Not to be dramatic or anything, but 2020 is basically a recipe for emotional exhaustion. Work is busy, headlines are scary, and we spend more time with our smartphones than we spend with our friends. If you feel like you’re on the brink of a breakdown, you’re not alone. A Gallup study found that two-thirds of full-time workers experienced some kind of burnout in 2019, so you can imagine what that means in 2020. There’s fitness burnout, work burnout, and even social burnout (shoutout to my introverts), but the burnout we all might be feeling right now is emotional burnout.
What is emotional burnout?
Emotional burnout is a psychological state caused by accumulated stress in any area of your personal life. “We often hear about emotional burnout as it relates to a job, but the truth is anyone can experience emotional fatigue at any stage of life for a wide variety of reasons,” said Deedee Cummings, M.Ed., LPCC, JD, a therapist and author. “Emotional burnout happens when you have faced such a high level of stress that your body literally shuts down and just cannot accommodate any more challenges.”
We all deal with some stress and negative emotions, but burnout happens when we’ve exceeded our capacity for emotional stress; we feel overstimulated, drained, or emotionally exhausted. Our emotional resources are exasperated while dealing with particularly challenging situations, so our sense of well-being diminishes.
Anyone can experience emotional burnout, but it’s especially common in people dealing with relationship stress, grieving from the loss of a loved one, working emotionally-taxing jobs (like caregivers, ICU nurses, etc.), or going through a major life change. It can also be common during scary current events when we’re bombarded with headlines (what’s up, 2020?).
5 Signs You Might Be Experiencing Emotional Burnout
1. You’re feeling physical symptoms
“You can burn yourself out doing the right things,” said Toni Jones, a psychologist, mental health advocate, and wellness leader in the Black community. “With advocacy at an all-time high, the causes that we believe in deserve our well being. If we aren’t drinking water or getting proper nutrition, we might be compromising our mental, physical, and emotional health. Everything that needs our time and energy deserves our healthy energy.” If your health has been a last priority, your body might be suffering.
Emotional burnout means your body is in constant fight-or-flight mode, which can affect physical symptoms. The body reacts to chronic stress, just like the mind does. Headaches, digestive issues (like stomach pain or constipation), heart palpitations, or obvious weight fluctuation can all be caused by stress. Also, look out for changing habits like different eating patterns (either eating a lot more or a lot less) and sleeping patterns (like if you’re tired all the time or if you can’t sleep at all).
2. You notice irrational emotions
“Feeling overly tired, irritable, and less invested in your work could all be indicators that you’re developing emotional burnout and could use a break,” said Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor. “Similarly, a sense of pessimism and hopelessness about the future can indicate that you’ve pushed yourself to the limit and need to care for yourself before you’re in a position to continue helping others.”
If you’re irrationally angry over something small (like if your significant leaves a plate in the sink and it turns into a blowout screaming match), or if you’re overwhelmed by even a small task at work, it’s likely a sign that you have built-up emotions. You might also be subconsciously more negative in general, so check in with the person you talk to most (whether it’s your work wife, spouse, mom, or best friend) and ask if they’ve noticed a difference in your overall positivity and outlook. If you’re feeling stress, anxiety, anger, or negativity for little to no reason, you might be emotionally exhausted.
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3. You have very little motivation
You know you’re experiencing work burnout when you’re just feeling blah about work. Likewise, you might be experiencing emotional burnout if you’re feeling blah about everything from exercise to plans with friends. We all have days where all we want to do is lay on the couch, but if that day becomes every day? You’re likely suffering from more than just occasional laziness. If it feels impossible to get out of bed in the mornings or you’re less motivated and excited about activities you normally love (like going on a bike ride, seeing your friends, or practicing a hobby), look into what emotions might be exhausting you.
4. You might have picked up (or increased) a method for coping
When we’re in a constant state of stress, the body craves comfort since it’s feeling so uncomfortable. “When you burn out, you find ways to cope from the exhaustion and despair of not knowing how to prevent or recover from burnout,” Jones said. “We may overindulge to numb ourselves; the ego yearns for comfort without change so it can continue the pattern of burnout.”
