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January 1, 2015
by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

Running on Fumes: Recognizing and Preventing Emotional Burn-Out

January 1, 2015 07:55 by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.  [About the Author]

Work is crazy, the kids have so much to do, and you and your partner just had a big argument about the finances.  Maybe you’re unemployed, the creditors are calling, and the bills are piling up.  Perhaps you are the caretaker of a family member who is ill or disabled, and you never get a minute for yourself.  More often than not, you dread the day ahead, and you feel like you’re heading for a nervous breakdown. You just don’t know how to get your life back on track, and you don’t know how much more you can take.

Sound familiar?  Stressors like these are a fact of life for many of us.  If it’s not one thing, it’s another.  We manage the best that we can, and hopefully we get a reprieve now and then when we can relax and re-group.   When we think about burn-out, many of us may think of job-stress or job burn-out.  This is certainly one specific kind of burn-out, but we can also become completely emotionally exhausted.  This kind of exhaustion can impact our ability to function, and even have dangerous consequences for our health,

Causes of Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion doesn’t happen overnight, and often there are a number of factors that contribute to becoming burned out and stressed out.  Job-related stress, too many responsibilities, lifestyle, and certain personality traits can all play a role in causing you to reach the end of your rope.  But let’s start with work, a source of stress for many people.  According to Smith, Segal & Segal (2014), there are specific situations at work that can wear us down, and leave too exhausted for the rest of our lives.

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work.  Lack of control is a big factor in stress. We like to feel like we can influence our lives and the outcome of our efforts.
  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations.  We also generally like clarity, and are stressed by too much ambiguity.
  • Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging. This type of work may simple and stress-free, but it is really taxing. Our minds are designed for challenging, engaging work--- at least some of the time.
  • Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment. There will always be deadlines and high-stress times in any job, but when this is the daily norm, it can become overwhelming.
  • Lack of recognition or rewards for a job well-done. Too often, we hear what we’re doing wrong.  Everyone needs a pat on the back once in a while.

Sometimes, our own personality and way of interacting with life can put us at greater risk for burn-out and emotional exhaustion.  For example, we have all heard of the Type-A Personality.  This is the person that is high-achieving and very driven to succeed.  While people with this personality type can be very successful and accomplished, they may burn-out if they don’t take steps to keep healthy balance in their lives. There are some other personality traits and styles that may predispose a person to become over stressed.

Perfectionism:  When nothing and no one is ever good enough, life can become pretty tough.  You may have conflict with others because they don’t feel like the measure up to your high expectations.  You may also worry too much about minor details, resulting in late work, or lack of attention to more important details.

Pessimism:  Pessimism can lead you to expect the worst from yourself and from life.  Unfortunately, we often get what we expect, and we are chronically disappointed and disillusioned (Smith, et al, 2014). 

Control:  Has anyone ever called you a control freak?   You may refuse to delegate to others, leaving all of the work for you. This can also be related to perfectionism.  You have to do it ourselves, because you don’t think others will get it right. When you insist on being in control and in charge all the time, you set yourself up for exhaustion.

Disorganization:  Some of us are naturally more organized than others.  If you struggle with getting organized, life can feel chaotic and out of control. Fortunately, anyone can learn better organization and time management skills.

In addition to job stress and personality factors, our lifestyle habits can get in the way of our peace of mind.  It’s important to take time to become aware of habits, and how we generally manage life and relationships.  Too often, we are on autopilot, just moving from one obligation to the next, without thinking about how we could cope more effectively and manage stress.  It can help to check-in with yourself to see if you are guilty of any of these exhausting habits:

Working too much:  Life can become out of balance when you don’t take time to relax and unwind, and spend time just socializing with people you enjoy.

  • Being overtired:  Sleep is essential to manage stress
  • Being everything to everybody:   You can’t possibly meet everyone’s needs all of the time—but maybe you’re giving it the old college try.  If you can’t say no sometimes, and allow others to be responsible for themselves, then you will wind up feeling wiped out, or even angry.
  • Being over-responsible:  Trying to take on too much, and do it all yourself is a recipe for disaster.  When you don’t ask for help, you can feel resentful and overwhelmed (Smith, et al, 2014).
  • Going it alone:  Lack of supportive relationships can increase your stress level.  We all need someone to talk to now and then.
  • Poor diet:  To cope with the pressures of life, we need to fuel our bodies well to meet the challenges. 
  • Lack of exercise:  Exercise is a great stress reducer.  You may feel like you are too tired to even walk around the block, but exercise actually gives you energy, and helps you think more clearly.

