woman with her head down on teal table, woman dealing with emotional exhaustion

You and I have probably both answered the casual “How are ya?” from a coworker or friend with, “Good! Just exhausted.” The tension in my shoulders, my heavier-than-normal eyelids, aching feet, and dull throb in the back of my head are all pretty reliable indicators that I am physically exhausted at the end of a long day, at 2am when when my baby wakes up, or at the close of a particularly long week. But there are many times where the exhaustion I am feeling or that other people are describing seems to not just be physical. I realize that many of the times I instinctively share how exhausted I am, I am actually not all that physically exhausted, but that I am actually experiencing emotional exhaustion.

What Does it Mean to Be Emotionally Exhausted?

Emotional exhaustion is an emotional and mental fatigue that accumulates over time. Emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling emotionally drained and depleted due to prolonged stress. When you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion, you are likely feeling extremely tired and worn out, but not just physically. It’s more than just feeling tired; it’s a sense of being emotionally overwhelmed, leading to a lack of energy and motivation. This can stem from various sources: work pressures, personal relationships, or ongoing challenging situations that you are facing. Emotional exhaustion is a step on the way to complete burnout. You may even describe emotional exhaustion as feeling “burned out” or “depleted.” Below are some of the most common signs of emotional exhaustion that you should pay attention to if you think you may be experiencing them.

What are signs of emotional exhaustion?

a woman sitting on a couch writing in a notebook

1. Feeling constantly tired or fatigued

You may feel this in a physical sense, but if it’s emotional exhaustion driving your fatigue, you will notice that a good night of sleep doesn’t make it go away since the root of the exhaustion goes beyond your physical state.

2. Lack of motivation or enthusiasm for activities you usually enjoy

 If activities you typically enjoy no longer sound or feel enjoyable, this may be the result of being emotionally exhausted. Things that once felt fun and exciting may now feel like a chore, a thing to “get through.” 

3. Increased irritability or mood swings

When you can’t put your finger on a specific reason WHY you are feeling particularly irritable, emotional exhaustion may be the culprit. In this case, there likely is not one, two, or even three contributing factors; your irritability is probably the result of a prolonged state of stress and overwhelm.

4. Difficulty concentrating

While this can happen for a variety of reasons, difficulty concentrating – especially in conjunction with some of the other symptoms listed – may be one of the manifestations for your emotional exhaustion. 

5. Feelings of dread

When you’re emotionally exhausted, you may feel an undercurrent of dread when thinking about just about anything coming up – big or small. In my own seasons of emotional overwhelm, the feelings of dread don’t discriminate – I feel dread for big and small things – from grocery shopping and cooking dinner to going to a social event or even an entire season of life that’s coming up. And it’s likely because I don’t have anything to give – physically or emotionally –  during those times.

The Dangers of Emotional Exhaustion

woman standing in front of window, looking down

There may be so many of us feeling emotionally exhausted that it starts to feel like it’s the norm, which makes it feel far less serious than it actually is. Being perpetually emotionally depleted can have long term physical and psychological consequences. Understanding the dangers of emotional exhaustion can help prevent long-term damage. 

4 Key Risks Include:

1. Physical Health Problems

Chronic stress can lead to serious health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and digestive problems, just to name a few. 

2. Mental Health Decline

Prolonged emotional exhaustion can develop into severe depression or anxiety disorders that require more intense intervention. If you already have a history of depression or anxiety, you may be at an increased risk for emotional exhaustion, and then in turn, the emotional exhaustion you are experiencing can exacerbate mental health disorders that are already present. 

3. Social Isolation

Feeling overwhelmed may cause you to withdraw from social interactions, leading you to feel lonely and isolated. I tend to get into some of my most negative head spaces when I am lonely or feeling isolated, and then everything feels bigger, scarier, and more upsetting than it actually is.

4. Burnout

At its extreme, emotional exhaustion can lead to complete burnout, where you may feel entirely disconnected from your surroundings and responsibilities. At this point, you may feel apathetic, numb, and a lack of drive to get out of the state of burnout.

5 of Ways to Help Emotional Exhaustion

1. Identify primary stressor(s)

Because emotional exhaustion is more than just feeling stressed or overwhelmed for a day, there are likely several contributing factors to its development. Think of different categories where stress may stem from: financial, relational, occupational, physical. What is happening in these areas of your life that could be contributing to emotional exhaustion? 

2. Limit exposure to stressor(s)

Once you identify your stressors, consider how you can limit their impact. I fully recognize that there may be some stressors that you aren’t able to simply fix. For instance, if finances are a stressor, limiting the impact of this stressor  may not be as simple as “creating a budget” since stressors like this can have many layers.

So, it may be helpful to identify the stressors you are most immediately able to “deal with” and focus on those first. For example, if you have a relationship in your life that is causing a significant amount of stress, how can you address this? Is it a relationship you want to work on? One you want to eliminate? Making these decisions can be challenging, but can lead to significant improvements in emotional, psychological, and even physical health in the future.

3. Seek professional help

Seeking professional support is the best decision I made in dealing with my own emotional exhaustion. If you are not already connected to a therapist or other mental health professional, I highly recommend connecting with one if you are able. 

Professional guidance can be helpful in moving through all parts of your emotional exhaustion, and they may be particularly helpful in strategizing ways to identify and deal with stressors.

4. Establish healthy boundaries

Overcommitment can lead to emotional exhaustion. Setting personal and professional boundaries can help you reduce stress and avoid overcommitting. This can be challenging, but it’s critical to know and understand your own limits and communicate them to others when needed in order to protect your emotional wellbeing.

5. Prioritize rest and sleep

While sleep is something that many of us sacrifice to “get things done” at times and in certain life seasons, try your best to prioritize regularly getting an adequate amount of sleep. Lack of sleep is a contributing factor to many mental and physical health issues, so protecting your sleep is key in avoiding and dealing with emotional exhaustion.

6. Connect socially

Pushing yourself to get or stay connected to friends and/or family even when you don’t feel like it can help you feel the sense of belonging and community that everyone needs.

Your Emotional Wellbeing: Worth Addressing and Healing

Emotional exhaustion is not “no big deal,” and for many of us, it isn’t something that just quickly passes. If you think you are struggling with emotional exhaustion, please know that help is available. You cannot pour from an empty cup, and continuing on like you are okay when you are not may leave you in a state of complete burnout. We are human beings with a finite amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy, and it is worth addressing, healing, and protecting yours.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of experiences and emotions that you are experiencing, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

With this in mind, we offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. Accordingly, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!