How to overcome chronic exhaustion

Returning to work after the Christmas and New Year break can hit you hard. If you’re struggling to cope, you may be exhausted says Alice Boyes, Ph.D. In this article she identifies some of the key symptoms of exhaustion – and some ways you can regain your energy

Perhaps you’ve been overworking and scraping the bottom of the barrel of your energy for too long, or perhaps you’re slightly depressed. Another scenario is that you’re chronically anxious, or in physical pain, and that’s wearing you down.

If you’re experiencing more than a few of these symptoms of exhaustion, then you need to change your coping strategies:

  1. Doing slightly unpleasant tasks that will take under five minutes still feels overwhelming and triggers procrastination (e.g. taking out the rubbish or emptying your vacuum cleaner.)
  2. If you pump yourself up briefly (e.g. through listening to an upbeat song), it works momentarily but leaves you feeling totally wiped out afterwards.
  3. You only eat food you can microwave or eat straight out of the package.
  4. You have several hours per day when all you’ve got the energy for is watching videos or clicking around the internet; even reading a book would feel like too much effort.
  5. There’s something you should be doing to manage a medical condition, like taking a medication or using an ointment, but you don’t have the energy or willpower to do it consistently.
  6. You keep doing tasks in inefficient ways because organising yourself is beyond you. For instance, you keep buying food for one or two meals rather than doing a big grocery shop for the full week. (This is a self-sabotaging pattern I cover in-depth in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit).
  7. You consume short bites of content (e.g., YouTube videos) because, at the end of your workday, you don’t have the concentration left for anything longer.
  8. You put off small tasks which, if not attended to promptly, could turn into expensive (or otherwise onerous) problems. For example, the oil light comes on in your car and you just ignore it for a few days.
  9. You let your children have hours of screen time because you’re too tired to have a battle over it, or to do activities with them (e.g., read to them).
  10. You wake up still feeling tired.
  11. If you have a partner, you ignore their relationship-related complaints because you haven’t got the mental space to deal with their emotional needs.
  12. You spend time each day doing something that feels like it’s just wasting your life. For instance, you go on social media. You find it unfulfilling, but you do it anyway. You don’t have the energy to break the habit and plan an alternative activity.
  13. You don’t have the energy to plan or set goals – for example, you’d like to plan a vacation but you can’t muster the energy to organise it, or you know you need to return an item by a certain date; you think about it daily but let the date go by because you just can’t be bothered.

If any – or many – of these symptoms are familiar, you need to act. Here are some ways you can battle back against exhaustion.

  • Have a few early nights to give yourself a reset.
  • Invest in yourself for a couple of weeks. Instead of pushing yourself for other people (e.g. your job, friends or family) save some of that energy to refill your tank.
  • Check any potential physical causes of how you’re feeling, such as low iron or low B12. This is mainly relevant if you know you haven’t been eating well or you’re a vegetarian, but there can be other causes of feeling tired all the time, like sleep apnea or an under-active thyroid. Ask your family doctor to check for physical causes of low energy.
  • Try something different from how you’ve been coping recently. For instance, if you read a lot of self-help titles, but have never seen a therapist, try it. You can also try strategies you’ve used at other times in your life, but not recently. For instance, maybe when you were younger you used to go to yoga to help with stress, but you haven’t been in years, or, perhaps, you used to take baths, or run, to unwind, but now you rarely do.
  • Learn strategies that will help you break the cycle of being a hamster on a wheel. Create more energy for planning and organisation; this will gradually lower your stress levels over the long-term.
  • Give yourself more support. If you’ve reached the level of exhaustion indicated by these examples it’s time to stop trying to go it alone. The support you need, and can access, could be medical, child care, therapy, other practical support – or anything that would feel supportive to you.

This edited article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

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