How to renew your spirit when you’re emotionally exhausted
Don’t blame yourself if these past few months have left you feeling a bit depleted. Between the ongoing ravages of a pandemic, a deep national reckoning with racial injustice, and, well, the state of the world in general, a certain level of burnout is 100% 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. And we’re especially susceptible when we overlook early physical signs that our proverbial tanks are running low. “Our bodies want to rest,” says New York City-based psychotherapist Paki Chireah, LCSW. “They don’t appreciate overstimulation.”
Common signs of emotional exhaustion include irritability, muscle tension (hello, neck pain), and disruptions in sleep patterns, says licensed clinical social worker Melissa Ifill, who also practices in New York City. And the onset can be sneaky: 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 the work you want to do in the world.
Breathe energy into your body
Given the ways emotional exhaustion can reverberate 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 what feels like 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 clearheaded 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.”
Decide when to engage with news
Many of us aren’t in a position to unplug from the world entirely—daily news developments directly affect our lives and our communities. But staying informed doesn’t have to mean monitoring cable channels and social media during every waking moment. Indeed, Ifill says, a 24/7 screen habit can keep people from “being present in things that would fully bring [them] joy.”
Rather than drain your energy with 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 Twitter alerts and check the app 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.
Seek out a sounding board
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 exhibit total self-sufficiency, 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.
Take up a daily practice
Emotional exhaustion can take root when we deprioritize our inner lives. 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 wandering a nearby nature trail. 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 well-being is important as we negotiate 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 therapist might be helpful. The American Psychological Association offers this useful guide to getting started.
Rachelle Bergstein is a lifestyle writer, author, and editor. Her most recent book is Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.