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How to Recognise Signs of Emotional Exhaustion

emotional exhaustion causes and strategies

What is emotional exhaustion?

Emotional exhaustion is an emotional state of being emotionally drained or depleted. It can result from prolonged or intense periods of stress, overwork, or emotional strain. Emotional exhaustion is often associated with burnout and can manifest as a range of symptoms.

Emotional Exhaustion Meaning

What is the meaning of emotional exhaustion? Emotional exhaustion is a state of extreme emotional fatigue and depletion. It occurs when an individual has expended significant emotional energy over an extended period. Excess emotional expenditure is often due to stress. It could be caused by demanding work or personal circumstances and an inability to recharge or cope with these demands.

emotional exhaustion can effect sleep

What Does Someone Feel Like When They Are Emotionally Exhausted?

Someone who is emotionally exhausted can feel emotionally drained or completely worn out. It can manifest as a lack of enthusiasm, motivation, or the capacity to deal with emotional situations effectively.

This state can profoundly impact one's mental and physical well-being, leading to a range of symptoms. Symptoms include increased irritability, reduced performance, and withdrawal from social interactions.

Addressing emotional exhaustion involves lifestyle changes. It would help if you learned to manage stress, partake in self-care, seek support, and learn to maintain a healthier emotional balance.

How to Recognise Signs of Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional burnout can manifest in various ways. It can include a lack of motivation and persistent feelings of hopelessness. It’s important to be aware of the common signs. Signs such as brain fog, extreme tiredness, and a sense of detachment from daily activities. These symptoms can vary from person to person. But often indicates that the body and mind are under excessive stress.

Some common symptoms are:

Feeling drained: Individuals experiencing emotional exhaustion feel mentally and physically depleted. They may feel as though they have nothing left to give emotionally.

Reduced motivation: Sufferers may lose interest and motivation. Including in their work, relationships, or activities they once enjoyed.

Increased irritability: Emotional exhaustion can lead to heightened irritability and impatience. Increased irritability can make it challenging to manage even minor stressors.

Difficulty concentrating: People suffering from emotional exhaustion may struggle to concentrate. Decision-making becomes challenging due to mental fatigue.

Physical symptoms: Can manifest with headaches, stomachaches, or muscle tension.

Decreased performance: Performance at work or in daily life tasks may decline because of the inability to engage or focus fully.

Withdrawal: Some individuals with emotional exhaustion may withdraw. They will limit social interactions and isolate themselves.

Can emotional exhaustion cause fatigue and physical symptoms

Yes, emotional exhaustion can cause fatigue. Emotional exhaustion can have significant physical manifestations. Emotional exhaustion can cause physical exhaustion.

Some potential effects of emotional exhaustion include:

Physical Fatigue: Being emotionally drained can make one feel physically tired, even after a good night's sleep.

Sleep Disturbances: Emotional exhaustion can lead to difficulties falling asleep. Sleep disturbances can extend to staying asleep or restful sleep, which in turn contributes to feelings of fatigue during the day.

Decreased Immune Function: Chronic stress and emotional exhaustion can weaken the immune system. Individuals are more susceptible to illnesses, which can also contribute to feelings of fatigue.

Muscle Tension and Pain: Emotional stress can lead to physical tension in the body. Tension results in aches and pains, which can intensify feelings of tiredness.

Cognitive Impairments: Individuals can have weakened concentration, memory, and decision-making skills. When the brain is constantly taxed, it can feel like mental fatigue.

Mood Changes: Emotionally exhausted individuals may also experience mood swings. Irritability, sadness or hopelessness are other common feelings. These mood changes can contribute to a general sense of being "drained" or fatigued.

Behavioural Changes: People experiencing emotional exhaustion engage in behaviours that contribute to fatigue. On this list is decreased physical activity, poor diet, or increased consumption of alcohol or caffeine.

asleep on the job: emotional exhaustion

Emotional Exhaustion Causes

A combination of compounding factors can cause emotional exhaustion. Factors are often related to chronic stress and emotional strain.

