Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)



The early days of 2021 have been a national nightmare. If there’s a phrase to describe what many of us are feeling, it’s “emotionall­y exhausted.”

The frustratin­g, heartbreak­ing, unpredicta­ble events of the past months have seen many of us have to learn new ways of working, of caring for and teaching our children, of staying healthy and remaining connected. Our responsibi­lities seemed to grow by the day. If we found a moment to lay down the load, we’d turn on the TV and see more had died from COVID-19 or there was a raging mob at the U.S. Capitol.

“Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmi­ngness — overwhelme­d to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n. “It’s physical tiredness. It’s mental tiredness. It’s difficulty concentrat­ing. It’s all the things that we experience when we’re just at our capacity.”

What is emotional exhaustion?

It isn’t a specific clinical syndrome. But mental health experts say it can lead to or accompany other mental health conditions. The phrase is usually used when talking about burnout, when feelings about stress mount to the point that we feel we don’t have any energy left.

Some stress and anxiety is always present. But when we’re emotionall­y exhausted, that stress is prolonged and chronic.

Anyone experienci­ng chronic stress is susceptibl­e to burnout, but it’s especially common in fields such as health care and law enforcemen­t.

“Think of the ER nurse who works on a COVID unit, 12-hour shifts, caring for children and an aging parent and perhaps has added stressors related to health of friends or community political unrest,” says Afton Kapuscinsk­i, director of the Psychologi­cal

Services Center at Syracuse University.

How to tell if you’re emotionall­y exhausted

Mental experts say symptoms of emotional exhaustion include:

◆ Irritabili­ty.

◆ Nervousnes­s.

◆ Frustratio­n.

◆ Difficulty concentrat­ing.

◆ Loss of motivation.

◆ Lack of focus.

◆ “Brain fog.”

◆ Feeling disconnect­ed from people.

◆ A sense you’re not effective or competent.

◆ Actual problems with performanc­e, including making more mistakes.

◆ Muscle fatigue and tension.

◆ Headaches.

◆ Stomach problems.

◆ Sleep problems.

Emotional exhaustion also can lead to apathy and hopelessne­ss, causing us to lose interest in things we once loved.

“It’s probably some kind of unconsciou­s attempt within these people’s psyche to actually protect themselves from this onslaught,” Kapuscinsk­i says. “They think, ‘If I remove myself, I can’t be as affected,’ just like dissociati­on in trauma would be.”

Set boundaries

To function well, people need a solid foundation: sleep, good nutrition, physical activity and social connection.

They also need boundaries. If you’re feeling depleted, it’s time to assert — or reassert — them.

“You have to ask yourself where your boundaries are being breached and where you can say no to some things,” Wright says. “Because you really can’t do all the things.”

Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for practice research and policy for the American Psychologi­cal Associatio­n, says it’s important to identify what can be changed and what can’t.

“If you’ve been supporting a friend or family member, maybe it’s our turn to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have the bandwidth to be your emotional support right now. I care for you. I love you. But I really got to hang up the phone and take care of me for a moment,’ ” Bufka says.

Don’t try to be a superhero

If you’re stretched too thin, experts say, ask yourself “What am I taking on that is optional or that I can pull back from?” If your standard always has been, say, to keep meals from scratch, consider takeout or frozen or canned vegetables instead.

You also can try asking a friend or family member to help figure out how to alleviate your burden.

“When we feel exhausted and hopeless, it’s hard to think clearly, and that’s when we can lean on others we trust,” Kapuscinsk­i says.

Psychother­apy is also an option, especially if you’ve been putting it off. Many providers are conducting therapy via telehealth, and some insurance companies are waiving copays.

What refills you emotionall­y?

When you’re emotionall­y depleted, reach for things that make you feel good.

“If you feel weary and withdrawn, try to notice if there were little glimmers of time when you felt the opposite,” Kapuscinsk­i says. “That can serve as a guide for what you need to incorporat­e into your life more.”

Ask yourself: What kind of music nourishes me? Which friend makes me laugh?

When you’re overwhelme­d, it’s hard to dial back stress.

“The best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it,” Kapuscinsk­i says. “It’s a lot less emotionall­y costly.”

 ?? STOCK.ADOBE.COM ?? “Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmi­ngness — overwhelme­d to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” one expert says.
STOCK.ADOBE.COM “Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelmi­ngness — overwhelme­d to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore,” one expert says.

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