Burned Out? How to Improve Emotional Wellness

During a hard week—deadlines at work, a sick child, catastrophic current events—we may find ourselves powering through, trying to make it to the weekend. To get everything done, we’ll cancel a gym session or a meal with friends; we’ll pull all-nighters and survive on granola bars.

When the weekend finally arrives, we may find that we can’t rest the way we had planned to. We snap at our spouse. Even a piece of good news fails to bring joy. All too soon, the weekend is over, and it’s back to another busy week.

We all know that stress is a part of life, but our ability to respond to it is one marker of emotional wellness. If you’ve found yourself feeling unable to deal with challenges, you’re not alone.

“As a result of these times, we’re seeing people more exhausted, fatigued and burned out,” UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD, says. “People are struggling with emotional health and engagement with the full emotional experience.”

Dr. Charguia explains what emotional wellness is and some of the small steps we can take to achieve it.

What is emotional wellness?

Emotional wellness is the ability to embrace and experience all of life, the good and the bad. It means recognizing the activities and people that bring us joy while also allowing ourselves to feel sadness or anger. The goal of emotional wellness is not to be happy all the time, which isn’t realistic; it is to leverage moments of pleasure to balance moments of challenge.

Dr. Charguia describes emotional wellness as an emotional livelihood, meaning that we’re aware of all of our emotions and how they’re affecting us. When we understand how and why we’re feeling the way we do, we can take steps to improve how we’re feeling. We are also able to remember that a bad moment won’t last forever, which can be especially difficult to realize during moments of stress.

What happens when I don’t have emotional wellness?

When life gets stressful or overwhelming, the last thing we feel we have time to do is sit and consider our emotions. Dr. Charguia says there can be ramifications for not paying attention to what’s in our emotional reserves.

“We only have so much emotional energy,” she says. “Like physical energy, it’s finite. When we push and push and push, we use up those emotional reserves, and it impacts performance. We may not meet the expectations others have set for us or the expectations we have for ourselves.”

Continuing to press through stressful times without tending to emotional energy can affect relationships, lead to burnout and increase your risk of depression and anxiety. Some people may also seek unhealthy ways of coping that allow them to avoid or numb themselves, including using substances, zoning out in front of the television or mindlessly scrolling on a phone, which don’t provide rest or improve the emotional state in the long term.

“If you’re feeling fatigued, it’s important to have the ability to restore yourself, to fill up your bucket again,” Dr. Charguia says. “Emotional wellness can help you know how you need to refuel and keep moving forward when you’re in a difficult situation.”

How do I achieve emotional wellness?

Our lives are different, so our paths to emotional wellness vary. Dr. Charguia says a good way to start is by identifying the domains, or components, of your life that hold meaning for you. Domains that affect wellness include a professional element, personal goals, physical health, social relationships including friends and family, and spiritual meaning.

“I talk with people about what gets their time versus what deserves it, including which domains may be contributing to a greater portion of their stress,” Dr. Charguia says. “The professional domain tends to get a lot of time, attention and stress but may not be deserving of that. It is important to check in with ourselves and assess which domains may need more or less purposeful attention.”

While it’s not realistic to ignore the professional domain, it is possible to consider placing boundaries that leave more room for the parts of life that keep you happy and well.

“As you consider the domains, do some reflective thinking on which activities bring you joy that you’re not making time for,” Dr. Charguia says. “What’s missing that has worked for you in the past?”

Rather than canceling a meal with a friend to prioritize work deadlines, many people find that carving out time for connection helps them feel more ready to tackle a project. Prioritizing sleep and healthy eating, practicing gratitude and mindfulness or engaging in a favorite hobby are other ways to improve emotional wellness.

It’s important to know that improving emotional wellness may not be a quick fix.

“Start with setting an intention that is an achievable expectation for self,” Dr. Charguia says. “If you’re trying to exercise more, perhaps start by setting a goal of going to the gym once a week, not five days. Focus on one thing that brings you joy that you haven’t been doing, like spending time with a friend. Those small wins will help you build a foundation of success.”

Talk to your doctor about your mood and any mental health concerns you have. Need a doctor? Find one near you.