“Why am I so tearful?” How to avoid emotional exhaustion during the pandemic

Feeling emotionally overwhelmed as a result of the recent rise in coronavirus cases and new restrictions? You’re not alone. Here, an expert explains why we’re all feeling so mentally spent at the moment, and how to cope with it.

“When was your last big cry?” is a question I’ve found myself asking a lot during the pandemic. It’s a sign of the strange times we’ve found ourselves in this year – on a personal level, we’re all learning how to adapt to the emotional rollercoaster we’ve been riding since March.

During the summer months, things got a little better. Although there was still some low-level anxiety going on in the background, there was a sense of optimism – hope, even. But then came autumn, and with it, a second rise in infections. Yet again, we’ve found ourselves at the centre of an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing time – and it’s beginning to take its toll.

“I am very good at thinking I have it all together all the time, so I don’t notice my body and brain’s own red flags for stress,” says Chloe, 24. “It wasn’t until I took a step back that I realised that my fatigue, cystic acne break out, excessive bloating, and foggy head were all signs that I was struggling.

“Never has my SAD been quite so visceral, and it’s all because I feel so trapped on the hamster wheel of coronavirus, chasing a normality which no longer exists,” she adds. 

“When I think or talk about the prospect of another six months of lockdown, only this time in the knowledge of what these restrictions look and feel like and without the benefit of picnics and cocktails in the sunshine with housemates, my heart suddenly beats faster and I want to cry – and I’m never a crier.”

Emily*, 28, says the new rise in cases has left her feeling more sensitive than ever.

“I recently had a crying attack before a morning meeting and couldn’t stop, so kept my camera off and had to keep muting between sentences so nobody would know,” she explains. “The final straw was so stupid: I sent a message to a group chat and was hit with radio silence, but then someone else sent a message and it prompted a stream of replies. So I just got in my own head, and decided I was boring and useless – it was so stupid.”

Explaining how the recent changes had caused her to reach a state of overwhelm, she adds: “I think all my sensitivity triggers are far more easily activated at the moment.”

Most of us are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress at the moment – especially when we hear about changes to lockdown restrictions or the rise in cases – so could we be at risk of becoming emotionally exhausted?

“We’re much better at understanding exhaustion in terms of physical effort and effects than emotional ones. However, mental or emotional activities and outputs also have an impact on our health,” Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author at Ten Harley Street, explains. “Just as we wouldn’t exercise hour after hour without a break, we shouldn’t expend emotional energy without respite. Therefore, we must give our emotional muscles rest too so that they can repair, by first becoming more aware of all the emotional work we do on a daily basis, including consuming the news.”

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, and find yourself crying at random times throughout the day, chances are you’re not giving your “emotional muscles” sufficient time to rest – and therefore causing yourself to feel emotionally exhausted. 

Defined as “a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives,” emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.

According to Healthline, symptoms of emotional exhaustion include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Physical fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Absentmindedness
  • Apathy
  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irrational anger
  • Increased cynicism or pessimism
  • A sense of dread
  • Depression

While staying informed during the coronavirus outbreak is obviously important, we also need to make sure we’re taking time away from all the stressful headlines to give ourselves a break and avoid emotional exhaustion.

“Reading the news can make us emotionally exhausted because headlines are devised specifically to trigger an emotive response,” Dr Arroll explains. “This emotive response is often fear, so the mind and body are likely to go into fight-or-flight mode, with the associated physiological processes that come with it.

“Without a break from this we cannot go back to a state or equilibrium and may reach a point of allostatic overload, wherein we’ve used all of our resources and are ‘in the red’ as it were – this is the point where symptoms start to appear such as fatigue, headaches, sleeping difficulties and cognitive problems.”

As emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout, it’s important to try and manage any signs of it as soon as possible. Crying, for example, could be a sign that you need to take a step back from the news and take some time for yourself, whether that’s via self-care, distraction or mindfulness meditation (allowing yourself to have a good cry can also help to release tension and help you feel better). 

To wean yourself off the news, and reduce the impact it’s having on your mental health, Dr Arroll recommends gradually building healthy news habits.

“In clinic, I wean individuals off news outlets and apps with a detox plan by first asking them to turn off all notifications, then to choose just one trusted source of news,” she explains. “Next, we set specific times to check the news (usually only once in the morning and evening) and to watch news with others so it can be discussed, rather than in isolation where repetitive and ruminative thoughts can go unchecked.

“Focus on the facts, rather than rumours, from trusted sources such as the WHO website and/or local health authorities.”

Dr Arroll also recommends looking for the feel-good stories coming out of the coronavirus outbreak – notably, all the acts of kindness making a difference for vulnerable people.

“Instead of primarily focusing on the worldwide (often overwhelming) view, zoom-in and find the positive and hopeful stories of local people who have recovered from difficult experiences. I also believe in the saying ‘look for the helpers’ – there is always human kindness, bravery and grace in very difficult times like this and by seeking out these actions, we can come to a sense of acceptance, even in the face of great loss.

“Be active in honouring these helpers by acknowledging their contribution. Whereas passively consuming negative stories can lead to emotional burnout, anxiety and depression, actively celebrating positive experiences can boost our mood and wellbeing.”

*name has been changed

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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