My foundation in Psychology is always present in my work, so much so that I often fail to notice it. However, I've recently had numerous conversations with clients in which my knowledge is front and center. The topic is emotional fatigue, and it is showing up everywhere.
What is emotional fatigue?
Emotional fatigue is a bi-product of heightened and sustained stress. When we experience stress, our brain triggers several responses. Emotions such as anger, resentment, or frustration accompany the release of chemicals that speed up breathing and heart rate (commonly known as the flight or fight response). Usually, the source of stress resolves, and neutrality (or homeostasis) resumes. Fatigue is the result of this system being on continuous alert.
Signs of emotional fatigue
As one of my clients recently said, emotional fatigue is sneaky. Our bodies have a natural adaptation process that causes us to tune out the ongoing alerts from our limbic system. So we are going along thinking everything is normal until we hit a trigger that spikes our limbic system, and suddenly, our response seems disproportionate to the event (especially to those around us).
Other emotional fatigue symptoms include difficulty focusing on tasks, decreased productivity, impatience, depression, and lack of energy. These symptoms are cumulative and create a reinforcing loop of negativity and dysfunctional behaviors. With the pandemic, our desire to return to "normal life" before the COVID-19 virus fuels a constant feeling of frustration and resentment. It is like a bed of hot coals, allowing our negative emotions to flame up quickly.
Dealing with emotional fatigue
Because emotional fatigue has a biological connection, there are no quick fixes. My general counsel is to have patience with yourself and others. However, it is possible to retrain our brains to have more control over our emotional responses. Here's a summary of a recent article by Angela Duckworth, Founder of Character Lab, that lays out the process.
Name it. Recognizing the presence of emotional fatigue in ourselves and others allows us to have more patience and forgiveness. Awareness is also the first step in breaking the cycle of negativity.
Get curious. Simply deciding to be more positive doesn't work. Emotional triggers are like bolts of lightning. They are swift, powerful, and automatically produced as a result of the conditions. Therefore, we have to decode the conditions to change our response.
Detect. You can't untangle your emotions in the middle of the storm, so a post-mortem is required. As you recall the incident, uncover the thoughts and interpretations connected to your feelings.
Reflect. Once you uncover your interpretation of the event, you can examine why those thoughts were triggered and consider what other interpretations or thoughts were possible: "How likely is this the only possibility? What else could be true?" Similarly, when on the receiving end of emotional outbursts, it is helpful to ask, "What thought might have led to that emotion?"
Recalibrate. With consistent practice, the time required between experiencing emotions and recognizing their cause shortens, and so does the ability to reflect before we react. Angela Duckworth, Founder of Character Lab, provided these short-cuts for understanding the connection between thoughts and feelings.
If you or others around you are suffering emotional fatigue, I hope it helps to know that you are not alone. Being stuck in a negative emotional state is often judged to be a personal failing. However, psychology gives powerful insight into how this dysfunctional thinking and reacting pattern occurs and how to overcome it. If you'd like more information, be sure to reach out, I'd be glad to help.
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