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Emotional Exhaustion

Lately I hear a lot of people talking about being tired. Clients, friends, people in line at the grocery store, are describing a heaviness they feel --or-- in an attempt to put it more positively, may say that they are looking forward to things changing.

We’re tired. We’ve had two years of Covid. We are all ready for this to be over, to get back to a sense of normalcy, and questioning what the “new normal” will be.

Many aspects of this experience have been tough to manage, especially the separation. We have felt divided over masks, vaccinations, to gather or not, and without the social lives we had before, those feelings add to the loneliness and disconnection. On top of this, winter has kept us indoors, and many of our former routines and means of self-care are still not available in the way they once were. The recent news of international conflicts, and the disturbing images and reporting of war, have added to the heaviness many of us are feeling.

Let’s put this in perspective so that we have more options for helping ourselves.

All of our lives take place in a context. Our inner lives, private thoughts and emotions, whether shared or not, are influenced by the environments we live in. From our homes to our communities, regions, countries, and the world itself, our personal boundaries exist within larger boundaries that surround us, all interacting, all of the time. This is always true, whether we believe it, like it, or understand it. Being aware of this, and more specifically, being aware of the reality and power of this, is the first step to constructing some filters around ourselves, which we all need. This is especially true for emotionally sensitive, intuitive, and empathic people, who may need a few extra filter layers during acute periods when they feel the weight of the world.

Caring can be exhausting. Without those filters, we can become overloaded and depleted, and may even reach a saturation point where we start to steel ourselves from caring at all. The term “compassion fatigue” is defined by persistent low mood or worry, lack of energy, and feelings of powerlessness, overwhelm, and indifference.

Many people worry that there is something wrong with them when they experience these symptoms. Let’s clear that up. If you are feeling the symptoms of compassion fatigue, that is your system providing you useful information! It means: stop, back up, take a break, and make some changes. It does not mean you are uncaring, lazy, incompetent, or any other negative label you may be taking on. (I cannot stress this enough!) This is an especially tough concept for people who are used to the feeling of having everything under control and accomplishing a lot. Those qualities have not left you, but they may be temporarily hidden under a pile of current circumstances.

Think of the solution as starting from the inside and working outwards:

  • Pay attention to your emotional life, your self-talk, and your mood. What lifts you? Can you do more of that? Think small. Everyday things like listening to music you like, hanging out with your pet, watching lighthearted movies, taking time to watch the sunset, and whatever else gives you a moment of relief, is worth the effort. Pay attention to what you’re putting in your body, and be especially careful of substances that have addictive potential. Use affirmations, and talk to yourself like you would to the person you love most in this world.

  • Take care of your body. It may be time to rearrange your self-care. You may need to sleep more, do more, do something differently, or try something new. This is something many of us are experiencing now. What was working for you before may not be working anymore. That’s okay, and you may return to your former strategy later, but shifting things around so that you feel less stress and more relief is essential right now. Finding a way to move your body every day will help your system to shake off stress. In addition to movement, creating mental calm through meditation has been clinically proven to help our moods.

  • Set limits in your environment. This is probably not be the time to do anything extra. Use the “do not disturb” function on your phone for part of the day. Let people leave you a message, and get back to them when you feel refreshed. Turn off technology and enjoy the quiet, or just listen to music you enjoy. If you live with others, and you need more quiet time, find a way to have that conversation before you feel even more overwhelmed.

  • Reconsider your relationship to the news and media, including social media. We are affected by each other in ways we may not consciously recognize. The tone of voice used in news reports may trigger an emotional response in some people that is not productive, and they may be better off reading about issues. Likewise, we are all affected by the photo images that inundate us, whether we are consciously aware of that or not. Especially in our culture of non-stop news, putting filters around how much news you expose yourself to, as well as the means through which you get that news, is essential self-care. Participating in online discussions, opinion debates and arguments, and joining with others to express negative feelings is not the same as talking with a friend over coffee. Sometimes taking care of our own emotional boundaries involves shielding ourselves from the emotions of others.

  • Find a way to do something. This helps with feelings of powerlessness and worry. There are many ways to participate in helping that do not cause an emotional burden. Identify the issue or issues that seem the most concerning to you, whether in your own circle, community, or in the world, and start with a small gesture. Your act of friendship to a neighbor by dropping off a meal, or taking your used clothing to a shelter, or sending a donation to an international aid organization can allow you the feeling of taking an action. We can talk ourselves out of this by thinking that our gesture will not change the world or the conditions that cause us concern. And yes, that may be true, but I love the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “ Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Dianne Frances, MFA, MS, LPC, NCC


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