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Navigating emotional exhaustion during times of crisis

Last updated on
September 4, 2021

Right now, there’s a lot to think about. Open-ended furlough, client uncertainty and sudden unemployment are all top of our minds, but work issues are only part of the problem. In addition to job insecurity and looming recession, we’re worried for our friends, relatives and ourselves. We feel emotionally stranded – denied access to loved ones in their hour of need – and stretched, many of us wrestling with full-time childcare on top of our jobs.

With no definitive end to the current COVID-19 pandemic, our emotional resources are taking a battering, and it’s all too easy to feel anxious and stressed. So how can we navigate this emotional exhaustion before it overwhelms us?

The psychological effects of COVID-19

Right now, it’s impossible to minimize the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having across the world. While the news is, understandably, focused on reporting the disease’s effects on physical health, the impact on our mental health hasn’t received the same attention. But the seismic shifts in the way our society is functioning can have an enormous effect on our emotions and behavior, and many of us are feeling emotionally tired in ways we may not recognize or understand.

The psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are currently being studied, and a survey from China has already found that it’s triggered mental health problems like panic disorders, anxiety and depression. “We’re not yet at the peak of the distress as a result of the lockdown,” says Sir Peter Gluckman, the former chief science advisor to New Zealand’s prime minister. “It will emerge over the coming weeks. With that will emerge some groups of people who will do well, but many people who will be uncertain, scared, frustrated, angry.”

A new dimension to emotional burnout

The term “emotional burnout” isn’t new. It conjures up images of millennials working late into the night, of work-obsessed tycoons sleeping at the office, and of the prevalent “culture of hustle”. But right now, emotional burnout looks quite different. Our daily lives have been uprooted: many of us are no longer working, or forced to work from home while dealing with all kinds of new problems; others are still going to work but in strange, unrecognizable cities. This all takes an emotional toll.

We’re constantly forced to question seemingly innocuous decisions: do I really need to go shopping? Can I justify a delivery? Should I disinfect these food packages? Am I standing too close to my eldery neighbor? Continually juggling such an array of dilemmas can lead to decision fatigue – a drop in mental energy after making too many decisions. But because we’re acutely aware that small actions can have devastating and far-reaching consequences, now decision fatigue comes accompanied by something else: moral fatigue.

Faced with such a constant onslaught of worries, dilemmas and moral quandaries, we’re exhuasted and emotionally drained. But without an endpoint to the situation, or any type of roadmap to help us navigate it, we need to know how to help ourselves battle this new type of emotional exhaustion. So how do we do this?

How to navigate emotional exhaustion

According to Harvard Business Review, averting emotional exhaustion “requires a combination of three approaches: reducing the drain on your emotional resources, learning to conserve them, and regularly replenishing them.”

To reduce the drain, you first need to recognize the circumstances that most deplete you, and then restrict your exposure. While some things may be out of your control, there are always ways to protect yourself – for example:

  1. Limit your news intake. If you find yourself feeling emotionally tired or stressed after watching the news, step away from it. Constantly hearing bad news can take a big toll on your mental and emotional health.
  1. Avoid unnecessary negativity. If someone you know likes to engage in “end of the world” conversations and it’s bringing you down, ask not to be involved in these exchanges.
  1. Don’t pressure yourself. The internet is currently full of preachy articles urging us to use our downtime to finally write that book, learn a language or pick up a new hobby. Our priority should be learning how to cope with this new upsetting reality, not being more productive.

The next step – learning to conserve your emotional resources – involves certain emotion regulation techniques, such as:

  1. Acknowledging your feelings. Accept what you’re feeling and try to understand the emotions behind it. This helps you process your feelings and be more present.
  1. Build your resilience. Think about times in the past when you overcome stress, trauma or emotional burnout, and how you got through it. Though the situation might’ve been very different, there are probably past resilience techniques you can draw on.
  1. Contemplate and be grateful. Try to step outside your own perspective for a moment. Remember you’re one of many going through such uncertainty, and try to notice and appreciate the things you’re grateful for.

The third and final strategy for preventing emotional exhaustion is ensuring you refuel. You can do this by trying to:

  1. Do things you enjoy. Find the things you take joy in and prioritize doing them. Cook, talk to friends, listen to music. Don’t be ashamed of doing something mindless, whether it’s binge-watching a TV show or playing a computer game. Anything that gets you into a good headspace is a positive.
  1. Make sure you move. Working from home during lockdown makes it easy to stay inside all day. Make it a priority to get outside and move, whether it’s going for a run or a walk around the block. Exercising outdoors is an effective way to prevent emotional burnout.
  1. Find ways to help. Giving back to your community (in a safe way) helps renew connections with people, can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, and generally make you feel more hopeful. Donate food, reach out to eldery neighbors, offer to deliver groceries.

Recovering from emotional exhaustion will look different for everyone – and that’s OK. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate a global pandemic, but remember to go easy on yourself. Try utilizing the three steps above, and don’t forget that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, even when you can’t see it. This won’t last forever.

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