• Joumana Elomar

Emotional Exhaustion: The Beast Of Burnout

Emotional exhaustion exists at the heart of burnout. As the leading indicator, it can be an insidious force and have severe impacts on our performance, motivation and health. Yet, not many of us know how it manifests. So what makes it so invisible? What are the early signs? And what are some practical strategies we can use to combat it?

The invisible force

Research shows the levels of our emotional exhaustion can predict how we perform, whether we'll resign and our overall commitment to work. According to the study, this pattern is present and universal across age, gender and ethnicity.

So what exactly is it? Emotional exhaustion is when our emotional capacities are depleted due to accumulated stress from our personal or professional lives. In this state, we might feel unmotivated, extremely tired and unfocused. In her book 'How to Be Yourself', psychologist Ellen Hendriksen likens it to the "sense of moving through mud."

As emotional exhaustion isn't tied to a specific stressor or event, it can be difficult to articulate and solve the problem. This makes it almost invisible to see until it's impossible to ignore. As it grows with ongoing stress, it can often creep up on us and compound quite quickly. What might start as "I'm feeling quite tired and unfocused today" can swiftly turn into "I'm struggling to keep up with my deadlines" which can evolve to "What's the point of doing this work anyway?". So how do we spot the signs?

Spot the signs

As the leading indicator for burnout, emotional exhaustion can be insidious and have severe impacts. Being able to spot the signs is really important: not just in you but also in those around you. To help us stay vigilant, we can use the acronym DRAIN to keep our finger on the pulse:

  1. Difficulty thinking: If you're experiencing a continual "brain fog" where you're unable to think clearly or remember things, this may be a sign of emotional exhaustion. This can include confusion, difficulty focusing, forgetfulness or feeling a lack of creativity.

  2. Reactivity: When we're emotionally exhausted, we operate from survival mode and we can become more reactive. You might feel like you're continually running out of time. For example, weeks of working on immediate tasks rather than being able to plan in advance.

  3. Affected relationships: Emotional exhaustion can show up in our relationships. If you're emotionally drained, it can make it difficult to connect with friends and family. This might manifest as social withdrawal, a lack of enthusiasm and an increase of negative thoughts towards those around you.

  4. Irritability: An increase in irritability, or a change in demeaner is one of the first signs. This might appear as frustration towards parts of our jobs, at certain co-workers or at work politics.

  5. Negativity: While it's natural to have negative thoughts here and there, in excess they can deflate our mood and energy. If you find yourself experiencing growing negativity, or thinking things like "No one cares", "I shouldn't have to deal with this", "This is so unfair", or "If only X was more organised", then it may a sign.

Overall, if you're feeling drained, unmotivated, and tired—both physically and psychologically—then you might be emotionally exhausted. It's not the most pleasant list or things to experience, so what can we do about it?

Practical strategies

Some of the strategies we can use to gain control over our exhaustion:

  1. Get some sleep: As obvious as it is, we need sleep to recover. You might think to yourself that you have way too much to do to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Or that you're so far behind you can't afford to take a break. But have you ever written an email that took 20mins instead of 5mins because of brain fog? Or started a task, struggled to get through it, and still didn't get it done? Sometimes it's better to give your brain a break and sleep it off so you can come back the next day. Limiting your afternoon caffeine can also work wonders as it's one of the science-based tips for getting better sleep.

  2. Break the spiral: Emotional exhaustion can be hard to break. When we're in a slump, it can be easy to spiral downwards. This operates in a vicious cycle, where we feel tired -> we grow more negative -> we feel even more tired. Breaking the spiral can be as simple as taking a break, or changing one thing about your current pattern. A simple trick for a clearer mind is to switch between focused thinking and diffused thinking. This can increase creativity, deepen understanding and efficiently welcome better outcomes.

  3. Reappraisal: Check how you're thinking about the situation. If the stress is coming from within, changing how you think can help you reduce emotional exhaustion. So instead of 'This situation sucks' → 'This situation is a great opportunity to X'.

  4. Distraction: Sometimes focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even more out of control. By temporarily distracting yourself, it can give your system time to cool down before addressing the situation calmly. This could involve going for a walk, deep breathing or a short workout. But be careful to not to use distraction a crutch!

Wrapping it up

Emotional exhaustion can be insidious force. Often invisible until it's impossible to ignore, keeping an eye out for signs of DRAIN (difficulty thinking, reactivity, affected relationships, irritability and negativity) can help us maintain our momentum, motivation and mind's focus.

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