Here are some common causes and contributing factors to emotional exhaustion:

Work-related stress: High-pressure work environments are a major cause. These environments may have long hours, unrealistic expectations, heavy workloads, and job-related conflict. Work stress is a common cause in professions that require constant emotional engagement. High-risk professions include healthcare, education, and customer service.

Personal life stressors: Challenges in personal life; relationship problems, family issues, financial difficulties. Significant life changes, like divorce or the loss of a loved one, can contribute to emotional exhaustion.

Caregiver burnout: Providing care to a loved one who is ill, elderly, or disabled can be emotionally taxing and lead to exhaustion.

Lack of work-life balance: An inability to disconnect. Lack of balance could be from work or personal responsibilities. This results in constant demands on emotional resources that can contribute to emotional exhaustion.

Traumatic events: Direct or indirect exposure can cause emotional exhaustion. Traumatic events include natural disasters, witnessing violence, or working in emergency services.

Chronic health issues: Managing physical or mental health conditions can be draining. This is especially true when it disrupts daily life and routines.

Personality traits: Personality traits can make individuals more susceptible. Perfectionists tend to criticise themselves and put excessive pressure on themselves.

Lack of self-care: Neglecting self-care practices can make it difficult to replenish your resources. Make time for exercise, relaxation, and social connections.

Lack of boundaries: Failing to establish and maintain healthy emotional boundaries is exhausting. Individuals may become overly involved in the emotional issues of others.

Inadequate coping strategies: Lack of strategies or difficulty managing stress and emotions. Individuals need to find what works for them. Relaxation techniques, problem-solving, or seeking support can help.

Financial Stress: Financial stress is a significant risk factor for emotional burnout. Concerns over money can lead to strained relationships and job dissatisfaction. Prolonged stress from financial worries can cause many problems. Problems such as digestive issues, poor work-life balance, and a sense of hopelessness.

Poor sleep: Poor sleep or a lack of sleep can affect your emotional health. Not getting adequate sleep can lead to negative emotions, a sense of dread, and low energy levels. To fight this, aim for quality sleep by maintaining consistent sleep patterns. Creating a restful environment can also help. Quality sleep is crucial for recovering your mental energy and maintaining cognitive function.

Examples that may cause emotional exhaustion

  • Work-related Stresses

  • Caregiving

  • Parenting

  • Relationship Conflicts

  • Health Challenges

  • Major Life Changes

  • Experiencing Trauma

What is the difference between stress and emotional exhaustion?

Stress and emotional exhaustion are related but distinct concepts. They both relate to emotional and psychological well-being. But they manifest differently and have different causes and consequences.

Here are the key differences between stress and emotional exhaustion:


Stress: Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat or challenge. It can be a short-term or acute reaction to a specific situation, and it often serves as a mechanism to help individuals respond to and cope with demands. Stress can be both positive (eustress) and negative (distress).

Emotional Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is a state of prolonged emotional depletion and fatigue. It is typically a result of chronic stress or intense emotional demands over an extended period.


Stress: Stress is typically a temporary response that occurs in reaction to a specific event or situation. It may last for a short period and subside once the stressor is resolved or removed.

Emotional Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is a more persistent and long-term state. It doesn't necessarily go away once the stressor is removed and can persist even when the individual is no longer in a stressful situation.


Stress: Heightened alertness, increased heart rate, muscle tension, anxiety, and a sense of urgency. These symptoms are often adaptive and help individuals respond to immediate challenges.

Emotional Exhaustion: Symptoms of emotional exhaustion include feeling emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and depleted. Individuals may experience reduced motivation. They may have difficulty concentrating, be irritable, and have a sense of inability to cope with emotional demands.


Stress: Stress can be caused by a range of situations, including work deadlines, relationship conflicts, financial pressures, and various life events. It is often a reaction to external stressors.

