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Why Does Emotional Exhaustion Make Me Physically Exhausted, Too?

It might feel like it’s just happening in your head, but stress will wear down your body, too

Emotionally, I need a nap. Physically, I need one, too. Those two feelings are correlated. Even if we’ve gotten enough sleep and only exerted energy going from our couch to the refrigerator these last few months, many of us are so mentally burnt out from the pandemic, the election and whatever other usual stressors we might have that it feels like we haven’t rested at all. 

But why exactly does feeling emotionally exhausted lead to feeling physically exhausted, too?

“Physiologically, it’s some of the same thing,” explains psychologist Cathy Allsman. “If you’re emotionally exhausted, you might not have the same muscle fatigue, but you can still be as exhausted as you would be at the end of the day if you’d run a race.” 

For some people, the generalized anxiety of the moment is due in large part to its newness: Even if we might think we’re used to what’s been going on, we’re continually thrown more curveballs and stressors. “If someone rearranges the kitchen, it makes the whole task of cooking dinner more difficult. That’s kind of what’s happening right now. Whatever we’re doing, it takes more steps and more thoughts than it did last year with pretty much every single aspect of life. That’s genuinely tiring,” says Allsman. 

Physiologically, much of this tiredness is tied to cortisol, the hormone our body releases when stressed. In addition to triggering that anxious feeling, it also puts extra strain on our heart function, digestion and sleep, among other things. When we’re emotionally stressed, our body literally needs to work harder. 

There’s not much of a cure to emotional and physical exhaustion beyond simply getting some rest. “If you can possibly allow for more down-time, do it,” says Allsman. “Some of it is like physical exercise in that you can learn to handle more. But for all of us, there is a tapping out point. If we have the capacity to do self-care, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. If you’ve injured your ankle, you need to rest it before you can run.” 

Of course, unplugging and recharging ourselves physically and emotionally is easier said than done, but it’s important to find the time to prioritize doing so. Over time, that physical exhaustion from stress can seriously damage the body, making you more susceptible to major health issues like heart attacks and strokes

And so, especially right now, there’s no shame in taking a stress nap.