8 Subtle Signs Of Emotional Exhaustion You Might Not Realize You Have

by Carolyn de Lorenzo

If you’ve ever gone through a prolonged period of heavy stress — whether from your job, a relationship, or major life crisis — then it’s possible you’ve experienced emotional exhaustion. And while that might sound kind of vague, it’s actually very real. There are some signs of emotional exhaustion that you need to know about, since it can take a serious toll on both your mental and physical health if left unchecked.

“Emotional exhaustion refers to specific state that includes not only physical symptoms of exhaustion, such as fatigue, headaches, sleep difficulties, and appetite changes, but a distinct psychological experience of frustration, low motivation, helplessness, hopelessness,” clinical psychologist Deborah Offner, PhD, tells Bustle by email. “Emotional exhaustion is wider ranging and longer lasting than ‘a bad week.’ It includes a constellation of physical and psychological symptoms that are caused by significant and prolonged stress in our professional or personal lives. Emotional exhaustion is a component of, or may be a precursor to, burnout.”

Emotional exhaustion, can leave you feeling emotionally depleted, and really, really tired, HelpGuide says. You might also feel like, as your stress persists, your coping skills fall by the wayside as you get more and more overwhelmed by challenging circumstances. Highly demanding or toxic work environments, intense, long-term relationship stress, and dealing with chronic illness are just a few instances in which burnout can happen. And it’s easy to miss the early warning signs that your capacity to cope is getting maxed out. Different life factors can mean that your stress resilience is stronger at some times, but less so at others. Essentially, we all have limits to how many curveballs we can juggle before something’s got to give. If you know that your stress levels are on blast constantly, here are some symptoms of emotional exhaustion to watch out for.


Your Mood Is Increasingly Down, Pessimistic, Or Irritable

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Dr. Offner says that emotional exhaustion can affect your mental health in different ways. “This psychological reaction to prolonged and acute stress can lead directly to depression or anxiety, and some of its symptoms can lead indirectly to depression or anxiety. For example, disrupted sleep makes us more vulnerable to both depression and anxiety.”

PsychCentral says that emotional exhaustion happens when you've exceeded your capacity for stress, and feeling this depleted can really affect your mood for the worse. Feelings of hopelessness, depression, and chronic irritability are common with burnout, PsychCentral notes, so it's important to get help if you're finding it difficult to cope.


You Also Feel Emotionally Numb

Feelings of numbness or detachment are a strong sign that your stress is impacting your mental health, HelpGuide says. Genuine emotional exhaustion, or burnout, goes way beyond having a bad day or two. If you're feeling emotionally numb, or disconnected from what's around you, that's a sign that you're experiencing some pretty major distress. Checking in with a trusted therapist or friend (or both) might help you get to the root of these issues, as you get support in the process.


You Feel Unmotivated ...

Emotional exhaustion can put a heavy damper on your motivation, Dr. Offner says. If you're feeling an absence of enthusiasm for your job, relationship(s), or projects you used to be excited about, then burnout might be sapping your energy reserves.


... Or Like A Failure

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“The key signs of emotional exhaustion are feeling stuck, helpless, and hopeless,” Dr. Offner says.

Juli Fraga writing for Healthline wrote that burned out people might feel like "they have nothing left to give," and may have a sense of dread about work and relationships. Emotional exhaustion can leave you feeling like your best efforts aren't holding up under the demands of your situation, so you may feel discouraged and ineffective as a result.


You're Really, Really, Really Tired

Emotional exhaustion is, by definition, draining on multiple levels. Emotionally exhausted people might feel trapped by their circumstances, Healthline explained, and the cumulative toll of this level of stress can leave you feeling extremely physically tired. Since emotional exhaustion can have some serious consequences for your health on various levels, it's important to note if you're having trouble sleeping, or if your energy levels are significantly decreasing over time. Make sure to check in with your doctor if your stress is starting to affect you physically.


You Can't Concentrate ...

Brain fog is common in people with emotional exhaustion, Dr. Offner says. Research shows that burnout can seriously harm your cognitive capacity, and you might have trouble focusing your attention, remembering things, or making plans as a result.

“Cognitively, those of us suffering from emotional exhaustion may have trouble concentrating, feel a sense of dread, or become scattered in our thinking,” Dr. Offner says.


You're Isolating Yourself, Or Calling In Sick A Lot

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“It's important to look for signs of burnout or emotional exhaustion in friends or partners who are in notoriously high stress occupations or education and training programs,” Dr. Offner says. “In addition, some personal situations can lead to emotional exhaustion: A protracted, hostile divorce; caring for a disabled, chronically or terminally ill child, spouse, or parent.”

If you find that you're avoiding work, friends, or your partner, and are isolating yourself more overall, it might be a sign that stress is affecting your relationships and mental health.


Your Stress Is Hurting Your Relationships

“While supportive, close relationships can be essential for those of us experiencing emotional exhaustion, it can be hard for partners or close friends to understand why we might seem negative, withdrawn, even help-rejecting,” Dr. Offner says.

“Dealing with an emotionally exhausted significant other or friend is much like dealing with a depressed person. The helplessness and hopelessness that sets in is part of a real syndrome, but it appears — and may well be — irrational, so it can confuse and frustrate people who are trying to help. It's also hard to get much back in a relationship with someone who is emotionally exhausted, as they are, by definition, so depleted.”

If your work performance or close relationships are suffering as a result of your stress, it might be worth your time to seek out a therapist who can help you navigate your burnout symptoms.


If you're dealing with emotional exhaustion, Dr. Offner says that, first, it's helpful to examine the root causes of your overwhelm and distress. If work or family life are contributing to your burnout, take a look at which factors are permanent, as opposed to those you can modify.

“Sometimes help is as simple as quitting a job or taking a leave of absence; other times it might mean creating a longer term plan to find a better employment situation or career,” Dr. Offner notes. “In personal situations, help might be as simple (not easy, but clear) as separating from a partner, while other times it might mean getting help from other family members or paid aides to care for a disabled or ill loved one.”

While addressing the causes of burnout may take some effort to navigate, getting support from people you can rely on, while aiming to change your circumstances for the better in the ways that you can control, can help you heal and find your way forward in time.