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What Is Emotional Exhaustion, and How Can You Address It?

Emotional exhaustion is the state in which an individual feels mentally drained or overwhelmed and is often the result of physical and emotional stress. Victims of emotional exhaustion oftentimes include those who regularly perform emotionally taxing work i.e. social workers, teachers, first responders, and other healthcare workers. Working while emotionally drained could lead to burnout and other health-related issues. For example, CNAs and other nurses may be at risk for burnout due to their heavy workload and a lack of time to care for themselves. This could be harmful to their career because one of the CNA Code of Ethics states that “a CNA cannot properly care for patients if they do not properly take care of themselves.” Unfortunately, statistics show that:

  • 50% of nurses feel tired all the time;
  • 35% experience sleepless nights;
  • 33% show signs of weight gain;
  • 32% have anxiety, aches, and pains;
  • 19% have depression.

Despite the importance of CNAs and other frontline caregivers, they remain at high risk for emotional exhaustion when they lack adequate support and self-care skills.

Aside from internal side effects such as burnout and increased stress levels, emotional exhaustion can also take a toll on one’s job performance. This article will help individuals identify signs of emotional exhaustion and how to recover.

What Causes Emotional Exhaustion?

There is no single cause of emotional exhaustion. Instead, it can be triggered by various factors. The difference between daily stress and emotional exhaustion is that emotional exhaustion occurs over time when the daily stress increases and is too much to handle — potentially leading to persistent emotional and mental concerns like physical illness and poor job performance. Other potential causes of emotional exhaustion include:

  • Acting as a caregiver for a loved one;
  • Balancing all aspects of life (work, school, and personal life);
  • Emotionally-taxing/high-empathy job roles (i.e. hospice CNAs, RNs, and physicians);
  • Handling major life events (i.e. divorce, death, new career);
  • Homelessness;
  • Preexisting mental illness or physical injury;
  • Raising a family;
  • Stressing over finances, like how to pay for housing, food, and other essentials;
  • Working at high-pressure jobs;
  • Working long hours.

Signs of Emotional Exhaustion

Everyone that experiences emotional exhaustion does so differently. For some, they show less noticeable, while in others they’re more prominent. Common symptoms of emotional exhaustion to be aware of in both yourself and those around you include:

  • Anxiety: This can come across as a constant state of worry, frequent panic attacks, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Depression: An individual may show a loss of interest in activities or seem to be down/in a bad mood a majority of the time.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue can cause someone to constantly feel tired or have low energy, both of which can put a damper on one’s daily routine.
  • Feeling hopeless/feel like giving up: Emotional exhaustion can cause people to lose all motivation.
  • Frequent headaches: Headaches can be caused by an overabundance of stress and anxiety.
  • Inability to fall asleep/stay asleep: Emotional exhaustion has a way of keeping people awake by essentially consuming their thoughts and not allowing them to relax.
  • Irritability: Signs of irritability could include an individual getting mad or annoyed at the smallest of inconveniences.
  • Loss of appetite: For some, loss of appetite can happen when they feel overwhelmed or anxious.
  • Nervousness: They may hesitate to try anything new or constantly think about the worst-case scenario, making them too nervous to accomplish everyday tasks.

These symptoms can result in an overall lack of productivity, an inability to meet deadlines, and absenteeism.

What to Do When You Are Emotionally Drained

It’s important to be able to identify the signs of emotional exhaustion and how to address them. Some of the symptoms listed above can be mitigated by taking the time to practice self-care, while others require an individual to seek additional help. Listed below are resources to utilize when you are emotionally exhausted.

Seek Help in Emergencies

Experiencing emotional exhaustion for too long without access to adequate resources can lead to severe cases of depression, substance abuse, thoughts of self-harm, or even suicide. If you or someone you know has mental health problems such as these extremes, seek 24/7 emergency help by contacting the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).

Practice Mindfulness

According to the Mayo Clinic, “mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” Practicing mindfulness is beneficial in many ways. It can help you reduce your stress levels, collect your thoughts, decrease job burnout, and improve your attention span. Exercises you can perform to begin practicing mindfulness include:

  • Accepting yourself by treating yourself the way you would treat a good friend;
  • Focusing on your breathing;
  • Living in the moment;
  • Meditating (body scan meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation);
  • Slowing down and taking notice of everything around you.

Reduce Stressors

Emotional exhaustion can be addressed by identifying and reducing the root stressors causing the symptoms. The following are ways you can reduce common stressors.

  • Assert yourself;
  • Eat and drink as healthy as you can — nourishing your body means nourishing your mind;
  • Eliminate bad habits from your daily routine;
  • Exercise regularly;
  • Pace yourself;
  • Practice effective time management skills;
  • Set your priorities;
  • Take responsibility for your actions;
  • Take the time for self-care.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Living a healthy lifestyle is another great and effective way to reduce and prevent emotional exhaustion. Listed below are basic tips to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

  • Continue to write down your goals;
  • Create an exercise routine you actually like;
  • Eat a healthy diet;
  • Get a full night’s rest;
  • Increase water consumption;
  • Track your progress.

Understanding the impact of emotional exhaustion can be confusing for those who are fortunate enough to live without it. And for those who do find themselves emotionally exhausted, it can be difficult to address it. While the symptoms may manifest in a variety of ways, the preventive measures stay the same. By implementing the tips above, you can ultimately reduce your emotional exhaustion and get back on track to a healthy and mentally stable lifestyle.


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