5 Types of Exhaustion
“Sorry I’ve been quiet, how have you been?” I texted a friend late one night, after a long, mentally draining day. I’d left a handful of messages unanswered for days, not necessarily because I was too busy to offer a short reply, but because I hadn’t had the mental space to offer a thoughtful one.
“Bone tired exhausted” he replied.
“Me too,” I typed, “Can I just call you?” This type of exchange-swapping fatigue- has become normal, but it shouldn’t be.
Exhaustion has become a near-constant state for many Americans; in 2017, 43% of American workers admitted to extreme exhaustion that impacted their ability to think clearly, make informed decisions, and be productive. That last one is the real kicker-most of us love to be productive. It feels good to accomplish things, and better yet, we’re rewarded for doing so. But we’re increasingly inundated with stimuli, obligations, causes to care about, people to see, places to be, and images to uphold that it can feel downright wrong to take a break.
We like to commiserate over shared exhaustion and might even feel proud of being tired. Being tired means we’re getting ahead, wherever that is. One huge downside to this pride is the subsequent shaming of those who do chose to take breaks, “I wish I had the time to watch TV,” or “You’re so fortunate you have the time to take that vacation.” Taking a break, sleeping enough, and not over-extending yourself are all good things. “Self-care” has become all the rage, but sometime self-care can feel chore-ish, and often, “self-care” costs more than a little money.
This isn’t about money though. Exhaustion can manifest in various ways, and each type of exhaustion requires it’s own solution.
Physical exhaustion usually occurs when you’re sleep deprived or after a huge physical undertaking. Physical exhaustion is pretty easy to identify and address: you’ll feel sluggish, irritable, and unduly hungry. Physical exhaustion cannot be remedied by drinking a vat of coffee or taking some other stimulant. Physical exhaustion can increase cortisol, worsen insomnia, decrease appetite, increase illness, and significantly change your mood. This can all be easily remedied by lightening physical exercise, increasing sleep, and prioritizing rest (easier said than done).
In an effort to be extremely productive, many of us push our mental capacity to the limit. Mental exhaustion is marked by an inability to concentrate, apathy, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, decreased productivity, isolation, and physical symptoms such as increased/decreased appetite, insomnia, headaches, or body aches. The best way to counteract mental exhaustion is to take a step back from work or whatever else might be taking up all your mental space. Practicing yoga or meditation and decreasing time spent with electronic devices has also been shown to help.
Emotional exhaustion is often brought on by persistent relationship friction, a period of grief, financial strains, or constantly acting as caretaker at work or at home. Feeling as if you have nothing left to give or that your mood is consistently low or compromised is a good sign that you’re emotionally exhausted. Treating emotional exhaustion is inherently complex and may require drastic lifestyle changes. If your job is emotionally draining, taking time off or learning healthy coping mechanisms can help. If relationships are draining, a therapist or counselor can help you navigate the difficulty of establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. All of this takes time, but emotional exhaustion can be remedied.
Values Disconnect Exhaustion & Purpose Exhaustion
These two final types of exhaustion are new to me, and they’re a bit less straightforward. Values disconnect exhaustion occurs when a person has to compromise their own character and beliefs in order to meet the expectations placed on them. This happens all the time, and slowly wears away vibrancy, drive, and happiness. For example: your parents heavily influence you to become a lawyer, but you don’t really want to be a lawyer. Your parents paid for school, so you feel like you have little choice. You become a lawyer and live a life of quiet resentment until something breaks. The only way to resolve this type of exhaustion is to discover your values and create a life that reinforces those values.
Purpose exhaustion is the most difficult to recognize. You may feel well physically, mentally, emotionally, and live a “good” life, but you feel like something is missing. Many people who feel this way disregard their lack of satisfaction or write it off as ingratitude. The only thing that will really help resolve these feelings is to explore activities or disciplines that will bring you true joy and satisfaction. Those with purpose exhaustion often feel like they’re simply existing instead of thriving. We often feel guilty for purpose exhaustion and justify our lives in comparison to those who live harder or “worse” lives. Ironically, justifying an unhappy existence only reinforces unhappiness.
P.S. I’m not an expert on exhaustion, I was simply feeling exhausted and wanted to learn more. Check out The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han: “Denouncing a world in which every against-the-grain response can lead to further dis-empowerment, Han draws on literature, philosophy, and the social and natural sciences to explore the stakes of sacrificing intermittent intellectual reflection for constant neural connection.”