Emotional Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is typically caused by chronic stress, prolonged exposure to emotionally demanding situations, or a lack of effective coping mechanisms. It can also be related to personality factors and individual vulnerabilities.


Stress: Stress, when managed effectively, can be beneficial in motivating individuals to perform and adapt to challenges. However, chronic or overwhelming stress can have negative health consequences.

Emotional Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is a more severe and debilitating state that can lead to burnout. It can significantly negatively affect mental and physical health, work performance, and relationships.

Emotional exhaustion vs stress summary

Stress is a natural and often adaptive response to challenges. Emotional exhaustion is a more prolonged and severe state. Emotional exhaustion is emotional depletion resulting from chronic stress or intense emotional demands. Recognising the differences is essential for taking appropriate steps to manage these challenges.

Emotional exhaustion vs burnout

emotional exhaustion is part of burnout

Emotional exhaustion and burnout are not the same thing. Emotional exhaustion is often a component of burnout. Burnout is a more severe condition resulting from chronic stress and overwork.

Here are some key differences:

Emotional exhaustion:

  • Feeling emotionally drained and depleted.

  • Result of prolonged emotional demands or stress.

  • May occur independently.

  • Affects well-being and job performance.

Burnout includes:

  • Includes emotional exhaustion.

  • More severe and chronic condition.

  • Involves cynicism or detachment from work or relationships.

  • Features a sense of reduced personal accomplishment.

  • Typically results from prolonged high-stress exposure.

  • Has serious consequences on physical and mental health, work performance, and overall quality of life.

Emotional exhaustion vs mental exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is a state of emotional depletion and fatigue. It results from prolonged periods of intense stress or emotional demands. Emotional exhaustion often leads to feelings of emptiness and reduced emotional resilience.

Mental exhaustion relates more to cognitive fatigue. It is about the depletion of mental resources. It occurs when individuals have been engaged in demanding cognitive tasks. Tasks such as decision-making, problem-solving, or intellectual work for an extended period.

Mental exhaustion symptoms

Mental exhaustion symptoms can cause difficulty concentrating. It can also cause impaired memory, reduced creativity, and mental fatigue. Mental exhaustion often occurs when individuals are required to sustain high levels of mental effort over time. This could be during long work hours or while studying for exams.

Similarities and differences between emotional and mental exhaustion


  • Emotional and mental exhaustion can result from prolonged periods of stress and overexertion.

  • Both can lead to decreased functioning, impacting personal and professional life.

  • They often co-occur as emotional strain. Both can contribute to mental fatigue, and mental fatigue can exacerbate emotional exhaustion.


  • Emotional exhaustion relates to emotional and interpersonal aspects. Mental exhaustion is focused on cognitive and mental fatigue.

  • Emotional exhaustion is often associated with roles that require intense emotional engagement. Mental exhaustion is more common in intellectually demanding tasks.

  • Emotional exhaustion can manifest as emotional symptoms such as cynicism and withdrawal. Mental exhaustion may manifest as cognitive difficulties like poor concentration and memory issues.

Is emotional exhaustion real?

Yes, emotional exhaustion is real and is a crucial component of burnout. Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional fatigue. It's recognised in various academic and clinical settings and has been extensively researched.

Burnout is not recognised as a medical condition but as a syndrome. Emotional exhaustion is recognised as a symptom of burnout. However, emotional exhaustion has many causes and will not necessarily lead to burnout.

Research studies have found connections between emotional exhaustion and other factors. Factors such as job demands, work-life imbalance, and lack of social support.

Physiological connections have been made between chronic stress, including stress that leads to emotional exhaustion. Chronic stress can affect the immune system. It can lead to changes in weight, disrupted sleep, and cardiovascular problems. All of these are evidence of the body's response to long-term stress.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that chronic stress can alter the structure and function of certain parts of the brain. This includes areas related to emotion, decision-making, and memory.

