Emotional exhaustion: What is it this overwhelming feeling, how do you cope?

The frustrating, heartbreaking, unpredictable events of the past months demanded so much. Many of us are asking: How much more can we take?

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“Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmingness — overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” one expert says.

“Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmingness — overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” one expert says.

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The early days of 2021 have been a national nightmare. If there’s a phrase to describe what many of us are feeling, it’s: emotionally exhausted.

The frustrating, heartbreaking, unpredictable events of the past months have seen many of us have to learn new ways of working, of caring for and teaching our children, of staying healthy and remaining connected. Our responsibilities seemed to grow by the day. If we found a moment to lay down the load, we’d turn on the TV and see more had died from COVID-19 or there was a raging mob at the U.S. Capitol.

“Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmingness — overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. “It’s physical tiredness. It’s mental tiredness. It’s difficulty concentrating. It’s all the things that we experience when we’re just at our capacity.”

What is emotional exhaustion?

It isn’t a specific clinical syndrome. But mental health experts say it can lead to or accompany other mental health conditions. The phrase is usually used when talking about burnout, when feelings about stress mount to the point that we feel we don’t have any energy left. 

Some stress and anxiety is always present. But when we’re emotionally exhausted, that stress is prolonged and chronic.

Anyone experiencing chronic stress is susceptible to burnout, but it’s especially common in fields such as health care and law enforcement.

“Think of the ER nurse who works on a COVID unit, 12-hour shifts, caring for children and an aging parent and perhaps has added stressors related to health of friends or community political unrest,” says Afton Kapuscinski, director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University.

How to tell if you’re emotionally exhausted

Mental experts say symptoms of emotional exhaustion include:

  • Irritability.
  • Nervousness.
  • Frustration.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Lack of focus.
  • “Brain fog.”
  • Feeling disconnected from people.
  • A sense you’re not effective or competent.
  • Actual problems with performance, including making more mistakes.
  • Muscle fatigue and tension.
  • Headaches.
  • Stomach problems.
  • Sleep problems.

Emotional exhaustion also can lead to apathy and hopelessness, causing us to lose interest in things we once loved. 

“It’s probably some kind of unconscious attempt within these people’s psyche to actually protect themselves from this onslaught,” Kapuscinski says. “They think, ‘If I remove myself, I can’t be as affected,’ just like dissociation in trauma would be.”

Set boundaries

To function well, people need a solid foundation: sleep, good nutrition, physical activity and social connection.

They also need boundaries. If you’re feeling depleted, it’s time to assert — or reassert — them.

“You have to ask yourself where your boundaries are being breached and where you can say no to some things,” Wright says. “Because you really can’t do all the things.”

Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for practice research and policy for the American Psychological Association, says it’s important to identify what can be changed and what can’t. 

“If you’ve been supporting a friend or family member, maybe it’s our turn to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have the bandwidth to be your emotional support right now. I care for you. I love you. But I really got to hang up the phone and take care of me for a moment,’ ” Bufka says.

Don’t try to be a superhero

If you’re stretched too thin, experts say, ask yourself “What am I taking on that is optional or that I can pull back from?” If your standard always has been, say, to keep meals from scratch, consider takeout or frozen or canned vegetables instead. 

You also can try asking a friend or family member to help figure out how to alleviate your burden. 

“When we feel exhausted and hopeless, it’s hard to think clearly, and that’s when we can lean on others we trust,” Kapuscinski says.

Psychotherapy is also an option, especially if you’ve been putting it off. Many providers are conducting therapy via telehealth, and some insurance companies are waiving copays.

What refills you emotionally?

When you’re emotionally depleted, reach for things that make you feel good. 

“If you feel weary and withdrawn, try to notice if there were little glimmers of time when you felt the opposite,” Kapuscinski says. “That can serve as a guide for what you need to incorporate into your life more.”

Ask yourself: What kind of music nourishes me? Which friend makes me laugh? 

When you’re overwhelmed, it’s hard to dial back stress.

“The best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it,” Kapuscinski says. “It’s a lot less emotionally costly.”

Read more at usatoday.com

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