, tutoring struggling students, and grading papers at home, educators are under tremendous performance pressure.
    Their pressing responsibilities and high workload put them at risk of emotional exhaustion.
  1. Social workers: from feeling emotionally overwhelmed by cases and dealing with administrative burdens to finding it difficult to create work-life balance, the workload expectations placed on social workers put them at high risk for emotional exhaustion.
  1. Emergency service professionals: working in high-stress situations, saving lives, and caring for patients can put police, nurses, paramedics, and ER staff at risk for emotional exhaustion and burnout.
  1. Physicians: in 2019, 44% of physicians reported feeling burned out, and 15% reported having some form of depression. Factors included having too many administrative tasks, working long hours, and managing patient records. 
  1. Financial managers: making big, important financial decisions puts financial managers at risk for chronic stress, mental fatigue, and emotional exhaustion. 

Risks that increase emotional exhaustion

The risk of emotional exhaustion increases for anyone who:

  • Is struggling with a chronic illness.
  • Works at a job they hate or feels a lack of control at work.
  • Doesn’t prioritize self-care.
  • Is struggling with challenges at home.
  • Works long hours, weekends, or both.
  • Lacks meaning and purpose at work.
  • Has poor relationships with co-workers and/or managers.
  • Strives for perfectionism.
  • Works in a culture that doesn’t value freedom of expression. 
  • Uses harmful coping mechanisms to manage stress such as drugs and alcohol.

37 symptoms of emotional exhaustion

Symptoms of emotional exhaustion can negatively affect a person’s behavior and quality of life. Recognizing symptoms early is essential to taking steps toward getting better.

Here are 37 symptoms of emotional exhaustion to watch out for: 

Physical symptoms

Emotional challenges can cause physical symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sore muscles/muscle tension 
  • Changes in appetite

Mental symptoms

Emotional exhaustion can create changes in thinking and memory, known as “brain fog.” 

Possible symptoms include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of imagination
  • Feeling mentally exhausted

Emotional symptoms 

Emotional exhaustion is taxing on your emotion and mood. Initially, people may start to feel more cynical or pessimistic than usual. Eventually, they may lose their motivation to socialize, work, or even perform simple tasks. 

Emotional symptoms include mood changes and feelings of:

  • Pessimism
  • Apathy
  • Hopelessness 
  • Anger or irritability
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Feelings of failure 
  • Feeling drained

Important note: anyone experiencing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts (due to emotional exhaustion or another reason) should know that they are not alone and that help is available.

Performance symptoms

Physical, emotional, and mental challenges can affect a person’s ability to function in the workplace. 

As a result, they may experience the following performance symptoms:

  • Low engagement rate 
  • Excessive absences 
  • Poor work performance
  • Low productivity 
  • Failure to meet deadlines
  • Low commitment to their job
  • Poor attitude 

Effects on sleep

Maintaining a healthy sleep pattern can be extra challenging during periods of chronic stress.

Possible sleep problems due to emotional exhaustion may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Oversleeping
  • Difficulty staying asleep 
  • Dreading getting out of bed

Effects on relationships

Struggling with emotional exhaustion makes it difficult to cope with relationship challenges, maintain social connections, and communicate effectively. 

Effects on relationships may include:

  • Unable to connect with others on a personal or emotional level
  • Low self-esteem
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Lack of enthusiasm 
  • Social anxiety

How to treat and manage emotional exhaustion

How-to-treat-and-manage-emotional-exhaustion-emotional-exhaustion

Here are 22 ways to treat and manage emotional exhaustion:

Make healthy lifestyle choices

Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as:

  1. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. 
  2. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. 
  3. Sleep for seven to nine hours every night. 
  4. Eat three balanced meals a day or six small, balanced meals a day.
  5. Drink eight glasses of water a day. 

Create healthy routines

Support your health with wellness routines you can count on every day, for instance:

  1. Create a morning routine that sets your day up for success. For example, drinking a fruit and veggie smoothie, going for a short walk, or spending a full hour doing yoga.
  2. Create an afternoon routine that helps you refresh before going back to work — i.e., reading a book, taking a power nap, and drinking lemon water.
  3. Create an evening routine that helps you settle down before bed, such as deep breathing, journaling, and taking a bath. 

Take time off from work

While spending time at work is a vital part of living a healthy life, it’s important to spend time away from the office every once in a while as well:

  1. Take advantage of your vacation days and sick days if you have them.
  2. Go on a getaway retreat with your friends or loved ones, or even by yourself.
  3. Save money for time off if your job doesn’t offer paid time off. 

Aim for work-life balance

As we mentioned before, working long hours can lead to depression, emotional exhaustion, and burnout. Strive to create a work-life balance by:

  1. Knowing when to stop working, for instance: don’t push through exhaustion. Listen to your body when it tells you it’s done.
  2. Sticking to your work schedule as strictly as possible. 
  3. Scheduling fun activities and hobbies outside of work every week. 
  4. Having something to look forward to outside of work every day, i.e., a cup of hot tea while you watch a movie. 

Take care of your mental and emotional health

Learn how to manage stress and regulate your emotions by:

  1. Practicing mindfulness meditation. 
  2. Starting a gratitude practice
  3. Coping with stressors in healthy ways, i.e., deep breathing.
  4. Nurturing your emotional intelligence
  5. Practicing the Emotional Freedom Technique/Tapping.

Consult a professional 

If you're unable to manage your emotional exhaustion, you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, or suicidal thoughts, it’s time to consult a medical professional for help. 

If you’re feeling stressed, emotionally tired, or in crisis and need to speak with someone immediately, please call 800-273-TALK (8255). They answer every call, and they’re available 24/7.

Emotional exhaustion vs. burnout

Emotional-exhaustion-versus-burnout-emotional-exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion isn’t another word for burnout but rather a symptom of burnout

While experts don’t always agree on what exactly burnout is, the term is typically used to describe the effects of work-related stress or other kinds of chronic stress on the mind and body.

The three main areas of symptoms considered to be signs of burnout include:

  1. Emotional exhaustion 
  2. Alienation from work-related activities 
  3. Reduced performance 

Burnout is also linked to a decline in the following main cognitive areas:

  1. Attention
  2. Memory 
  3. Executive function (i.e., planning and organizing)
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Let’s prevent emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion can derail any workforce if left unchecked and untreated. 

To prevent emotional exhaustion in the workplace, employers should offer preventative solutions such as stress-management tools, individual and team coaching, and wellness benefits such as vacation time and family leave. 

Need help fighting your team’s emotional exhaustion? From big challenges to little changes, BetterUp offers personalized coaching designed to transform lives and careers. See how it works with a customized demo. languishing-webinar-cta


Published June 1, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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