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23 science-backed ways to combat emotional exhaustion

a woman with long curly hair is showing signs of emotional exhaustion

You can’t give what you don’t have. Emotional exhaustion depletes you of the ability to empathize with others, show compassion, cry with them or even laugh with them. This particular symptom of burnout is felt especially by professionals in demanding, people-oriented fields that are high in emotional labor, such as health care, social work, and teaching.

So what can you do to combat emotional exhaustion? Below, we’ll go over 23 strategies to try. But first, let’s figure out what emotional exhaustion is.

Table of contents
What is emotional exhaustion?
What are signs of emotional exhaustion?
23 ideas for handling emotional exhaustion
Your emotional exhaustion does not have to continue

What is emotional exhaustion?

Based on the research of Berkeley professor and job burnout expert Dr. Christina Maslach, emotional exhaustion is the core component of burnout. It can be described as feeling emotionally drained or unable to feel as a result of chronic, unresolved stress. Or, as researcher Panari Chiara and colleagues write in a paper published in Acta Biomedica, it’s “the feeling of not being able to give anything to others on an emotional level.”

Maslach defines job burnout as having three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization
  3. Lack of personal accomplishment

In the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a widely used assessment, emotional exhaustion is one of three subscales. The assessment measures emotional exhaustion by asking respondents to indicate how often they experience specific feelings, on a scale from “never” to “every day.” Below are some examples of statements on the Maslach Burnout Inventory Emotional Exhaustion subscale:

  • "I feel emotionally drained from my work."
  • "I feel like I'm at the end of my rope."
  • "I feel frustrated by my job."
  • "I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job."

Now, in Maslach’s research, she focused on burnout that was work-related. And typically, when we speak of burnout, we do mean job burnout. Even the WHO’s definition of burnout includes the phrase “resulting from chronic workplace stress.”

However, the scientific community and society at large are starting to recognize that burnout can happen anytime chronic stress is involved, whether it’s job-related or not. For example, raising children, caring for an aging family member, and even nurturing friendships can lead to burnout.

As the authors of a critique published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology write, "Burnout cannot be confined to the occupational sphere because chronic stress is not confined to the occupational sphere."

Because of this, this article will look at burnout on a broader basis, beyond the workplace.

What are signs of emotional exhaustion?

According to Medical News Today, below are just some potential symptoms of emotional exhaustion:

  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation
  • Pessimism
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Changes in weight
  • Social withdrawal

This article cannot diagnose emotional exhaustion or burnout. If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, please check with a physician or mental health professional to see what resources you might need.

23 ideas for handling emotional exhaustion

Because emotional exhaustion is the core component of burnout, and burnout is caused by prolonged stress, finding ways to manage stress or buffer against it might help you deal with emotional exhaustion. Let’s check out some ideas!

1. Reconnect with an old hobby (or create a new one)

As an adult, setting aside time for play may seem frivolous-but it’s actually essential to your wellbeing. The time you spend sketching, crocheting, playing basketball, practicing violin, or whatever else you enjoy, is not wasted.

One study on teacher burnout found that teachers who used adaptive coping strategies such as hobbies had lower burnout levels than other school teachers. The study was authored by ​​ Steven Seidman and Joanne Zager and published in the academic journal Work & Stress.

2. Unplug regularly

The upside of technological advances is that they keep us connected to work, family, and friends, no matter where we are. The downside is that we are constantly interrupted and sucked into what’s happening, even if it doesn’t concern us or only stresses us out.

When you’re off the clock but still on your phone or laptop, you take on extra stress because you can never wind down. That’s why establishing a period when you truly unplug from the online world is crucial. A great time to do this is before bed so you can have a restful night’s sleep instead of worrying about an incoming email or the latest news headline.

3. Get sufficient sleep

Speaking of sleep, getting quality shut-eye might help with emotional exhaustion. A 2015 Tel Aviv University study showed how sleep is critical to emotional regulation. Participants who did not get any sleep the night before exhibited impaired judgment on testing: They were unable to distinguish between a neutral event and an emotional one.

"It turns out we lose our neutrality,” said lead researcher Talma Hendler. “The ability of the brain to tell what's important is compromised. It's as if suddenly everything is important.”

And this inability to judge appropriately has a cost. “This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety," said Hendler.

4. Make time for physical movement

Exercise is excellent for decreasing stress hormones, so be sure to get your body in motion on a daily basis to help with emotional exhaustion. Research suggests that the workout you do now not only helps you feel better in the moment, but it might also protect you from emotionally distressing events in the future too.

A study by University of Maryland professor J. Carson Smith compared the effects of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise with 30 minutes of quiet rest on participants' anxiety levels. Both groups had reduced anxiety after the exercise and rest conditions. But, when shown emotionally arousing (both pleasant and unpleasant) photos, the rest group's anxiety significantly increased, but the exercise group's anxiety remained reduced.

