Counterproductive Habits That Can Leave Us Emotionally Exhausted

Jon Hawkins

They disguise themselves as helpful tendencies, but should be avoided.

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Are you struggling to think straight? Is your thinking clouded? Do you feel physically tired and done in? Then you might be emotionally exhausted. Emotional exhaustion is described by Psychologists as a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion. It’s often described as feeling worn out and tired as a result of accumulated stress.

It comes in various different forms. For me, I know I’m emotionally exhausted when I have difficulty thinking clearly, and experience a (somewhat indescribable) pinching headache. And I know it does because, at the time of writing this, I’m experiencing these feelings.

For some of us, it can be difficult to recognize exactly when we’re exhausted, because the symptoms can be subtle — and we often shrug them off as normal and nothing serious. Worse still, the habits that cause emotional exhaustion can be difficult to spot. They hide in our day to day behavior, and we tend to self-identify them as normal and harmless. In doing so, we don’t think too much about the tendencies that are causing us harm.

If you think you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion, then here are the day to day habits you should give up.

“I am somewhat exhausted; I wonder how a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor?” ― Arthur Conan Doyle [The Adventure of the Dying Detective]

Key Signs You’re Emotionally Exhausted

Before we get into its causes, it's important that we identify the leading signs — so that you know exactly when to make a change to your behavior. According to Jacquelyn Cafasso, Senior Research Analyst for healthcare, common symptoms include:

  • Trouble sleeping (or an active mind late at night).
  • A lack of motivation.
  • Physical fatigue.
  • Unusual and uncommon irritability.
  • Headaches (like the one I’m experiencing right now).
  • Difficulty concentrating.

This isn’t an extensive list — so not experiencing these symptoms doesn't mean you aren’t exhausted. But if you are experiencing these, it’s possible you need to change your behavioral traits in order to prevent them from reoccurring.

The Brain-Body Connection

According to Georgia Witkin Ph.D. (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine,) we need to take a closer look at our cognitions, as they could be the root cause of our problems. In her words —

“Our emotions can be the result of our thoughts and behaviors, not just the cause.”

By this, Witkin is referring to our tendencies to blame our thoughts and behaviors on our emotions: we often excuse anger and shouting when in a bad mood, or blame our laziness on feeling tired. But, according to her research, the chain of events often happens the other way around:

  • We are in a bad mood because we are shouting and angry (not the other way around).
  • We are feeling tired because we are acting lazy.

Recognizing this fact highlights the importance of our day to day habits. Because the actions we perform could directly impact our mood. As a consequence, behavioral tendencies such as:

  1. Being hard on yourself, not allowing yourself a break, and pushing yourself to the point of burnout.
  2. Not allowing yourself downtime, and instead: overthinking or worrying about things beyond your control.
  3. Acting irritable and impatient, rather than taking events in a calm and peaceful manner.

Are things we typically describe as symptoms of emotional exhaustion. But on Witkin’s model, they could be causing that very exhaustion.

“We all grow tired eventually; it happens to everyone. Even the sun, at the close of the year, is no longer a morning person.” ― Joyce Rachelle

Fake It Till You Make It

On Witkin’s account, the best way to fight emotional exhaustion is to act like you aren’t already experiencing it. Now knowing about the brain-body connection, you should choose your thoughts and actions carefully. Witkin avoids emotional burnout by creating a mantra of positive affirmation for herself. Whenever she feels overwhelmed, irritable, or stressed, she simply mutters the words “everything will be fine.”

According to her, we rarely listen or trust others when they tell us things will be fine. But your brain and subconscious listens to its own assurances — and it’s by giving ourselves peace of mind that will enable our stress levels to drop.

