by Yolande Conradie
November 24, 2020
Emotional exhaustion is on the rise. Have you lost your spark or feel that you’re struggling to focus? Perhaps you’re trapped by negative feelings. You could be suffering from emotional exhaustion. In our latest #MTtalk, we explored how to spot the signs, and how to manage it.
“Exhaustion is not a result of too much time spent on something, but of knowing that in its place, no time is spent on something else.”Joyce Rachelle, Filipino author
Emotional Exhaustion Is Also Physical
Does emotion really exist or is it just something we make up in our heads and use as an excuse when it suits us?
The first thing we need to understand about emotions is that they are real. They are not just thoughts that exist in our heads and imaginations.
Emotions are actual neurological events(fueled by neurochemicals) that occur in the brain and nervous system. Anything that affects the nervous system has an effect on every organ and cell in your body.
Think what happens when you receive bad news. Say, for example, that you’ve just found out that your partner is cheating on you, or that a loved one has been in a serious accident.
Upon hearing the news, you feel it in your body. You might hyperventilate, shiver (even though it’s not cold), get flushed cheeks, experience stomach cramps, or have palpitations, a dry mouth, or a weird feeling of weakness in your legs.
The Life Cycle of Emotions
Any emotion has a life cycle – a beginning, a middle and an end. Just after an “activating event,” negative or positive, you will start feeling an emotion. It’s a chemical reaction, and it’s involuntary.
As your mind races with various thoughts and scenarios, these emotions can intensify. Then, as you digest what has happened and start dealing with it in one way or another, they become less intense, and eventually dissipate completely. The time it takes will likely depend on the severity of the activating event.
But what happens if you get stuck in the middle (intense part) of the emotion, and can’t seem to move forward?
Remove the Problem and Then…
Many people erroneously believe that if they remove the problem or stressor, the feelings and emotions it caused will also disappear.
Emotions don’t quite work that way. Although the stressor might be gone, the emotion is still in your mind and body, and will remain there until you’ve processed it and worked through it from beginning to end.
When you experience different events and their accompanying emotions one on top of the other (or a very long stressful event such as a pandemic), it’s easy to feel trapped. That’s because you likely don’t have enough emotional energy to process such compounded emotions.
You can also get stuck in your emotions because some of them – like grief, shame, rage and helplessness – are very difficult to work though.
All of these can make you vulnerable to emotional exhaustion.
Emotional Exhaustion and Burnout
Emotional exhaustion is usually one of the first warning signs of burnout – and it’s the element of burnout that is most damaging to our long-term physical and emotional health.
In her 1982 book, “Burnout: The Cost of Caring,” Christina Maslach highlights three components of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment.
Emotional exhaustion also occurs as a result of caring too much, for too long, and having no time or space to take care of yourself.
Women are especially prone to it because there is still the widespread belief or expectation that they are the primary caregivers, putting other people’s needs before their own.
At some point, you become too empty to give, and depersonalization happens. You feel an emotional numbness and a decreased sense of empathy, caring and compassion.
Eventually, you hardly feel any sense of accomplishment, and as if nothing you do makes any difference.
The Reality of Emotional Exhaustion
I asked a few people to share what they experienced when they felt emotionally exhausted. I’ve changed their names, but not their experiences.
John said, “I stopped being curious about other people, which really shocked me. That meant I was reading people at face value and making all kinds of assumptions about them, sometimes the worst.
“I also stopped reaching out to help others – it didn’t cross my mind they needed anything. Plus I didn’t think I had anything to give anyway. For a while, I didn’t care anyway! All in all, it’s very isolating and alienating.”
My friend Mary told me, “Everything I did seemed to take longer to complete. I was making simple grammatical mistakes when writing, and when I re-read things, I was shocked at the mistakes.
I Felt I Had Little Value
“I felt as if I had no energy or enthusiasm for anything in life, so I simply went through the motions with little enjoyment or joy. I became withdrawn, I self-isolated, and did not connect with others.
“I felt as if I had little of value, or interest, to say or contribute. Sometimes, it felt like just going out to see a friend for a coffee was too much effort – even when I knew it would have done me good.”
My friend Brad blamed some of his emotional exhaustion on his workplace. He said that senior managers don’t appreciate the human cost of working remotely in this stressful time. Where he works, people feel like only numbers matter.
Anne said, “The period following the breakup of my marriage was a tumultuous time. The split was sudden. I was in the midst of completing my Master’s degree and still taking courses while I worked.
“My emotional state was raw. For the first few weeks, I was in a state of deep shock. Then, as time passed, I became numb to the pain. I buried myself in work to keep going.