5. Work with a coach

Coaches are professionals who partner with you to identify goals, create a plan to meet them and keep you accountable throughout your journey. The great thing about coaches is that you can find ones for specific areas of your life. For instance, if you’re seeking a career change, you can work with a career coach. If you’re trying to overcome emotional exhaustion in your personal relationships, you can work with a life coach. Finding the right coach for you can be a huge gamechanger.

But what if you don’t have the time or resources to hire a one-on-one coach? That’s why Fingerprint for Success exists. We make coaching accessible to everyone through our free app, Coach Marlee. If you’re struggling with burnout and emotional exhaustion, try our Vital Wellbeing online coaching program. Over the course of nine weeks, you'll gain science-backed tools for boosting your wellbeing, including learning how to build your emotional resilience and increase self-esteem.

6. Meditate

Many emotionally exhausted people experience anxiety, or excessive worry and racing thoughts about the things they can’t control. This causes them to feel like something bad is about to happen. One strategy for stopping the anxiety spiral is meditation.

Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, helps you to feel the feelings and think the thoughts without judging them. Sometimes, it is the judging of what you feel or think that causes you stress. Seeing your thoughts and feelings as neutral and realizing that you get to choose how you respond can be liberating and help you cope with emotional exhaustion.

Thanks to technology, trying out this practice is easier than ever because you can use guided meditations. Popular apps for this include Calm, Headspace, and Hallow.

7. Nurture your relationships

Social support is a significant stress buffer that can protect people against the effects of emotional exhaustion. In a paper published in Clinical and Experimental Psychology, researcher Ann-Christine Andersson-Arntén and colleagues found that having high-quality relationships may actually counteract the negative effects of work stress.

So if you’re feeling emotionally drained, sharing a meal with your significant other or going for a walk with a friend might help you feel better.

8. Snuggle a pet

There’s a reason for the “quarantine puppy” boom. It turns out that science supports the fact that furry friends reduce stress, especially the stress of isolation during a pandemic.

In a study from the University of York and the University of Lincoln, researchers found that participants who had a pet during lockdown had better mental health and were less lonely. More than 90% said "their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown."

So if emotional stress is getting you down, snuggle your pet. If you don’t have one, consider offering to walk your friend’s dog, take up pet sitting, volunteer at a shelter or, if you’re ready, adopt your very own!

9. Get comfortable with alone time

Because emotional exhaustion makes you feel emptied and unable to give yourself emotionally to others, alone time might help. Many jobs that require constant interaction with people in need, such as health care, social work, or customer service, can lead to emotional exhaustion because you are constantly tending to the needs of others.

Give yourself a break, even if it’s something as simple as sitting at home alone on a Friday night reading a relaxing book or driving to the beach to soak up the sun. Carving out alone time to recharge can do your mental health a world of good.

10. Journal

When you’re experiencing emotional stress, writing down what you feel and what’s going on in your life can be helpful for many reasons. First, it allows you to identify and acknowledge the emotions rather than suppressing them and causing further stress. Second, it allows you to gain insights into what’s going on by sorting out your thoughts and feelings in the written word. And third, it gives you a record that you can look back on and perhaps find patterns or connections between how you’re feeling and environmental triggers that may have caused those feelings.

11. Build your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence helps you take notice of what you’re feeling (or what someone else is feeling), label it, and manage it appropriately. Without emotional intelligence, stress can spiral out of control, as you’re unable to regulate what you cannot even name.

If you’re struggling to identify and manage emotions, we’ve got a free online coaching program designed just for this. Check out Increase EQ.

12. Take more frequent breaks

Emotional exhaustion, and burnout in general, often happen because you don’t know when to stop. Many professionals only take a 30-minute lunch break during their workday, and even then, sometimes their “lunch break” is simply scarfing down takeout at their desk. That’s hardly meaningful downtime!

Instead, try taking more frequent, short breaks throughout your workday. Maybe every 30 minutes, you get up and stretch. Or you go for a walk around your building halfway through the day. Stepping back from work stressors so you can replenish your energy is crucial to avoiding emotional exhaustion.

13. Go on a true vacation

When’s the last time you set aside an extended period of time to just do what makes you happy-without checking your email? If you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion, it’s time to take a true vacation, one where you leave work behind. In fact, try doing this regularly to avoid burnout symptoms altogether.

14. Take a sabbatical

If a one-week vacation just isn’t cutting it for you, consider a sabbatical. These are typically reserved for employees who have worked at a company for a set period of time, such as four years. Sabbaticals typically last a few months, such as three.

Remember, when you’re emotionally exhausted, it means you’ve got a lot of accumulated stress. It doesn’t necessarily go away in a day or even a week. You might need extra time off to recuperate.

15. Listen to music

There’s a reason you love to listen to sad songs when you’re heartbroken or jam out to your favorite beat when you’re in a good mood-music moves us in special ways. And as it turns out, it might help counteract burnout, too, particularly emotional exhaustion.

