“I’m so exhausted,” Stephanie said as she sat down on her therapist’s couch. “I can’t seem to get a grip on my life.” As she began to recount the events over the past few days, her exhaustion was pervasive at work and home. She overreacted to a missed appointment with threats of firing her assistant. She nearly drove another car off the interstate after being cut-off earlier. And she forgot about her daughter’s dance recital. Her life seemed to be unraveling at the seams.

Exhaustion is real. It is a warning indicator that something is not right and needs immediate attention. When the empty fuel indicator lights up on a car, a person stops and refuels. If they don’t, the car eventually runs out of gas and shuts off. The body works the same way. Problematic exhaustion can led to a physical, mental, and emotional breakdowns.

  • Physical Exhaustion. This is probably the most recognizable type of exhaustion as the body seems to have a hard time gaining benefits from any type of rest. Some relaxation is needed daily, weekly, monthly and annually. For instance, the body naturally requires sleep daily. But instead of this being beneficial, the reverse happens as increased sleep only produces more exhaustion the next day.
    • Causes: Typically, the body needs 8 hours of sleep a day, one day off a week, another holiday within a month or so, and two weeks of vacation a year. These designated periods of rest allow the body to reset so it is better equipped for days demanding higher performance. When a person fails to properly unwind, the body shuts down as a reminder that this is essential.
    • Solution: A quick glance at a calendar can determine if there is adequate downtime. The most important area to fix first is daily sleep. Without sufficient amounts of the deep rapid eye movement sleep (REMS), a person can appear to have attention-deficit disorder, increased anxiety and irritability, memory problems, weight issues, more confusion, sensitivity to pain, and unnecessary firing of survival instincts (freeze, fight, or flight). Consulting with a sleep expert to discover any potential sleep disturbances is essential to recovery.
  • Mental Exhaustion. “I can’t seem to think through things like before,” is a common indicator of mental exhaustion. It is as if the reasoning part of the brain is so clouded that even simple decisions become difficult. And this is exactly what is happening. The largest part of the brain is the frontal lobe which controls judgement, problem solving, emotional regulation, personality, motor functioning, memory, and impulse control. When this is exhausted, it stops working properly.
    • Causes: A traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two common causes for mental exhaustion. Depending on the severity of a TBI, the effects can last from a couple of days to a lifetime. PTSD hijacks the proper function of the brain in an effort to self-protect from additional trauma. Long-term unresolved PTSD can create unhealthy brain pathways that become habitual adding to increased difficulty as a person ages.
    • Solution: A thorough neurological examination is essential for recovery of a TBI. The brain can get better with stable routine, adequate rest and nutrition, and utilization of occupational therapy. Recovery from PTSD requires an understanding and reframing of the trauma which is best done in the care of a trained therapist. When these two areas are addressed, the mental exhaustion clears up immediately.
  • Emotional Exhaustion. The repeated stuffing of uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety results in explosive behavior at a later date. Often, the volcanic eruptions manifest in abusive actions like verbal assaults. An emotionally exhausted person can be so numb that they can no longer feel, might cry uncontrollably without cause, or osculate between the two in a bi-polar like manner. These intense responses are visible to others who are usually at odds with how to help.
    • Causes: Emotions don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they have a tendency to collect past experiences and add it to the present in an effort to purge the pent-up feelings. This is especially true for anyone who has experience abuse. There are seven major types of abuse: physical, mental, verbal, emotional, financial, sexual, and spiritual. Unresolved past abuse can resurface even during an otherwise mundane incident. This often looks like a person who makes “a mountain out of a mole hill.”
    • Solution: Defense mechanisms for handling abuse like denial, projection, dissociating, compartmentalization, and rationalization only last so long. Eventually, the trauma resurfaces and hijacks daily functioning. Complete healing from past abuse is possible but it does require perspective from a trained professional. Because feelings of shame are so closely related to past abuse, this area of exhaustion is hypersensitive. But, it does have the greatest impact on the overall functioning of a person.

For Stephanie, her exhaustion was in all three areas. By intentionally tackling one area at a time, she was able to fully recover and function with a full tank of gas instead of constantly running on empty.