“But as pressures mounted, the emotional stress grew to a point where I was having trouble thinking. I could barely read a paragraph. I grew distant from family and friends, and I became increasingly irritable at work.
“Sadly, I continued on this path for some time. There was no joy in anything I did. Successes didn’t matter. I was just a shell until the inevitable happened – I hit the wall.”
Reflect, Recover, Reset
Many common themes emerge from the real-life stories above. During the #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about emotional exhaustion. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:
Q1. Why do we become emotionally exhausted?
@NeViNShCe1 Maybe we avoid saying no to persons we care about. And we forget that we ourselves are also a person we should care about?
@PdJen I think it’s because we focus on too many things. We have too many plates spinning, partly because of the pressures of modern life and the pressure to achieve.
@_TomGReid Our brain chemicals get depleted and need time to recharge.
Q2. How do you feel when you are emotionally exhausted?
@ColfaxInsurance Drained, on the verge of tears, constantly frustrated, ready to snap at anyone. Like you’re putting on a mask that you’re fine when you’re really not.
@LrnGrowAchieve Like a failure. Full of self-doubt. Less capable of making decisions. Afraid. Afraid of making wrong decisions. Stuck.
Q3. How do you react to things when you are feeling emotionally exhausted?
@SizweMoyo I’m dismissive and critical, if not distant and uninterested. My general mood just doesn’t care for consequence.
@LeadershipBEST If I am emotionally exhausted, I may say no to things I normally enjoy, like spending time with friends.
Q4. Do we admit to emotional exhaustion as readily as to physical exhaustion? Why, or why not?
@PG_pmp We do not admit, reason we are afraid of being typecast as weak.
@Ganesh_Sabari Physical exhaustion is visible & logically derived. Emotional exhaustion is more subtle and chronic. The drive to remain positive keeps emotional exhaustion suppressed till it gets acute. The answer is ‘No’.
Note: We had participants from all over the world. It was alarming to see that ALL our participants said that people don’t admit to emotional exhaustion because of stigma, fear of being seen as weak, or the risk of being labeled “not able to cope.” This is serious food for thought!
Q5. How is emotional exhaustion different from burnout? Is it different?
@NikaPika_Chuuu Burnout encompasses fatigue as a whole, I think, and we’re less likely to relate it to emotional exhaustion when we hear the term. I think a burnout is more of an umbrella term, but we’re more likely to associate it with physical tiredness.
@MarkC_Avgi IMO & from my own experience, emotional exhaustion is a component of burnout, but not necessarily the sole component. Burnout & its symptoms is so much more than simply emotional exhaustion.
Q6. What sorts of things can you do to avoid becoming emotionally exhausted?
@J_Stephens_CPA 1) Take a break. Get up and move so you physically disconnect from the environment (need to work on this more). 2) Do those things that bring you joy too! (I’m reading lots more than before again.)
@NgukaOduor I started studying about emotions and gaining awareness on them. Also I picked up some mindfulness practice that helped me big time.
Q7. What actions might help you recover from emotional exhaustion?
@Yolande_MT Ditch the perfectionism, the all-or-nothing attitude, and poor self-care habits – from poor eating to excessive screen activity. Make space just to be.
@emapirciu Going to therapy, personal development, and learning to love yourself are ways to recover from emotional exhaustion.
Q8. What external factors make it difficult to overcome emotional exhaustion?
@MissMeryn Deadlines. Curveballs. Relationships. Illness. Layers of additional stress.
@MicheleDD_MT Lack of awareness and/or support at home or at work. Some workplaces choose to ignore the signs of emotional exhaustion.
Q9. What tell-tale signs can you look out for in others? How will you know that they might be emotionally exhausted?
@Midgie_MT Tell-tale signs include reactions that seem out of proportion with the situation, irritability, withdrawal, mistakes, manner of responding to things.
@aamir9769 Lack of concentration, less communication, nervousness, no confidence while speaking, seeking help, dependency, reluctance to ask for help, low morale, not opening up.
Q10. How can you best support a friend or colleague who is emotionally exhausted? How do you want to be supported?
@yehiadief At the least, I would make a point of understanding your reactions.
@letusthink2 You give them space and time. Allow them to take personal leave and regroup, ask if they would like to talk to a professional. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY DON’T JUDGE a person who is behaving and appearing different.
Note: A common theme that emerged here was that we need to be able to support others without judging. Because so many people mentioned it, could it be that we support people yet have a slightly judgmental attitude?
One of the factors that contribute to emotional exhaustion is not practicing self-care on a physical, mental or emotional level. The next #MTtalk chat in our “Reflect, Recover & Reset” series is about self-shaming. In our poll this week, we’d like to know which self-shaming phrase you most often say to yourself.