Some stress has been found to enhance learning and cognitive performance. Excessive and chronic stress hampers learning and negatively impacts memory. These effects are associated with the overactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Too much stress impairs synaptic plasticity and learning ability. To read more The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory

In 2019, the WHO recognised burnout as an "occupational phenomenon". While not classified as a medical condition, the WHO describes burnout as a syndrome. A Syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

They identify emotional exhaustion as one of its core dimensions. A syndrome characterised by a collection of symptoms that frequently occur together.

Interventions have been on the rise. Many industries and organisations recognise the medical and psychological implications of emotional exhaustion. Some industry implications include productivity loss, financial cost, staff retention and staff shortages.

There is more funding being invested in studies. Funded studies range from mindfulness and stress reduction techniques to organisational interventions. The aim is to reduce job demands and increase social support.

Trauma and emotional exhaustion examples: professions prone to emotional exhaustion

Trauma is a distressing or harmful experience. It can have lasting emotional, psychological, or physical effects. It is the result of shocking or overwhelming event/s.

Indirect trauma is also known as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. It refers to the emotional and psychological distress experienced by individuals who are exposed to the trauma of others. Rather than experiencing the trauma directly themselves, they experience it through others.

Here are some examples of people who may deal with indirect trauma:

professions that experience emotional exhaustion

Mental Health Professionals: Therapists, counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists often work with clients who have experienced trauma.

First Responders: Police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical personnel frequently encounter traumatic situations in their line of duty.

Healthcare Workers: Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers may care for patients who have experienced severe injuries, illnesses, or medical crises.

Social Workers: Social workers often work with individuals and families facing difficult situations, including child abuse, domestic violence, or loss.

Child Protective Services Workers: Professionals in child protective services may be exposed to child abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction cases.

Teachers and Educators: Educators may work with students who have experienced trauma in their personal lives.

Journalists and Reporters: Journalists covering stories about disasters, accidents, conflicts, or other traumatic events may experience indirect trauma due to their exposure to graphic and distressing content.

Humanitarian Aid Workers: Individuals working in humanitarian organisations often assist in regions affected by natural disasters, conflicts, or humanitarian crises.

Crisis Hotline Volunteers: Volunteers who staff crisis hotlines and helplines may listen to distressing accounts of individuals in crisis.

Family and Friends: Even those close to individuals who have experienced trauma can be indirectly impacted. Friends and family members may provide emotional support, but they can also experience emotional distress themselves.

Indirect trauma can have severe consequences for individuals in these roles. Providing access to support is critical. Encouraging self-care is positive. But it does not replace the need for professional resources. Counselling or debriefing sessions should be made accessible. It is essential to help people cope with the emotional toll of vicarious trauma and prevent burnout.

Emotional exhaustion test

Is there a way to test or measure emotional exhaustion? Is there an emotional exhaustion scale? Tools like the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) measure aspects of burnout. This includes emotional exhaustion. Being able to measure emotional exhaustion is further evidence of its validity.

Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson developed MBI in the early 1980s. The MBI assesses the extent of burnout in professionals. It is often used in human services like healthcare and education.

The MBI evaluates burnout based on three dimensions:

Emotional Exhaustion (EE): This dimension measures feelings of being emotionally overextended and drained by one's work. It reflects feelings of extreme fatigue and a sense of being unable to give any more emotionally.

Depersonalisation (DP): This dimension gauges an unfeeling and impersonal response toward one's service, care treatment, or instruction recipients. It captures a detached or cynical attitude towards clients, patients, or students.

Reduced Personal Accomplishment (PA): This looks at feelings of competence and achievement in work. Lower scores in this domain suggest a perception of reduced efficacy and accomplishment.

Respondents rate their feelings on a series of statements based on a Likert scale. Based on their responses, individuals can be classified as having low, moderate, or high levels of burnout in each of the three dimensions.

