How to recognize and cope with emotional exhaustion

How to recognize and cope with emotional exhaustion


Emotional exhaustion can make people feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and fatigued, and the feelings tend to build up over a long period of time. This can impact a person's daily life, relationships, and behaviour. This article will overview the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of emotional exhaustion, as well as the ways it can be prevented and treated.



 What causes emotional exhaustion?


Various different things can contribute to emotional exhaustion. It depends on a person's tolerance for stress and other factors in their lives at the time.

The following are examples of things that can trigger emotional exhaustion:


  • going through a significant life change
  • being a caregiver
  • financial stress
  • having a baby/raising children
  • homelessness
  • juggling several things at once, such as work, family, and school
  • medical conditions
  • working long hours
  • working in a high-pressure environment

Generally, emotional exhaustion can occur when someone feels overwhelmed by factors in their life. They may believe they have no control over their life, or may not be balancing self care with life's demands.






Emotional exhaustion can cause physical and emotional effects. These symptoms can build up over time and with repeated stress, although people may not notice the early warning signs. Looking out for and recognising symptoms in oneself and others is necessary so that the person can start taking steps towards feeling better. 

Common symptoms include the following:

1. Changing mood

Emotional exhaustion affects a person's mood and mental health. This may start as feeling more cynical or pessemistic than ususal, and lose motivation to work, socialise, or perform simple tasks. These feelings can become stronger eventually and cause individuals to feel trapped or disconnected.

Emotional exhaustion can lead to feelings of:

  • anger and irritability
  • anxiety
  • apathy
  • depression 
  • failure
  • lack of motivation
  • hopelessness
  • pessimism

People who experience anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm should seek help from a doctor or therapist, as soon as possible.


2. Thinking difficulties

People with emotional exhaustion may experience "brain fog" - changes in thinking and memory. These symptoms can include: 

  • confusion
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • lack of imagination
  • loss of memory

Research suggests that burnout, which involves emotional exhaustion, is linked to a decline in three main cognitive areas:

  • executive function, such as planning and organizing
  • attention
  • memory

Cognitive changes can be particularly difficult when a person is trying to juggle stressful situations.


3. Sleeping problems

During stressful periods of life, people can struggle to maintain a regular sleeping pattern. People with emotional exhaustion can also feel physically fatigued and may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Otherwise, they may oversleep in the morning. Low mood and brain fog can make it difficult for people to get out of bed in the morning or make it through the day.



4. Emotional changes

Emotional issues can manifest themselves in physical ways, including:

  • changes in appetite
  • digestive problems
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations
  • weight loss or gain


5. Effects on work and personal relationships

Physical, emotional, and cognitive changes can affect a person's relationships, and their ability to function in their home and workplace, such as:

  • less ability to connect with others on a personal or emotional level
  • increased rates of absence from work
  • a lack of enthusiasm in work and personal life
  • low self-esteem
  • missed deadlines
  • poor work performance
  • social withdrawal from others


Who is at risk for emotional exhaustion?


Anyone can experience emotional exhaustion, particularly if they live with long-term stress or have recently experienced a significant change in their lives. Some people are more at risk than others, however, including people who experience the following:



Those in demanding or stressful jobs are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion and burnout. People with high work demands and people who are preoccupied with thoughts about work during leisure time are more at risk. Police officers, nurses, social workers, and teachers may also be more at risk than others. 


The risk of emotional exhaustion increases for anyone who:

  • works in a job they dislike
  • has a poor job fit
  • works long hours
  • feels a lack of control at work
Individuals who strive for what they see as perfection in areas of their lives often experience emotional exhaustion and burnout, and perfectionism is a risk factor for such conditions. Perfectionists are more likely to put themselves under excessive stress by taking on more than they can comfortably manage.
Loneliness may increase feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout. Fostering social relationships may potentially help people lessen the harmful effects of burnout by having more people to share their feelings with, promoting resilience, and a sense of greater wellbeing.
Poor self-care
People who do not prioritise their own well-being may be more prome to emotional exhaustion. This includes people who do not get enough exercise, sleep, or healthful foods. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs may also increase risk, particularly if people use these as coping mechanisms.
Other factors
Individuals may be more likely to experience emotional exhaustion if they:
  • use harmful coping strategies, such as drugs or alcohol, to deal with stress
  • feel they have too few personal resources, such as status, money, or support
  • live or work in a culture that does not value their freedom of expression

Emotional exhaustion and burnout


The term "burnout" was first used in the 1970s to describe the effects of severe stress on professionals such as doctors and nurses. Today, it is used to describe the results of chronic stress on anyone. However, no clear definition of burnout exists. 

The three symptoms of burnout are:

  • emotional exhaustion
  • alienation from work activities
  • reduced performance

Treatment and tips for recovery


To reduce emotional exhaustion and burnout, lifestyle changes are typically required. In some cases, medications or therapy may be needed. Treatments and tips to aid recovery include: 


Reduce stress

Where possible, people should try to reduce sources of stress. They may be able to take on fewer tasks, delegate to others, and ask for help. Another option is to consider moving to a different role or organization if work is a significant source of stress.


Make healthful lifestyle choices 

Living a healthful life can improve physical and mental health and foster resilience. To do this:

  • Eat a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink.
  • Avoid tobacco smoking.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  • Establish a sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each night and getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep.


Maintain a good work-life balance

People should try not to let work or caring for a loved one take over, and ensure they plan regular holidays and rest days. People should take scheduled breaks throughout the day and make time for things they enjoy at least weekly. These may include:

  • drawing
  • collecting items, such as stamps or coins
  • gardening
  • reading
  • seeing a movie
  • spending time with pets
  • walking in the park


Practice mindfulness

Regular mindfulness practice can reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood. People who practice mindfulness report significantly less emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction than those who do not.


Connect with others

Social disconnection is both a symptom and a risk factor for emotional exhaustion. To avoid this, people should try to connect with others whenever possible. This could include meeting up with a friend, joining a club or walking group, and reaching out to family and neighbours.


Change your attitude

Changing a person's thoughts can alter their mood and behaviour. Ways to change negative thinking include:

  • focusing on what is going right in life rather than what is not
  • replacing negative thoughts with more positive or realistic ones
  • avoiding comparisons with others
  • accepting that sometimes negative feelings occur and not fighting them
  • staying in the present rather than focusing on the past or trying to anticipate the future
  • remembering that these unhelpful feelings will pass


See a therapist or doctor

Therapy can be a good way to treat emotional exhaustion and work through stress, anxiety and depression. Negative thoughts can be challenged and people can be equipped with new coping skills. Sometimes a doctor may recommend medication.


Many of the treatments for emotional exhaustion can also help prevent it from occurring in the first place. These include:

  • reducing stressors at home and work
  • engaging in enjoyable activities
  • taking time out for oneself
  • eating a healthful diet
  • exercising regularly
  • limiting alcohol and avoiding tobacco
  • getting enough sleep
  • maintaining a good work-life balance
  • connecting with friends, family, and others
  • keeping a positive mindset
  • practicing mindfulness and meditation
  • seeking professional help at the onset of anxiety or other changes in mood



People can experience emotional exhaustion after a period of excessive stress. It can have wide-ranging effects of a person's physical and mental health, careers, and relationships with others.

Looking out for the symptoms can help people take steps to improve them. Lifestyle changes and stress reduction methods can help.


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