Here's What Emotional Exhaustion Looks Like, According to Experts
Emotional exhaustion seeps in subtly, at first. Maybe it's a little hard to get out of bed. Then, small tasks start overwhelming you, and suddenly your to-do list feels out of hand. Having days when you feel off or lack energy is normal, but it's easy to miss the warning signs of emotional burnout. When these feelings consistently roll over into the rest of your week, it could be time to check in with yourself.
Over the past two hectic, unsettling years, several factors have fueled our collective overwhelm. If you're constantly feeling "at capacity" and wondering about your emotional state, POPSUGAR spoke with mental health experts to see what emotional exhaustion looks like and how it manifests into your work life, relationships, and general day-to-day. Here's what you need to know if you think you might be dealing with emotional exhaustion.
What Is Emotional Exhaustion?
"While exhaustion happens when we're overextended, emotional exhaustion happens when we have too many poor emotional experiences in a row or over a period of time," Aly Goldstein, PsyD, and COO of On the Goga, tells POPSUGAR. "The experience of consistently negative emotions, like anger, frustration, fear, or sadness, builds up over time and can make us feel like we don't have the ability to improve, enjoy, or change our circumstances or environment." Emotional exhaustion can manifest as feeling stuck in your negative emotions, rather than fully experiencing joy, happiness, or comfort, Dr. Goldstein says, adding that these constant negative feelings can cause us to continue down a path of negativity toward ourselves and others.
When too many events are competing for your emotional energy, whether at work or in your personal life, or you're navigating emotionally strenuous situations over a long period of time, it'll start taking its toll on you. You can think of it like a phone that's constantly on low-battery, and automatically sets itself on preservation mode to conserve the energy it has left. "A reduced sense of ability impacts our behaviors such as having shorter fuses and reacting more quickly, being more critical or punitive, feeling overwhelmed and having trouble thinking clearly," says Dr. Goldstein. This can lead to conflicts with those around us as well as a general feeling of disengagement and lack of interest in our work or our personal lives. As this cycle continues, a sense of emotional exhaustion further increases, Dr. Goldstein says.
Are Emotional Exhaustion and Burnout the Same Thing?
Emotional exhaustion and burnout are related, but they're not the same thing. Being emotionally exhausted for an extended period of time can lead to burnout. "We begin to experience symptoms, emotional exhaustion being one, along with others that may include feeling isolated, anxious, fatigued, irritable, hopeless, or experiencing one's work performance or job satisfaction dropping due to a lack of connection and support," says Jackie Tassiello MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT, ATCS, and co-founder of Soulutions Therapy. "Burnout is often misdiagnosed as depression because some of the symptoms overlap. Burnout isn't caused by stress, it's caused by a lack of resources and support."
How Do I Know If I'm Emotionally Exhausted?
When you're emotionally drained, it might be difficult to connect to the people and things you typically enjoy, because you're perpetually tired. "You'll likely feel as if you simply have nothing left to give to others," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and relationship expert. "Those who are extroverts may notice that they are avoiding friends, social events, and gatherings in favor of quiet time. Introverts may turn inward even more than usual and require intensive amounts of healing, solitary time."
Emotional dysregulation, which is a poorly regulated emotional response, is common when you're emotionally drained, and it'll be harder to shrug off negative thoughts and stay positive in general. "You are likely drained when you have used your capacity to be optimistic and consider the 'glass half full,'" says Tomi Mitchell, MD, family physician and mental health and wellness coach. "At this point, you feel you have done your absolute best trying to solve the issues at hand. But, even after all your efforts, you are no closer to alleviating the tension."
Feeling emotionally drained looks like having your energy tank on empty, and you have no space for anything that requires your emotional functions. While being emotionally drained takes a huge mental toll, our bodies will show symptoms, too. "You may feel tired, or your muscles will feel tight or sore, and you feel disconnected from your thoughts or body," says Jessica McCoy, LMFT. "You may feel numb after an intense emotional experience or a prolonged emotional experience. Pay attention to your emotionally drained 'red flags.' Your red flags could include not responding to texts, wanting to stay home, numbing out by scrolling social media or binging shows. Any of these behaviors can be used to check out from feeling more emotions and are ways to disconnect from your emotional experience."
What Does Emotional Exhaustion Look Like in Relationships?
When we're on preservation mode, emotional exhaustion affects your functionality in every area. If you're struggling to sustain energy for basic tasks, your mind is on survival mode, so maintaining a relationship can be difficult. Relationships and the emotional efforts they demand start feeling like hard work.
"The presentation of symptoms, such as cynicism, fatigue, lack of motivation, and feeling low motivation can impact our relationships and work in similar ways: We're not showing up completely, we're not performing well, we're not ourselves because we're disconnected and depleted," Tassiello tells POPSUGAR. "We may be there physically, but we're mentally and emotionally just not invested."
"As a relationship therapist, I see many couples struggle to support each other when their own emotions are being taxed by their partner's needs," says Omar Ruiz, LMFT, owner of TalkThinkThrive. "Being emotionally exhausted in a relationship looks like you're spending so much time defending yourself in the midst of ongoing arguments that you either shut down or get highly enraged to the point of a breakdown."
What Does Emotional Exhaustion Look Like at Work?
Symptoms of emotional exhaustion can manifest themselves at work in the form of constantly missing deadlines, finding it hard to stay caught up with tasks, showing up late, and not producing work at your usual standard. You're unable to show up completely because you're depleted.
"You might have enjoyed the work you are doing, but now you feel you are better off not doing the work," Dr. Mitchell says. "It can be hard to think of anything other than negative thoughts when we're feeling bad. Having overly judgmental thoughts towards your co-workers or the organization could all indicate emotional exhaustion as well."
What Should You Do If You're Emotionally Exhausted?
Firstly, it's important to identify your stressors and what's taking up most of your energy. It's not always possible to remove the stressor, but it is possible to alleviate the circumstances surrounding it. Before your emotional exhaustion becomes complete burnout, it's important to check in with yourself and get some help.
After identifying the source of exhaustion, Ruiz recommends considering why it's causing you stress and taking extra care of yourself. "Once you figure out whether it's work, personal, and/or relationship stress that is causing the exhausted emotional drain, then it's time to start thinking about what measures must be taken to alleviate these symptoms," Ruiz tells POPSUGAR. "Taking care of yourself is more than just working out or taking a personal day off, it's about doing things that bring life and joy back to your life, thus resulting in a balance of emotions. Sometimes self-care involves hanging around people that love, care, and appreciate you. When you can take a break, even if it's for an hour, it's best to engage in an activity that refreshes you so that you can continue facing the day in the best way possible."