Over the years, different versions of the MBI have been developed to cater for specific professional groups. There are MBI for medical personnel, educators, and general employees. The MBI is a tool for researchers and organisations to gauge the well-being of their staff. I can help to implement necessary interventions to promote mental health and job satisfaction.

Here is a free burnout statement test for those who like tests, questionnaires, or quizzes.

It can give you an idea of some of the burnout-related statements. Please note it is not validated through controlled scientific tests and must not be used as a diagnostic technique.

Emotional exhaustion, how to recover

emotional exhaustion strategies

Managing Stress with Healthy Habits

During times of stress, adopting healthier habits can help manage the effects of stress. A balanced diet rich in healthy foods like vegetables supports well-being. Mindfulness techniques and moderate exercise can also alleviate feelings of stress. Both of these activities are known to improve your mood. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water is another simple way to boost your energy levels and emotional resilience.

It’s essential to seek support during such stressful periods. Online therapy is growing in popularity. But talking to trusted friends and family can also help manage these overwhelming emotions. Emotional exhaustion recovery takes time and self-care. Here are some steps to help you on the path to recovery:

Self-Awareness: Recognise and acknowledge that you are experiencing emotional exhaustion. Learn to see signs such as chronic fatigue, irritability, and reduced emotional resilience.

Self-Care: Prioritise self-care activities to recharge physically and emotionally. Self-care includes getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.

Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries in your personal and professional life. Learn to say no when necessary and avoid over-committing to responsibilities.

Seek Support: Talk to friends, family members, or a therapist about your feelings and experiences. Sharing your emotions with a supportive network can be therapeutic.

I am lucky enough to have a network of people in and out of my profession who are excellent sounding boards. Taking turns to vent life stressors can be cathartic. Sometimes, saying a stressor out loud is enough. It releases it from your being and into the world, allowing you to move on.

Mindfulness and Relaxation: Practice mindfulness; meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation can reduce stress and promote emotional balance. To find out more read What Mindfulness is and How Mindfulness Reduces Stress.

There are many free and paid services out there. Experiment and find something you enjoy and find beneficial. I am currently testing out a variety, so look out for reviews.

Limit Stressors: Identify sources of stress in your life and take steps to minimise or manage them. This may involve reducing exposure to stressful situations or finding healthier ways to cope with stress.

Time Management: Organise your daily schedule. Learn to prioritise tasks and allocate time for relaxation and leisure activities.

Hobbies and Interests: Reconnect with activities that bring you joy. Engaging in hobbies can be a great way to relieve stress and recharge emotionally. One of the main reasons I started this blog was to start reconnecting with writing.

Professional Help: If emotional exhaustion is severe or persistent, consider seeking help. Mental health professionals can provide valuable coping strategies and emotional support.

Rest and Recovery: Allow yourself time to rest and recover. This may involve taking short breaks during the day, scheduling regular days off, or even considering a vacation. It is entirely okay for you to take a mental health day; your workplace will survive without you for a day. If it can't, it has more significant issues. Do not feel guilty about looking after yourself.

Healthy Relationships: Work on improving communication and conflict resolution skills in your relationships. This includes at home and work. Healthy relationships can provide emotional support and reduce stress.

Mindful Work Habits: Consider adopting mindful work practices if work-related stress is significant. Time management techniques and setting realistic goals can be helpful.


Recognise the signs of emotional exhaustion early. Address its underlying causes. Steps may involve seeking professional help, making lifestyle changes, setting boundaries and practising self-care.

Emotional exhaustion is real. It is a recognised phenomenon with evidence from both clinical and research perspectives. Addressing emotional exhaustion to promote well-being and prevent associated health problems is essential.

Remember that recovery from emotional exhaustion is a gradual process. Being patient and kind to yourself along the way is essential. Take steps to address the root causes of emotional exhaustion. You can regain emotional well-being and resilience over time by implementing self-care strategies.


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