In addition, research indicates we can choose behaviors that disable physical stress using a similar method. To Witkin, we can do so by acting like everything is fine (even when it’s not,) you have energy and want to go to work (even when you don’t). In doing so, we are regulating our emotions back to a more relaxed and sustainable state. In her words —

“Instead of your stress hormones keeping you hypervigilant — making you hyperactive until you are wiped out, or causing you to hyperventilate until you’re dizzy — all your feel-good hormones will be stimulated, and your body can rest.”

So remember — your mood is fueled by your thoughts and actions, so choose them carefully.

Constantly Trying to Prove Yourself

As human beings, we’re naturally social creatures. We like interacting with others and meeting new people. As part of that behavior, studies show that human beings are naturally competitive. Not just with other people, but with ourselves too.

We’re always trying to improve and be the best version of ourselves. So we constantly push ourselves to do more and work harder. We don’t mind supporting others when they’re exhausted, but we subconsciously believe rest is a sign of weakness. So we don’t allow ourselves to take breaks, despite needing it.

Instead, we push ourselves to the limit, and do everything we can to the best of our ability. And when we’re not doing that, we feel guilty, as if we’re doing something wrong. Have you noticed the irony? These habits are often considered praiseworthy. Children are regularly encouraged to give everything their all. And businesses often incentivize pushing yourself and going beyond the call of duty.

Despite these traits being key for business success, they’re a root cause of emotional exhaustion. In fact, according to Witkin, pushing ourselves will inevitably leave us building up our stress levels, to the point where there’s no room left for you.

To overcome this, you need to take back control of your habits. Rather than falling prey to your competitive instincts, tell yourself it’s okay to have time off here and there. It doesn’t make you weak, but charging your batteries is an important necessity that will improve your future work-ethic.

Overcommitting & FOMO

According to Neuropsychologist Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D., another leading cause of emotional exhaustion is our natural tendency to overcommit. For Tsaousides, some people just can’t help themselves. They hear an exciting project, or a new venture at work, and they end up signing up for more than they can handle.

Whether you’re volunteering to help a good cause or filling your schedule with the things you enjoy — some of us can’t help but bite off more than we can chew. But according to research, overcommitting can cause anxiety, cognitive overload, and mental overload. Not to mention the fact spreading ourselves too thin reduces the chance of every task getting the attention that it needs and deserves.

Tsaousides blames this counterproductive habit on Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). We tell ourselves that if we say no, we risk being left out of a life-changing opportunity down the line. So we would rather say yes and risk emotional exhaustion.

“Sometimes exhaustion is not a result of too much time spent on something, but of knowing that in its place, no time is spent on something else.”― Joyce Rachelle

Turning Down Opportunites

When we take on large tasks, the anxiety caused by FOMO is replaced by the chronic stress brought about by having too much on your plate. To counteract both, you should aim for a balance between doing too much and too little.

To achieve this, prioritize the tasks that you think are important; and learn to say no to the rest. In doing so, you’re satisfying your desire not to miss out, whilst avoiding too much work.

Final Thoughts

Whether we know about it or not, when things get too much, we all experience emotional exhaustion. The problem, however, is that the habits that cause it are well-hidden in what we consider ordinary or praiseworthy behavior.

Because of that, identifying them is essential (yet difficult,) when trying to make an emotional recovery. In the words of Tsaousides: A good starting point to prevent emotional weight gain is awareness — becoming able to identify these practices as we engage in them.”

In preventing emotional exhaustion, acknowledge:

  1. Detrimental habits that, as illustrated by the brain-body connection, directly impact our mood. Recognize that, at times, your behavior and thoughts impact your mood, rather than the other way around.
  2. Stop constantly trying to prove yourself. Though such behavior is praised in environments like business, doing so will cause you unnecessary stress and burnout.
  3. Stop overcommitting, and instead, find a perfect balance between doing enough to avoid FOMO, while also protecting your mental and cognitive health.

In doing so, perhaps you will save yourself from burnout and emotional exhaustion, which leaves you in a better state of mind in the long run.

I write about self-improvement, life Lessons, philosophy, psychology & business — to help you reach your full potential.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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