Emotional exhaustion - what is it?

caregiving emotional exhaustion practitioner self care

Emotional exhaustion…what is it?

Let us start to get serious and gain a deeper understanding of the different terms you may hear as you search to understand what is happening for you at this time.

Naturally you want to skip to the part that tells you how to recognise, understand the issues, create the change and evolve into the person that effectively manages their own self care. But… It is important to lay a foundation to understand the differences between some of the terms under the umbrella of emotional exhaustion.

You are unique and you are wired to adapt to difficulty and you do have what is needed within you to heal from your current circumstances. You can cite many times where you have overcome adversity and the key is to tap into that part of you that wants to thrive, to flourish and the part of you that has felt fulfilled in the past. 

Perhaps you do not feel this is possible in your current situation. You feel so exhausted…. but trust me…. It is possible. We will first work through understanding some of the phrases and terminology that people use to describe what is happening for you right now.  

To keep it simple, there are four key points. We will work through them one by one. Please remember though, this is general and not intended to provide a diagnosis. Seek help if needed.

Those key points are:

  1. Gain a general understanding of what most Caregivers are like 
  2. Gain an understanding of what compassion fatigue is
  3. Gain an understanding of what emotional exhaustion is
  4. Gain an understanding of what burnout is 

First, in general terms, what is a caregiver like?

Many of the carers that I work with are sort of similar in a way and there are many aspects in which I relate to them from time to time as  a professional that cares for my clients. 

Caregivers are motivated by compassion and strive to be generous and selfless in their actions as they put the needs of their patients or clients (or family)  before their own needs.

They are always there to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on, are trustworthy, relate well to others and able to communicate well… with just about everybody. 

I have heard many clients who professionally care for others say things like: ‘I feel selfish and find that acts of self care are selfish especially when I know that someone is in need or that others are experiencing difficulties or are needing support’. 

We all have a weakness and for carers…that weakness can be martyrdom and their selfless acts can therefore be exploited and unintentionally taken for granted-not always… but sometimes. 

What is important for a person that cares for others is that they want to help others, to do good and thoughtful things and to make a significant change in others, especially if the other person is experiencing a difficulty. 

Those that care for others have a real tendency to be selfless and quiet. They work longer than expected hours in a system that advocates for harder work, greater commitment, high demands of a significant and sometimes life threatening nature and they will be the first to put up their hand to do a double shift and tend to work in high risk and high adversity settings. 

Does this sound like anyone you know? 

Additionally the settings they work in do not (usually, I need to add that caveat) factor in that the Carer has personal and home responsibilities as well. All of this adds to the demands of the Caring professional.  

Think about this for a moment…If you are working in a system where you are overloaded with  administrative or clinical work, trying to help people who are suffering, trying to manage despite inadequate staff coverage and so on…AND you are putting your own needs on the back burner, what is bound to happen? You’ve got it, emotional exhaustion and eventual burnout. 

In my now several decades of working in the health and community sector along with those in defence, I have witnessed many reach emotional exhaustion or come very close because they cared so much for others at the expense of their own need of self care. And because they are working in a system that doesn't support their needs of self care. Some colleagues opt to take time off and some leave the profession altogether. 

Others traverse and seek help to enhance their self awareness and to develop healthier coping strategies. There is hope and you have decided to seek support and information to help you along the way… I must say, well done.

Compassion Fatigue-a basic understanding 

Generally, compassion fatigue is understood to be a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion that is associated with caring for people who are experiencing significant emotional distress and physical pain. 

The term has been around for some time and was defined by researchers in the 1970s  who identified psychological symptoms in healthcare workers and then some time later, it  became an official term to describe the symptoms nurses in emergency rooms were experiencing. 

Compassion fatigue usually has a quick onset. On the other hand, burnout occurs over an extended period of time. Symptoms that are shared in both compassion fatigue and burnout are poor concentration, withdrawing, feelings of isolation, physical and emotional fatigue, loss of purpose, denial of emotions, minimising distress and other physical and psychological difficulties such as inability to sleep, headaches or anxiety. 