The most readily available forms of comfort are vices like food or alcohol, so some people drink or eat more than usual when under intense stress. While coping mechanisms are serious (and can turn into everything from addiction to bingeing), “normal” habits can also be coping mechanisms in disguise. For example, relying on a glass of wine to de-stress after work or a third cup of coffee just to feel motivated means that you might be overloaded with emotions.
5. You’re an empath to the extreme
While just about anyone can suffer from emotional burnout, empaths are the most common personality to feel fatigued by emotions. Not only are you dealing with your stress, but it’s almost like you’re taking on the stress of those around you. Empathy is an incredibly powerful superpower, but it can also cause intense exhaustion during scary and stressful times when a lot of people are suffering. You might also feel more personal responsibility as an empath, meaning you’re less likely to give yourself a break (which is especially important when it comes to work). If you’re not sure whether or not you’re an empath (and whether or not it might be affecting your stress levels), click here.
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9 Ways to Heal
1. Acknowledge that you are suffering
Risa Williams, a clinical psychotherapist specializing in stress reduction skills, explained that taking care of yourself is the most important thing. “The first step is to really acknowledge how you’re feeling in your body and your mind, and to take steps to reset yourself by resting, being kinder to yourself, and looking after your wellbeing.” In other words, it’s OK to not feel OK! Recognizing that you are suffering means you’ll be kinder to yourself when you’re less productive or you break any healthy routines and habits you typically keep up. Sure, you’re snacking more than usual and don’t feel motivated at work, but exhaustion, cravings, and inability to get anything done is not laziness; it’s a physical response to burnout.
Also, express what you’re going through to the people who could help. For example, talk to your partner if you know you’ve been on edge lately (especially if you’ve been starting more fights), or let your manager know so they can help you manage workload (so it doesn’t pile up or intensify your stress levels).
2. Take a break
Once you acknowledge that you’re suffering, you can identify why you’re suffering, and then limit the source. “Avoid burnout by finding balance,” said Jennifer Tomko, a clinical social worker, therapist, and owner of Clarity Health Solutions. “If you are being overworked or witnessing trauma you cannot unsee, you need to self-monitor what your limitations are and how much you can handle to avoid depletion.”
For example, take a day off of work (mental health counts as a sick day, right?), watch a show that makes you laugh instead of the news, or turn off your phone so you’re not constantly bombarded by texts and emails. You might be overwhelmed by everything going on at once, so limit your exposure to whatever is depleting you. Spend any “off-time” being productive (like crossing chores off your growing to-do list), or if you’re really exhausted, take a day of rest (and make sure to enjoy it).
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3. Get moving
Emotional exhaustion may be telling you that you need to sit on your couch and binge Netflix for six hours in a row. While that may be true some days (rest is crucial!), make sure you’re also getting off the couch, turning off the TV, and moving. “Exercise is a natural form of medicine that can help heal the mind and body,” said Karen Malkin, a Board-Certified Integrative Brain Health Coach. “When you get your heart rate up, your body releases endorphins that make you feel good. It’s also a great distraction to take your mind off any negative feelings or stressors.”
Physical exercise can boost endorphin and serotonin levels, meaning your brain will release more of the happy hormones and help you manage stress. However, you don’t have to do vigorous or intense workouts to reap the benefits. Exercise should not be another thing that adds stress to your life. Instead, do something mindful and gentle like yoga or going for a walk.
4. Improve social interaction and connection
Humans don’t just want to be social; we need it. Trusting and loving relationships (that we enjoy regularly) are crucial for happiness and stress management. Even working from home (no more coffee dates with your work wife) or just seeing friends or family less could be enough to cause emotional burnout. Make sure to put some extra effort into your relationships: call up your mom to vent, plan a happy hour (virtual or otherwise) to laugh with your friends, or check in with your significant other.
To avoid burnout in the future, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people you love, trust, and laugh with. Venting is also crucial because sharing your stressors can help you find solutions or just feel like you’re not alone. Just remember that venting is different than complaining, and dominant negativity can cause burnout too.
5. …But focus more on your needs
“Because emotional labor (activities like supporting, educating, and caring for others’ feelings) are not always valued as ‘real work,’ it can be easy to overload yourself without asking for enough in return,” Lear said. “This is especially true for women, and the effects of burnout might be intensified during stressful times.” Make sure that you’re getting as much as you’re giving in your relationships. If you’re not feeling equally supported, listened to, or cared for, express your needs, and be open about the lack you’re feeling in the relationship.
