Burnout is a state of extreme exhaustion caused by chronic stress. While it is only formally recognized by the medical field in relation to occupational stress, it can be caused by conditions in your personal life as well. Here are signs that you may be suffering from emotional burnout.
- Your emotions are all over the place. Emotional exhaustion puts your feelings on a hair-trigger. The slightest provocation will fill you with disproportionate rage, sadness, self-doubt, or despair. Seemingly minor things like forgetting to bring bags to the grocery store or your partner running five minutes late from work throw you into a rage. When you’ve been suppressing emotion for a long time, there is a lot of built-up energy inside you that has to get out somehow.
- Your coping mechanisms have become habitual. Most people who experience frequent stress have a coping mechanism, whether it’s alcohol, food, or binge-watching reality tv. If you experience chronic stress, you may find that your coping mechanism has become habitual, maybe even addictive. Not being able to resolve the source of the stress means you will rely on your methods of coping to get you through the emotional strain. Over time, it becomes a dependency. If you’re noticing a pattern of unhealthy habits, it may be a symptom of emotional burnout.
- You struggle with sleep. Stress is an important evolutionary mechanism that allows humans to respond to danger. It activates the fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart pound to circulate more blood to your organs and muscles to facilitate a successful response to the danger. While this was great for our ancestors whose stress usually came from man-eating predators, it is less helpful now. Chronic emotional stress puts the body in constant fight-or-flight mode. If you find yourself lying in bed at night with anxious thoughts racing through your mind, it could be because your body is full of adrenaline. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation causes more stress, meaning that you may be locked in a vicious cycle where exhaustion only causes more exhaustion.
- You struggle to concentrate. You have a lot on your mind when you’re under constant emotional strain. You may fixate on the source of your seemingly unresolvable stress and spiral into frustration and negativity. Concentrating on daily tasks requires more effort than usual, and because you are constantly sleep-deprived and emotionally exhausted, this can feel nearly impossible. Preoccupation and brain fog are the norm. Everything seems to take longer than usual because you struggle to focus even for brief periods.
- You have no motivation. Emotional stress feeds off your energy until you have nothing left to give. You drag yourself through every day, completing each task as it arises but with no mental energy to pursue anything else, including things that normally bring you pleasure. Your performance at work may suffer. Your home might be messier than usual because you don’t see the point of cleaning when it’s just going to get dirty again. Drained of mental energy and still suffering from the original source of stress, you may struggle to get things done. This is a common sign of burnout.
- Everything seems futile. Pessimism is a natural state when you’re emotionally exhausted. If you feel like you’re constantly drowning in stress, why would feel any differently? You’ve been under pressure for so long that survival is the only goal. Planning for the future and feeling excited about it seem like a waste of time. You may feel angry with yourself for your lack of motivation and low productivity. You might be irritable and impatient with the people around you and dread all the things you have to accomplish by the end of the week. These are reasonable responses to an ongoing, painful situation, but, like sleep deprivation, it can become a pattern if not resolved.
- You’re spending more time alone. All of the pessimism and negative self-talk that goes on during emotional burnout can cause the sufferer to withdraw. If you feel like no one is understanding you or appreciating the struggle you’re going through, you may as well be alone, right? Unfortunately, negative thoughts rarely go away when we withdraw from society, and you may find that your emotions are only amplified by isolation.
- You have chronic pain or frequent illnesses. Prolonged emotional stress can cause serious physical problems as well. Heightened levels of cortisol and lack of sleep can leave you with a compromised immune system, so you may find yourself getting sick every few months. You may have gastrointestinal issues as well due to the complex relationship between the neurons in your gut and your brain. You could also develop serious long-term diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and depression. If you’re female, your cycle may become irregular.
What causes emotional burnout?
Emotional burnout is clearly worth avoiding. So what causes it? Here are some of the issues that may cause prolonged emotional stress that leads to burnout.
- Grief Nothing causes as much emotional stress as the loss of a loved one. Grief takes years to overcome, and for many, it never fully goes away. There is no quick way to feel okay again after losing someone, but there are ways to get through it without destroying your own life in the process. Surrounding yourself with people who care about you and letting yourself feel the acuteness of the pain is a good place to start.
- Financial struggles Debt is one of the most stressful situations a person can deal with, especially if they have dependents. The American Psychological Association reports that 72% of American adults are stressed about money, but there is a big difference between having concerns about affording vacation from time to time and being unable to afford rent or pay off substantial debt. Financial stress affects every aspect of a person’s life and severely constrains their options. It is a common cause of emotional burnout.
- An abusive relationship Physically and emotionally abusive relationships cause untenable levels of stress. While victims of abuse are focused on surviving minute-to-minute, the strain they are under is cumulative and can cause severe psychiatric issues long after they manage to escape the abusive situation. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is especially common. Emotional burnout is a likely outcome for survivors but pales in comparison to other conditions they may suffer from.
- Chronic illness While emotional burnout can cause physical illness, it can also be the result of physical illness. Those who suffer from a chronic physical disorder may struggle to do the activities they love, spend time with other people, or feel hopeful about the future. This can cause emotional stress on top of the physical stress, and, like sleep deprivation, become a vicious cycle wherein each exacerbates the other.
- Major life changes Divorce, moving houses or cities, and job loss are all major life changes that can create an ongoing state of emotional stress. This is compounded by the fact that major life changes often involve a loss of home or community. You may lose friends or your house in your divorce. Moving from one town to another may put you in unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people. And losing a job will make you lose your relationship with coworkers and a sense of identity. All of these events can lead to emotional burnout if they are not offset by positive steps forward.