8 Questions to Check If You're Emotionally Exhausted
4. Struggling to pay attention to friends and family.
Posted May 21, 2019
We all have stress, sometimes more and sometimes less. But sometimes, the stresses overlap and you begin to lose your sense of control. When that happens, your emergency response system triggers an increase in adrenaline, your body’s own stimulant. Now you are still dealing with the stresses in your life while also dealing with the side effects of adrenaline. Adrenaline is putting your brain and body on alert so you’ll be ready for the next unexpected crisis, but it also means your natural mood-stabilizing hormone serotonin is getting used up or running low. So, if an added unpredictable crisis pops up, like infertility, you’re already running on almost empty—just when you need a full tank of energy, clear thinking, and emotional strength.
If you can’t catch your psychological and physical breath, and feel like you have no time or energy left to bounce back naturally, you may be emotionally exhausted. To assess your stress, check all the following statements that are often true for you lately:
Emotional Exhaustion Inventory
- I smile less frequently than I used to, even in situations I typically would find funny.
- My senses seem dulled, so food tastes flat, music doesn’t move me, back rubs give me no pleasure, and I reach for black or grey clothes.
- I can't sleep. Either I can't fall asleep, stay asleep, or all I want to do is sleep.
- Socializing is difficult. When I am with friends or family, I feel disconnected and have a hard time paying attention to what they say.
- I get startled easily by voices, noises or movement. I feel jumpy and jittery.
- I am more irritable than I used to be, especially in lines, online, and on the phone.
- My anxiety level is higher than usual, and crowds and traffic make me feel claustrophobic.
- I cry more easily, particularly during movies, sad news reports, sentimental stories and even shows with happy endings.
If you are experiencing any of these reactions to stress, you are probably emotionally exhausted and it’s time to conserve your emotional energy by reducing emotional demands. How can you regain your sense of control and pace yourself for the long run? Four emotional healing strategies can make a great difference, but they take practice.
Most of us are so busy taking care of everyone and everything else that we run on a time-deficit. And the deficit gets bigger as smartphones make us more accessible for emergencies, consultations, and extra errands 24 hours a day, plus texting eats up all the extra time it is supposed to be saving us. Add the demands of the unexpected stress, like fertility treatment, financial changes, or family illness, and there is no time left for yourself. Of course, you are exhausted.
So why don’t we just say “no” more often? Most of us are waiting to use the extra time for ourselves. But there’s no more left-over time and the only special time for many of us is in the middle of the night and then we’re sleep-deprived and pump up our adrenaline, even more, to get through the day. If you are dealing with an infertility diagnosis, a financial problem, a family illness or more than one stress at once, you will never have a better excuse to start saying “no” when you are on overload, so you can catch your breath and restore your sense of control.
- Practice saying “no” without feeling guilty, justifying yourself, or defending yourself.
- Practice saying “no” graciously, but not tentatively.
- Practice giving explanations, not excuses.
If you are hesitant, remember that expecting too much of yourself isn’t noble—it’s unrealistic and even cruel. Put yourself on your list of loved ones and try to take as good care of yourself as you would a sister or best friend.
Give Yourself a Break
It may sound natural to take a break when you are emotionally exhausted, but if it was, you’d be doing it already. Instead, most of us try to ‘catch up’ and ‘get ahead’ before we give ourselves permission to pause, but that only adds more stress and less control.
Here’s the good news: Herbert Benson of Harvard University has conducted research finding that as little as 20 minutes of downtime a day can prevent or remedy the symptoms on the Emotional Exhaustion Inventory by almost 50 percent. And the downtime does not have to be all at once: You can read a magazine for five minutes in the morning, play Words with Friends without multitasking for 10 minutes after lunch, and sit and have a cup of tea without texting or speaking on the phone for five minutes before you go home after work. That’s 20 minutes.
Alternately, you could close your eyes and do progressive relaxation for 10 minutes before you get out of bed in the morning and meditate for 10 minutes before you get into bed at night—that’s 20 minutes, too.
Pause for a warm shower, dance in the kitchen to music faster than your heartbeat, sit and listen to music slower than your heartbeat, practice yoga, walk, jog, bike, hum, pray, read a book, listen to a book, write a book—they all work. They burn up adrenaline, shut off adrenaline, or prevent the adrenaline rush. The trick is making the time to do it.
An added benefit of pausing is that you can focus on the present, instead of re-living the stresses of the past or anxiously pre-living possible future stresses. It’s often called mindfulness and if you think you don’t have the downtime to pause right now, consider that without downtime by choice, you may have more downtime later, without choice, because of emotional exhaustion symptoms.
Use the Brain-Body Connection
Did you know that our emotions can be the result of our thoughts and behaviors, not just the cause? It’s true, so you can fight emotional exhaustion by choosing both your thoughts and behaviors carefully. Start with your thoughts. Create a mantra for yourself, like “step by step” or a positive affirmation such as “I will be fine.” Mantras and affirmations work because your brain stops calling for action when you are talking to yourself as if everything is under control. Your brain may not listen to other people’s reassurances, but it listens to your own. Soon your stress hormone level can drop, and your brain can rest.
You can choose behaviors that turn off your body’s emergency readiness system in the same way. Act as if everything is normal, as if you have energy, as if you want to go to work, and you can really make it so. Instead of your stress hormones keeping you hypervigilant—causing insomnia, making you hyperactive until you are wiped out, or causing you to hyperventilate until you’re dizzy—all your feel-good hormones will be stimulated, and your body can rest.
Follow up with laughter and play, our natural energizers. Try cinematherapy, retail therapy, or game nights. Deliberately putting some pleasure back in your life when you’re dealing with ongoing stress like fertility treatment, family illness, or financial problems, can actually be more than fun—it can be an antidote to emotional exhaustion.
Get a Perspective on Your Perspective
Remind yourself that life is a package deal. That means difficult problems are a fact of life, not a personal punishment. If you’re blaming yourself and focusing on what you should have done or could have done differently, relabel your problem as inconvenient, not a failure. Blaming yourself is not only usually inaccurate, but it also perpetuates emotional exhaustion. Besides, even if it were your fault, you should be forgiving yourself, not making yourself feel worse.
Remind yourself to reach for support and allow yourself to receive it. Just talking will give you an opportunity to hear yourself, adjust your thoughts and feelings, and understand them better. Besides, most problems are less ominous when you tell a friend in the light of day than when you silently worry about them in the middle of the night.
Remind yourself that healing takes time. Retake the Emotional Exhaustion Inventory after trying these healing strategies for a few weeks. Although losses like a miscarriage or a sudden family loss are, of course, traumatic, your psychological and physical symptoms should begin to improve by then. If they haven’t, self-help may not be enough. Please consult with a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, group counselor, social worker, or trained clergy member to help you rebuild your emotional energy.