Beyond Stress: Recognizing the Signs of Emotional Exhaustion

Exhaustion doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s important to be aware of the signs that you may be heading for trouble.  You may be tempted to ignore the red flags, and just keep slogging ahead.  You tell yourself, and everyone else, that you’re fine. But the signs may sneak up on you, and before you know it you can’t function.   If you can catch burn-out and exhaustion early, you can prevent a full-blown breakdown.  Symptoms of emotional exhaustion can manifest in emotional, physical and behavioral ways (Smith, et al, 2014):

  • Feeling a sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and defeated
  • Feeling detached and alone in the world
  • Feeling unmotivated
  • Feeling negative, cynical and dissatisfied
  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Feeling sick a lot, and having a lowered immunity to illness
  • Frequent headaches and other aches and pains
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or taking longer than usual to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, alcohol, shopping to cope with feelings, or avoid feelings
  • Irritability, or taking frustrations out on others
  • Missing work, or coming in late and leaving early

All of these things can be warning signs that life has become unmanageable and you’re on the verge of exhaustion.  The more of these signs you see in yourself, the more important it is to take action to protect your physical and mental health.

Regaining Control

Burnout and emotional exhaustion is dangerous to your health, and too often it’s just a part of modern life for many Americans.   When a situation (including exhaustion) goes on for long enough, it starts to feel normal.  For example, Americans have more sleep loss and work longer schedules than people in other industrialized countries.  This can lead to emotional collapse, and a range of negative health effects, including gastrointestinal distress (Deardorff, 2010). 

If you are struggling with exhaustion and burnout, it’s essential to take action.  Recognizing that things are out of control is the first step.  It may be helpful to talk with a counselor learn coping skills and strategies to re-gain control and prevent exhaustion in the future.  Recovering from emotional exhaustion takes time and a conscious effort to change behaviors and thinking patterns that may be fueling stress and burn-out.   Sherrie Bourg-Carter, PsyD (2011), recommends trying some of these steps to recovery from exhaustion.

  • Make a list.  Jot down situations that cause you to feel stressed, anxious, worried, frustrated, and helpless. Write down at least one way to change those situations, and add them into your routine.  Be patient and don't get frustrated if you don't see immediate changes.  
  • Just say "no." Avoid taking on any new commitments or responsibilities. Do what you need to do, but set limits on unnecessary obligations.   
  • Delegate.  Hand off some things—even if they don’t get done the way you would prefer.
  • Take breaks.  When you’re exhausted, your mind and body are not at their best.  Try to avoid jumping from one stressful, time-consuming project to the next in order to give your mind and body a chance to recover.
  • Practice total self-care.  Now is the time to take care of you.  Eat a healthy diet; get exercise, and plenty of sleep. Remember, your health is at stake.
  • Control your devices—instead of letting them control you. Gadgets can consume large amounts of your time and energy. Turn them off as much as possible.  
  • Socialize outside your professional group. This can provide fresh perspectives, stimulate new ideas, and help you discover previously undiscovered resources.
  • Keep work at work.  Of course, you have a job to do, but if you're running on fumes, this added work can push you to the brink.  Keep a balance between work and recreation. 
  • Consider counseling or a support group. Sharing feelings often reduces stress, and getting together with others reduces feelings of isolation, a frequent consequence of burn-out and exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion can take a serious toll on your emotional and physical health. Make yourself a priority, and take steps to recognize and recover from exhaustion. Learn skills to prevent exhaustion and stay healthy.  Life demands so much from us every day, and we need to be at our best to accomplish all the things we need and want to do. 


Bourg-Carter, S., PsyD. (2010). Overcoming Burnout. Retrieved August 11, 2014, from

Deardorff, J. (2010, October 16). Exhaustion: Why feeling really tired can threaten your health. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from

Ferguson, N. (2014). Emotional Burnout? Watch Out For These 7 Causes. Retrieved August 11, 2014, from

Smith, M., M.A., Segal, J., PhD, & Segal, R., M.A. (2014, February). Preventing Burnout. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from

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