If your friend is always complaining about her partner and job but won’t listen when something’s up with you, or you make plans to drive all the way to their side of town while they never come to yours, express that you need more reciprocation. If nothing changes, it might be a relationship that’s draining you instead of fulfilling you (and we don’t need that kind of negativity in our lives!).
6. Set time boundaries to help achieve balance
If your workday does not have a clear “closing time” that you stick to no matter what, odds are you’re going to experience burnout at some point. Work-life balance is not a made-up phenomenon like unicorns or magic beans; it’s what you should be striving for to be as healthy as possible. If your office doesn’t abide by the typical 9-5 office hours, determine your own EOD. Just like work, other areas of your life require boundaries too. Try scheduling some time every day for socializing (going to happy hour with coworkers, catching up with friends, or eating dinner with your significant other) and alone time (like taking a bath, reading a book, or meditating).
You may have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé, but you need to be thoughtful about boundaries to ensure you’re not giving too much time to either work, social life, or “you time” (so you’re not neglecting the other categories). Caitlin Garstkiewicz, LCSW, of Clarity Clinic, explained that balance is about more than your work and social life; it’s about emotional rest too. “When we lean into balance, we ensure that we are taking into account how we have rested, what our capacities are, and what our needs may be. When we allow ourselves to get into the habit of reviewing the balance in our lives (or lack of), we can reduce stress while simultaneously improving productivity,” Garstkiewicz said.
7. Know when enough is enough
Sometimes work is more than typical stress or heavy workload. Your burnout becomes emotional when it stems from a toxic company environment or a mean boss who belittles you. Likewise, toxic friendships can be emotionally draining. Know when burnout is caused by something you can fix (like asking your manager to separate you from an overly competitive coworker), and know when enough is enough (like if a friend is bringing you more negativity than positivity).
“Challenge the root of the uncomfortable feelings,” Garstkiewicz said. “In order to gain a greater sense of awareness, ask yourself, ‘If I were to quit my job, or work somewhere else, would I still be experiencing these symptoms?'” Is the source of your burnout so unfixable that you should cut off the source altogether? Is it time to look for another job? Should you break up with the toxic friend? Would your burnout be healed if you lived in a different city, a different apartment, or were in a different relationship? Thoroughly assess what’s causing you stress and recognize when it’s time for a change.
8. Realize you are in control
Emotional burnout often comes from feeling like you have no control. A lot is going on in the world that we don’t have an immediate effect over, but we can find solutions to the stressors we can control and forgive ourselves for the things we can’t. Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D, psychotherapist and author, said, “In the daily tasks and situations of our lives, we become our own bosses, whether we are aware of it or not. You can decide to become a good boss to yourself. This means you treat yourself with kindness and understanding and are generous with praise while being gentle with corrections.”
After all, burnout can happen because small stressors build up. Therefore, no stressor is small enough (including a mistake at work, spilling a cup of coffee, and being extra hard on yourself) when it comes to preventing burnout from happening again. Think of your stress levels as a piggy bank (yes, it’s the one analogy where you don’t want a full piggy bank). Once the piggy bank is full, you reach complete exhaustion. Any coin you can remove, whether it’s a penny or a quarter, will prevent your piggy bank from filling up to the top. Make sure you’re saving space for the bigger things you can’t control.
9. Meet with a professional
“There is no shame in talking with someone who has been trained to help you deal with gaining a better balance in your life,” Cummings said. “It is a very important step to make certain that you do not reach the point of burnout, and if you do, that you know how to prevent yourself from going down that road again.” Sometimes lifestyle changes aren’t enough to help emotional burnout. If you’ve been suffering from emotional distress for a while or believe it’s not something that a break could cure, consider making an appointment with a mental health professional or checking out an online mental health resource.
A professional can teach you tools to cope with stressors you can’t control and manage the stressors you can. Think of it as a checkup for mental health (because it is!): you should eat vegetables and exercise, but you also visit your doctor’s office when you have a cold or a sore throat. Emotional burnout could be a sign you’re due for a checkup.
Have you dealt with emotional burnout? How do you heal?
If you’re struggling with mental health, please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.