What is Emotional Exhaustion?

With the constant news cycle, an election year, working from home, homeschooling kids, dealing with a worldwide pandemic, and so many other factors (the list could go on!), burnout is bound to be a result for many of us. Dr. Ward gives us an understanding of emotional exhaustion and how to alleviate this factor of burnout.

What is emotional exhaustion?

Simply put, emotional exhaustion is what happens when we run out of “gas” but have to keep pushing to get things done without taking time to rest and refuel. When we repeat that over and over, it has a real cost. Please note that just because you are experiencing emotional exhaustion doesn’t necessarily mean you are experiencing burnout, but it does mean that you could be on your way there if you don’t take corrective action.

Why is emotional exhaustion so prevalent?

At the most basic level, many of us are living in a constant state of fight or flight. This is caused by a number of things – the very real threat of COVID and its threat to both our personal health and our economy, as well as the tendency of news and social media posts to evoke an emotional/physical response. Add to that the “real” demands of getting things done in high pressure environments and family commitments. Then top that off with the fact that many of us simply do not get enough sleep.

I’m also of the opinion that “busyness” has become both a status symbol and a means of trying to “control chaos.”  The end result: we are afraid to rest – because of how others might perceive us or because things might fall apart if we simply stop for a bit.

What are some signs of emotional exhaustion?

Here’s a quick check. When you get up in the morning, how do you feel? If you are dreading the day and don’t feel like you have the energy to tackle what’s ahead of you, pay attention. Admittedly, we all face challenging days now and then, but if that feeling is a trend, you are probably looking at some form of emotional exhaustion.

For me, I know I’m in that state when I feel like I’m constantly trying to meet life’s demands from sheer willpower rather than actually taking joy or being energized by any of my work. As a side note, some of these signs could also look like depression, so please consult the chart I’m including here to help you sort out what’s really going on.

Used with permission from Alethia Counseling Center.

What are some tips for helping with emotional exhaustion?

First off, check how you are breathing.

Here’s how to do that. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Now inhale and exhale like you would normally. If the hand on your chest moves more than the one on your belly, then you are “stress breathing.” As an alternative to this, you want the air to go all the way down to your diaphragm and to slowly exhale. When you do that, you will notice two things. First, your belly moves more than your chest. Second, you will start to feel some of the tension dissipate from your body. With that baseline, you can start to develop an awareness of when you are carrying tension in your body. I recommend to my coaching clients that they take a reset when they notice that tension.

To hit “reset,” inhale slowly for a count of three. Then exhale for a count of four. Repeat that three times. It should take less than 30 seconds, and you will feel a noticeable difference. By the way, if your smart watch or fitbit tells you to breathe, then “belly breathing” is a great way to do that.

Once you have that basic skill of hitting reset on the go, the next step is to develop habits that help you rest and recharge on a larger scale. There’s a lot of work to be done here, so let’s consider these bullet points just a few things to help get your started, because all of them can impact your ability to rest and/or recharge. Pick one of these to address in a measurable way:

  • Sleep. This may seem basic, but sleep really is important. If you don’t get it, you get exhausted.
  • Strategic Napping. Much has been written about the 30 minute power nap. If you aren’t getting the sleep you need, then you’ve got to make up for it somehow. Short naps help.
  • Nutrition. Food is fuel for both our body and our mind. Please be sure to fill up on the good stuff.
  • Exercise. I’m neither an athlete, nor do I play one on TV. Nonetheless, I’ve found that movement is essential for me to stay energized. Now that so many of us are working from home, it’s critical to set aside time to move and get our heart rates up.
  • Find opportunities to disconnect from technology and it’s various interruptions into your daily life and reconnect to nature. In essence, disconnect from the digital world and reconnect to the physical one.
  • Allow yourself enough down time to get “bored” once a week.

If you’re unsure what to address, start with sleep, then nutrition second, and then exercise. Rather than seeing these as “switches” to flip “on” or “off.” Think of these parts of your lives as “dials” that you can fine tune through a series of small experiments.

Dr. Stanley J. Ward is the founder of Influence Coaching, LLC, and author of How to Beat Burnout for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Team. He helps overwhelmed leaders improve their energy, relationships, and sense of effectiveness so they can experience success both at work and home. To learn more about small experiments for beating burnout and improving your leadership skills, contact him by email or call (201) 948-LEAD.