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How to cope if you’re feeling emotionally exhausted

Question: Recently, I’ve been feeling physically and mentally drained from the demands of work, caregiving and other responsibilities. I struggle to find motivation and have trouble concentrating on tasks. Are there strategies to help me find emotional balance?

Answer: Turning on the news or opening a newspaper to see local and world events can bring out strong emotions and stressors. In addition to the social unrest happening around the world, you may face personal challenges from a high-pressure job, financial stress, being a caregiver, parenting, grieving the death of a family member or friend, or a chronic illness.

You may wonder what’s next or what else you can endure. With the sense of relentless struggles, you may begin to feel unwell and irritable, and struggle to concentrate and lack motivation. You may not even know what is causing these feelings. You can feel trapped or stuck. You’re emotionally exhausted.

What is emotional exhaustion? When stress from adverse or challenging events in life occur continually, you can find yourself in a state of feeling emotionally worn out and drained. This is called emotional exhaustion. For most people, emotional exhaustion tends to build up slowly over time. Emotional exhaustion includes emotional, physical and performance symptoms.

Emotional symptoms include anxiety, apathy, depression, feeling hopeless, powerless or trapped, irritability and lack of motivation.

Physical symptoms include fatigue, headaches, lack of appetite, nausea or upset stomach, poor sleep and muscle soreness or tension.

Performance symptoms include difficulty completing daily tasks, failing to meet deadlines, increased absences, isolation or avoidance and lower workplace commitment.

How is emotional exhaustion treated? You can address emotional exhaustion by recognizing the stressors you’re able to minimize or eliminate. When you’re unable to change a stressor because it’s out of your control, it’s crucial to focus on the present moment.

In the present, many neutral or positive events are occurring. When you focus on these types of events, it gives perspective about what’s happening around you. This allows you to shift your focus away from the stressors.

Your body often interprets stress as a threat to survival. When this happens, your brain releases stress hormones throughout your body, further contributing to your experience of emotional exhaustion.

When you’re able to focus on small neutral or positive events, your brain learns that the threat is not as dire as it may first seem. The amount of stress hormone released is decreased, and you’re able to feel more emotionally balanced.

Other strategies to reduce emotional exhaustion include:

Eating a healthy, balanced diet: A well-balanced, healthy diet is at the core of well-being. Consume a variety of foods from all the food groups to get a range of nutrients to provide energy throughout the day.

Eliminating or minimizing the stressor when possible: Consuming news is an important way to stay connected to what’s happening in the world. Unfortunately, the news too frequently is filled with stories of suffering. These stories can skew your view of the world and cause you to focus on your worst fears instead of recognizing the good surrounding you. You can’t avoid these stories altogether but try to minimize your exposure when you can, especially during trying times.

Getting regular exercise: The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Contrary to what you might believe, this will add to your energy reserve and not subtract from it.

Identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with balanced thoughts: Do something you enjoy every day, even if it’s a simple act such as cooking a healthy meal or listening to your favorite song. Putting effort into the things that matter most to you will help you use and reserve your energy in ways that bring out the best in you.

Talk with a mental health professional if you have signs of emotional exhaustion. They can help you sort through the causes and symptoms you’re experiencing to determine a plan that will help you regain a sense of well-being.

Jolene Hanson is a licensed clinical social worker with the Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota.

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