Don’t blame yourself if 2020 and 2021 has left you feeling a bit depleted. Between the ongoing stressors of a pandemic, new lockdowns, racial injustice, and, well, the state of the world in general, a certain level of burnout is normal right now. Experts even have a name for the mental state that can arise with this type of sustained intensity: emotional exhaustion.
Emotional exhaustion can hit when we experience significant stress or when we are overly focused on meeting the needs and expectations of others. We’re especially susceptible when we overlook early physical signs that our energy is running low. “Our bodies want to rest,” says New York City-based psychotherapist Paki Chireah. “They don’t appreciate overstimulation.” However, many people may not know what physical signs to look out for.
Common signs of emotional exhaustion include irritability, muscle tension, and disruptions in sleep patterns, says licensed clinical social worker Melissa Ifill. The onset can be slow: “Many people in the early stages of burnout don’t understand why they’re feeling short-tempered, or why they don’t have the same capacity to hold space for others,” Ifill says.
The good news is that emotional exhaustion isn’t a fixed state. Once you identify it, some everyday strategies may help you move in the direction of feeling more resilient. Here, our experts offer advice for replenishing mental energy without losing focus on what you want to achieve.
1. Practice deep breathing
Given the ways emotional exhaustion can manifest physically, finding ways to support your body can be helpful, Ifill says. One simple exercise she recommends for anyone feeling overwhelmed right now: deep, diaphragmatic breathing. To do the exercise, find a quiet spot and get into a comfortable resting position. Inhale slowly while counting to 5, sipping air all the way down into your lower belly. Hold for a beat of 4. Then, count to 10 as you slowly exhale to release. Repeat the process from the beginning for at least two more cycles.
Many people report feeling more clear-headed after deep breathing, Ifill says. “It gives your nervous system the opportunity to slow down,” she explains, “which will then give you the ability to be able to make decisions differently.”
2. Decide when to engage with news
Many of us are finding it challenging to unplug from the world entirely—daily news developments directly affect our lives and our communities. However, staying informed doesn’t have to mean monitoring social media and new channels during every waking moment. Indeed, Ifill says, a 24/7 screen habit can keep people from “being present in things that would bring them joy.”
Rather than using your energy on constant channel surfing and scrolling, consider setting limits on how and when you engage with news and other forms of media. Maybe it’s best to turn off your social media alerts and check in twice a day, for instance, or watch just one news show every morning. Ifill also recommends powering down your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime every night. This allows you to “take intentional time to prepare the body for rest,” she says. Creating space in your life that’s free from screen-driven stimulation is important for recharging, she explains.
3. Lean on friends and family
Some of us have the idea that being strong means being stoic, quietly gritting our teeth through life’s challenges and hardships. “A lot of times, people are uncomfortable with allowing themselves to feel difficult emotions,” Chireah says.
When we keep our emotions in, however, we miss out on the restorative power of being seen and understood by others. That’s why Chireah advises against bottling up hard feelings inside. If possible, seek out support from friends and loved ones who can sit with your experiences without trying to fix everything. Try a line like, “This week has been really tough for me; I’d be so grateful for a sympathetic ear.” The goal isn’t to find a magic solution, Chireah says. What matters is being heard and understood by someone who shares your values, to keep you moving forward.
4. Take up a daily practice
Emotional exhaustion can take root when we forget to take time out for ourselves. So Chireah recommends reserving at least a few minutes each day to engage in an activity that’s just for you. The activity can be directly focused on your mindset—think, journaling or meditating—or something less structured, such as playing music or going for a walk. It’s really about “giving yourself time to be slow and sit with your thoughts, and allow your emotions to be present,” Chireah says.
Both experts agree: Mental wellbeing is important as we navigate life in these extraordinary times. If you think you might benefit from additional support in coping with feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout, connecting with an accredited mental health profession might be helpful.