Written by Amy Beecham
You might feel emotionally worn out, but how can you really tell? A clinical psychologist identifies seven of the key early warning signs of emotional exhaustion.
Overwhelmed, fatigued, burnt out, languishing, drained, overloaded. In 2022, our shared language for describing the emotional burden of modern life is ever-expanding.
While it may feel like a sad realisation, as mental health struggles become all the more common, the silver lining is that it can allow us to identify our negative feelings easier than ever.
As we become more in touch and familiar with our psyche, what triggers us and makes us want to stop the world and get off for a while, we naturally get better at recognising the early warning signs and taking preventative action.
It seems like everybody we know right now is afflicted by some kind of malaise – the condition of feeling not quite right, but being hard-pressed to put your finger on exactly what’s bothering you.
Emotional exhaustion is often one of the biggest root causes. According to Healthline, it’s a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives, or a combination of both.
People experiencing emotional exhaustion often feel like they have no power or control over what happens in life. They may feel “stuck” or “trapped” in a situation, Healthline goes on to explain. Over time, this chronic, stressed-out state can cause permanent damage to your health.
While triggers can include everything from financial stress, a high-pressure job, coping with traumatic events or a lack of personal fulfilment, what triggers emotional exhaustion differs from person to person. What might be stressful for one person can be completely manageable for another.
Psychologists also suggest that conditions like emotional exhaustion can be “caught” from those around you, meaning that you’re likely to pick up on and absorb the negative emotions of friends in a kind of emotional contagion.
However, clinical psychologist Dr Michaela Dunbar, aka @myeasytherapy on Instagram, identifies seven of the most common signs of being emotionally drained to look out for, both in yourself and others.
You’re struggling to feel motivated
According to the American National Library of Medicine, emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout, alongside alienation from work activities and reduced performance.
All three of these experiences go hand in hand with a lack of motivation, as those suffering tend to experience cynicism and feelings of negativity towards aspects of their life, from work to socialising.
You are more easily irritated than usual
According to Dr Dunbar, people may initially notice that they are feeling more frustrated or pessimistic than usual, sometimes leading to outbursts of unexplained anger or low moods. You may also feel restless and on edge a lot.
Even small tasks feel overwhelming
Washing piling up? Streams of texts going unreplied to? An empty fridge because you can’t face food shopping? While putting off the minutiae of domestic life isn’t a surefire sign that you’re emotionally drained, extreme and detrimental procrastination can be a key early warning sign of emotional exhaustion.
Your appetite has changed
A healthy and balanced diet is one of the best ways you can help strengthen and nourish your body. But what about when you feel like you have neither the energy, time or motivation to eat?
A sudden change in appetite – consuming either more or less food than usual – is considered another key sign of emotional drainage.
You’re tired all day, but struggle to sleep at night
Much of the research around burnout links insufficient sleep with a greater risk of burning out. And it’s true that people who don’t – or can’t – prioritise their own wellbeing may be more prone to emotional exhaustion. This can include those who do not get enough exercise, sleep or healthy foods.
You’re making easy mistakes you wouldn’t usually make
Research suggests that emotional exhaustion is linked to a decline in three main cognitive areas: executive function, such as planning and organising; attention; and memory.
When we experience emotional drainage, it can become even more difficult to juggle stressful situations, including work pressure or emotionally demanding tasks, leading to mistakes or overlooked details.
You feel like you could be stuck this way forever
When you’re deep in an episode of emotional fatigue, it can feel like there’s no way you can be pulled out, and no one to be able to do it.
Loneliness may increase feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout, as research suggeststhat fostering social relationships may help people lessen the harmful effects of emotional exhaustion by promoting resilience and a sense of greater wellbeing.
You’ve Got This by Dr Michaela Dunbar will be published on 28 April.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support.
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