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can occur when individuals are exposed to the suffering and trauma of others, often as part of their job or volunteer work.

It is also common to hear carers say they feel helpless or hopeless to effect change when one of their clients or patients is suffering. They may also describe feeling loss of empathy, of being increasingly less sensitive and more  impatient and feel overwhelmed, exhausted, numb and detached from those close to them. 

Those with compassion fatigue may also feel pressured to keep working and develop unhealthy behaviours of coping such as self medicating or using substances  to keep going. 

BUT, if compassion fatigue is not treated, it can lead to burnout. It is important to note that anyone who regularly witnesses or hears about traumatic events may be at risk of compassion fatigue, regardless of their profession or role.

It is important to remember first that this is not meant to be diagnosing any symptoms you may have… and to also understand that compassion fatigue and burnout are not the same thing.

Gain an understanding of what emotional exhaustion is

In general terms, emotional exhaustion is a term that refers to chronic emotional and physical depletion as a result of prolonged exposure to demanding situations and usually relates to those in the caring professions.

Over time, exposure to high levels of stress, trauma and emotional demands can take a toll on the emotional and physical wellbeing of the caring professional and may lead to burnout, frustration and exhaustion. 

Emotional exhaustion can manifest itself in a variety of ways including feeling excessively sad, decreased motivation, feeling emotionally overwhelmed and difficulty connecting with patients and others on a personal level which as you can imagine, can then negatively impact the quality of care provided.

Gain an understanding of what burnout is

If you neglect the earlier signs, you may find yourself at a critical exhaustion level that makes it hard for you to cope with the demands or obligations that you have in the past been able to manage. 

When you are burned out, you have a pervasive sense of being powerless and from there it is easy to slip into despair and disillusionment. When you are burned out, you may be feeling betrayed by your caring role, your manager, yourself, the system and just about anyone you know. 

You may  feel as though you have limited options and may be experiencing ‘learned helplessness’. At this time… your pessimism is becoming obvious to others and you may be experiencing other symptoms like headaches, digestive problems or other physical symptoms. Self doubt creeps in along with being self critical and feelings of failure start to arise even though you know you are usually confident and certainly competent in your role.

Burnout is a syndrome that results from chronic stress from the work that you do. It is anecdotally accepted that burnout consists of emotional  exhaustion, (the feeling of not being able to give anything to others on an emotional level), depersonalisation, (that is an excessively detached attitude) and a negative work related opinion of yourself. 

Remember that a syndrome is a cluster of symptoms, traits or features and that working with just one aspect or one symptom in the cluster does not address the underlying cause. The best approach is to address the true underlying cause.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not meant to replace professional advice and support so please seek the help of those you respect and not make decisions about whether you are burnout or just by reading this BLOG. 

Emotional  exhaustion is a term  that I am using to describe what is no doubt happening for you at this time so that you can recognize your current situation. 

Perhaps it is carer fatigue, perhaps it has another label but exhaustion is not a nice place to be and ‘just snapping out of it’ as some of your well meaning friends may have said only compounds the feelings of hopelessness. 

So… we have had a quick look at:

  1. A general understanding of  what most Caregivers are like.
  2. Looked at what compassion fatigue is
  3. Gained an understanding of what emotional exhaustion is
  4. Gained an understanding of what burnout is. 

There is hope, there are answers and you will start to see the difference as you learn to recognize, identify, create the necessary changes as you evolve to a person that is more confident to incorporate self care into their everyday life.

Dr Rhonda Emonson (Law Res) is a Mediator| Coach | Counsellor and Resilience First Aid Instructor and works with clients nationally and internationally either face 2 face or virtually.

Today’s workplace is really wherever you need it to be. At the hospital, at an office, at home and even in transit. I’ve built my practice around my clients and their needs. If there’s a priority, I can offer appointments within a relatively short period of time. If there’s not a set location, I’m on ZOOM. If there’s an opportunity to meet in person, we can make that work. I work how my clients work, not just in one place or in one time zone. www.carercareinternational.com.au

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