A 2020 study published in the Libyan Journal of Medicine found that music therapy significantly reduced emotional exhaustion in operating room staff. The intervention involved three 30-minute music therapy sessions per day for one month. After the intervention, average emotional exhaustion scores decreased significantly.

16. Spend more time in nature

Lots of research has linked nature with health benefits in humans. A 2018 review of the literature found that spending time outdoors, particularly around greenery, may reduce stress as measured through heart rate, blood pressure, and self-reports. The review was published in Health & Place.

But even if you live in a concrete jungle, adding greenery to buildings might do the trick. In a study using virtual reality headsets, researchers from Nanyang Technological University found that planted greenery, such as on balconies or pillars of buildings, served as a buffer against stress for participants walking down a virtual city street.

17. Eat nourishing food

It’s true, food affects mood. One research article published in The BMJ academic journal found that certain diets are linked to better mental health, such as the Mediterranean diet, which consists of eating lots of fruits, vegetables and nuts and only occasionally eating red meat. It also discusses a link between our gut microbiome and mood.

Sutter Health recommends the following foods that nourish your body and mind:

  • Complex carbs (e.g., quinoa, millet, beets, sweet potatoes)
  • Lean protein (e.g., chicken, fish, eggs, nuts)
  • Fatty acids (found in fish, meat, eggs, nuts)

18. Identify the sources of your emotional exhaustion

Now, we get to the tough part: identifying the root causes of your emotional exhaustion. Start broad and then narrow it down. For example, is the source of exhaustion coming from work? From school? From your family? From your friends?

If you identify work as a source of stress, what is it specifically about your work that causes those feelings? Is it the long, painful commute? Is it your overbearing boss? Is it that you’re bored with the tasks you’ve already mastered?

Once you know the source of emotional exhaustion, you’ll be better able to tackle it.

19. Problem-solve with someone involved in the source of your emotional exhaustion

Hey, here’s good news: You’re not alone in your burnout. You’d be pleasantly surprised by who is willing to step in and help you brainstorm ways to feel better. If it’s safe to do so, involve one person in problem-solving with you.

That means if you’re emotionally drained by your work, sit down with your manager and figure out ways to lighten your emotional load. Or if you’re emotionally exhausted by your romantic relationship, sit down with your partner to find solutions. You don’t have to go it alone, and by involving another person, you get better insights and perspective, not to mention the emotional support you might need.

20. Consider a job change

For many, work is a significant source of burnout. And sometimes, taking time off isn’t going to fix it. If your job is stressing you out, and you’ve tried changing the stressors without luck, consider a job change to get away from the source of emotional exhaustion.

21. Communicate your boundaries

One common cause of burnout is taking on more than you can handle. If you have too much on your plate, it can lead to emotional exhaustion. So how can you prevent the responsibilities from piling up? Establish boundaries.

Identify what your limitations are, what your values are, and what you are and are not okay with. Then, communicate these boundaries to the people in your life, whether at work or in your family or friendships.

If you’re emotionally exhausted, it’s crucial to protect your emotional energy. For example, if you’ve just had a long, stressful day at work and a friend wants to vent to you about their relationship woes, it’s okay to establish a boundary, such as, “What you have to say is super important to me, which is why I want to make sure I have the energy to hold space for you. I don’t have the emotional capacity right now to listen to you vent. Can I get some rest and then call you tomorrow to pick up where you left off? I’ll be more energized then and can give you the full attention you deserve.”

Do you struggle with setting personal boundaries? We’ve all been there. Check out our free Vital Wellbeing program, which shows you tips for establishing boundaries in your life.

22. See your doctor

If you're experiencing burnout symptoms, make a trip to the doctor. Emotional exhaustion can show up through both psychological and physical symptoms, and a physician is trained to spot the signs and point you in the right direction for treatment.

23. Talk to a therapist

For more specialized advice and treatment for mental health concerns, talking to a therapist is a wise move. Many people think that therapists are only for crises or illnesses, but in fact, everyone can benefit from speaking with a therapist!

You don’t need to question whether things are “bad enough” to get counseling. Look at it as a preventive measure, a way of becoming your best self.

Finding a therapist can be confusing if you don’t know where to start. Try Googling local mental health resources in your area. Some cities and counties provide free crisis counseling or reduced rates for therapy.

Additionally, services such as Open Path provide reduced rates for affordable mental health therapy (even online!). And lastly, telehealth apps such as BetterHelp and Talkspace are increasingly popular and make therapy accessible via your smartphone.

Your emotional exhaustion does not have to continue

As you can see, there is a cost to long term stress-but you don’t have to keep paying it. Try the science-backed tips mentioned above and sign up for our free Vital Wellbeing coaching program to start working toward a life of less stress.

This article does not provide medical advice. If you’re experiencing mental or physical distress, or if you think you might be emotionally exhausted, please check with a physician or other licensed health care professional. Below are some resources for you:

  • If you’re in danger, call 911.

The following mental health support services are completely free, confidential, and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

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