That feeling you can't name? It's called emotional exhaustion.
2020 did not relent; the early days of 2021 have been a national nightmare; and if there's a phrase to describe what many of us are feeling it's this: emotionally exhausted.
The frustrating, heartbreaking, unpredictable events of the past months demanded so much. Many of us had to learn new ways of working, of caring for and teaching our children, of staying healthy and remaining connected. The burden of our responsibilities seemed to grow heavier by the day, and if we did find a precious moment to lay down the load, we'd turn on the TV to see racial unrest, hundreds of thousands dead from COVID or a raging mob at the U.S. Capitol.
Many of us are asking, "how much more can we take?"
"Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmingness. Overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don't have the capacity to deal anymore," said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at 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."
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And yet, most of us don't have the luxury of stepping away from our responsibilities, especially now. Work calls or the children call or a distraught friend calls. In this era of uncertainty, we can't eliminate some of our biggest stressors nor can we predict which one is coming next.
USA TODAY spoke with three mental health experts who share their tips for navigating these unyielding days.
What is emotional exhaustion?
Emotional exhaustion is not a specific clinical syndrome, but mental health experts say it can lead to, or be accompanied by, other mental health conditions like a major depressive disorder. The phrase is usually used when talking about burnout, when feelings about stressors and responsibilities mount to the point that someone feels they don't have any energy left to expend.
It often occurs when the resources we use to perform daily tasks, work, and care for ourselves and others are depleted. Some stress and anxiety is always present, but when we're emotionally exhausted, that stress is prolonged and becomes chronic. The systems we draw from to function deplete, and we effectively burn out.
Anyone experiencing chronic stress is susceptible to burnout, but it's especially common in fields such as health care and law enforcement, where there's a significant amount of stress and caregiving responsibilities.
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"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," said Afton Kapuscinski, director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University.
How to tell whether you're emotionally exhausted
Mental experts say there are a number of signs and symptoms associated with emotional exhaustion, including:
- Difficulty with concentration
- Loss of motivation
- Lack of focus
- General 'brain fog'
- Feeling disconnected from other people
- A sense you're not effective or competent (even if you've been overperforming at home or at work)
- Actual problems with performance, including making more mistakes than usual
There are also physical symptoms, which can include:
- Muscle fatigue and tension
- Stomach problems
- Sleep problems
Emotional exhaustion can also sometimes 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 said. "They think, 'if I remove myself, I can't be as affected,' just like dissociation in trauma would be."
For a person to function well, they 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 said. "Because you really can't do all the things. So you have to ask yourself where you aren't being true to yourself."
Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association, said it's part of identifying what things 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,'" she said.
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 has always been a from-scratch meal, maybe consider frozen or canned vegetables instead.
You can also try asking a friend or family member to help you problem-solve 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 said.
Psychotherapy is also an option, especially if you've been putting it off. Many providers, Kapuscinski said, are conducting therapy through telehealth and some insurance companies are waiving copays.
Think about 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 ... that can serve as a guide for what you need to incorporate into your life more," Kapuscinski said.
Ask yourself: What kind of music nourishes me? Which friend makes me laugh?
When you're overwhelmed, it's hard to dial back stress, which is why experts say the healthiest approach is to try and avoid depletion in the first place.
"The best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it," Kapuscinski said. "It’s a lot less emotionally costly."
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