Emotionally exhausted lady lying face down on sofa

Recognising and preventing burnout and emotional exhaustion in our hectic lives

Are you suffering from emotional exhaustion?

We know that life is becoming busier, with more and more demands on our time and energy.

In this article, I’ll help you to recognise some of the causes and signs of burnout and emotional exhaustion, and share some strategies to reduce the risks and improve your emotional wellbeing.

If you’re familiar with the feeling that you haven’t done enough even though you’re constantly on the go, rushing against time and permanently exhausted, then read on.

In a busy world where many of us struggle to balance the ever-increasing demands of work alongside all the other things that matter to us, this endlessly striving, plate-spinning, always switched on mindset comes at a cost.

It’s a price which we ultimately pay with our health. Whilst our understanding of stress is improving and there is a shift in focus towards improving wellbeing, as a society we are still suffering from burnout, stress-related illness, and mental ill-health.

Whilst we are getting better at finding time for ways to relieve stress, for example, exercise, nature walks, yoga, creative activities and journaling, none of these interventions will completely solve the issue.  We must tackle the root of the problem.

What exactly is burnout?

Once associated mainly with high-achievers, burnout is now far more widespread.

American psychologist Herbert Fruedenberger gave us the clinical definition of burnout in1975, referring to it as a ‘state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life’.

The world has changed a lot since the 1970’s though, and although the World Health Organisation still defines burnout as a condition related to workplace stress, it’s fair to say that the symptoms associated with burnout and emotional exhaustion are not just caused by our working lives.  Other demands on our time, energy and headspace play their part too. Many of my clients are experiencing this sense of overwhelm and emotional exhaustion in their lives as a whole.  Work is just one part of the bigger picture.

The main components of burnout were identified by the Maslach Burnout Inventory published in 1981. Although these relate to work situations, I can see how they show up in other areas of life too. For example:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • feelings of negativity or cynicism
  • reduced sense of accomplishment, nothing you do will be enough

Do any of those sound familiar? If so then it’s time to take a step back and review the situation, and see where you can make some positive changes to address the root of the problem.

What can you do about it?

If the situations and feelings mentioned above happen occasionally, then you can usually get through it and recover without too much trouble. The real issues occur when this becomes your usual way of being, when it feels like this every day and you feel stuck in the cycle with seemingly no way out.

The proactive approach is to reduce stress in the first place, and build resilience to stress. But it’s also important to have a reactive strategy, a way to deal with stressful situations in the healthiest way possible.

Proactive Strategies to Reduce Stress and Overwhelm

Realistic expectations

Stress often comes from the expectations of others, but also from the expectations we put on ourselves. If the expectations are unrealistically high we’ll work hard to meet them, constantly increasing our stress levels, then beat ourselves up feeling disappointed and frustrated when we don’t achieve them.

Be realistic in your expectations and in the demands you put on your time and energy.

Practice becoming more assertive as well as setting clear boundaries and communicating them to others who may have unrealistic expectations of you.

Self-awareness

One of the key steps in building resilience is self-awareness.

Get to know yourself, understand your values and notice where they are being compromised. Understand your emotional needs and prioritise getting those needs met.

Recognise when you are at your best, and also identify what challenges you or triggers your stress response. Become curious and observant of your behaviour, and the language you use when talking to yourself, or to others. Perhaps start a journal to help you here.

Self-care

Looking after yourself is not a selfish indulgence, but an essential part of building resilience.

Devote time not only to relaxation but also to personal growth and fulfilment. If it seems selfish, and you feel guilty for not spending that time caring for others’ needs or doing important tasks, remember that a burnt-out, exhausted version of you is of no use to anyone.

Being the best version of yourself has a positive impact on those around you too, not just because you’re a pleasant person to be around, but you’ll be a role model too.

Reactive Strategies to manage stress

Use the PLAY model to respond in-the-moment to stressful situations.

Pause: Stop before you act, breathe, count to ten if you like, give yourself a moment.

Look: Look at the situation objectively, take a step back, focus on the outcome you want.

Accept: Accept the things you can’t change or control. Trying to resist or avoid a situation which is already happening will only cause you more stress.

You: What can you control? What can you influence? How can you react in a way that’s more useful for you? Instead of focusing on what’s happening, focus on what you can do about it.

Work with your stress-response, not against it

Although our bodies are designed to handle a certain amount of stress, a continual cycle of stress and overwhelming pressure will be triggering our ‘fight or flight’ responses far too often. 

Our bodies then fill with adrenalin, ready to act, but which then has nowhere to go. Our brain sends the signal to our body to either run or fight, and afterwards we can let our brain know we are safe again by doing something relaxing, or reconnecting with our ‘tribe’. This allows us to be calm, knowing that the threat has passed. You can’t stop this process, but you can go with its natural flow to help you manage stressful situations.

Use up your fight or flight energy by taking some exercise, even if it’s just a fast-paced walk. Then afterwards allow yourself some downtime to let your body and brain know that the danger is over.

So now you have an understanding of burnout and emotional exhaustion, and some strategies to build resilience, and reduce stress and overwhelm.

It can be hard to develop new habits.  We are creatures of habit, used to doing whatever feels most familiar, following our usual patterns, staying comfortable even when it’s uncomfortable.

It takes practice and self-awareness to develop those new habits.

Are you experiencing emotional exhaustion? If you would like some help to make lasting positive changes, get in touch and let’s talk about how I can support you.