If you’re feeling fatigued, burned out, or just plain tired, it could be exhaustion — but there might also be more to the story.
You’ve been at work for a couple of hours. You feel restless but also groggy, so you go to pour another cup of coffee — only to find yourself pouring it right down the sink drain, not into your mug!
While this scenario could be caused by a variety of conditions, it’s possible that exhaustion may be the culprit.
If you’re feeling drained and wondering where exhaustion comes in, it can help to know that some exhaustion is a natural response to hard work. But it can also be a sign it’s time to take a rest day if possible or talk with a healthcare professional for more info.
A good first step is to learn the signs of exhaustion and when it may point to something more serious.
Terms like “fatigue” and “exhaustion” can be used, more or less, interchangeably. These terms are also often discussed alongside burnout. While the three conditions do overlap, some slight differences set them apart:
- fatigue: a prolonged sense of exhaustion; also a symptom of many health conditions
- burnout: exhaustion that comes from stress at work
- exhaustion: a general term that describes an overwhelming sense of tiredness
You can experience exhaustion:
- physically: how you might feel after a tough workout
- mentally: how you might feel after solving a difficult problem on the job
- emotionally: how you might feel after spending a lot of time around family members you clash with
Some researchers also use the term “vital exhaustion” to describe a state of mind that can develop from prolonged burnout and stress. Vital exhaustion causes feelings of:
Exhaustion isn’t a diagnosable condition, but it is a symptom of many conditions.
It can show up in your body or through your emotions and behaviors. Recognizing the signs of exhaustion can help you know when it’s time to look for and manage the root cause, if there is one.
Physical symptoms and signs
Exhaustion can present in your body in some obvious ways, but it’s not always easy to spot. You may experience:
- shortness of breath
- stomach issues like bloating, gas, or constipation
- skin changes like acne, dryness, or chapped lips
- changes in your vision, such as blurriness
- aches and pains
- increased energy, or a “wired” feeling
- frequent cold-like symptoms
Emotional and mental symptoms
Exhaustion can also impact your mental and emotional health. Sometimes this is called emotional exhaustion, and it can happen when an intense situation has left you feeling emotionally drained. This can look like:
- brain fog and forgetfulness
- trouble concentrating
- feelings of detachment in your relationships
- mood changes
- difficulty making decisions
If you’re experiencing exhaustion, you might also identify with some of these behaviors:
- increased hunger or cravings for comfort foods
- clumsiness or lack of coordination
- difficulty falling or staying asleep
- difficulty with physical activities you do routinely
- frequent napping during the day
- difficulty finishing chores or work tasks
A number of medical and mental health conditions can cause exhaustion. Sometimes, two or more causes can contribute. Any other symptoms you experience alongside exhaustion could help you determine what’s at the root of it.
If you often feel anxious or you live with an anxiety disorder, it can lead to exhaustion.
If you’re feeling lingering sadness, irritability, or apathy and having trouble with routine self-care tasks, depression could be involved in your exhaustion.
Research from 2018 suggests that physical exhaustion is a depressive symptom of bipolar disorder. This means that if you live with bipolar disorder, you may experience exhaustion — particularly during depressive episodes.
Getting enough sleep is crucial not only for keeping up your daytime energy but also for maintaining your physical and mental health. So, when sleep is disrupted, exhaustion can be a common effect.
Persistent exhaustion is connected to sleep disorders like insomnia. A 2019 study suggests that insomnia caused by workplace stress is likely a source of burnout. If you’re feeling exhausted and having trouble getting good sleep, a sleep disorder could be a contributing factor.
Exhaustion can also be a symptom of a variety of medical conditions, including:
- some viral and bacterial infections
- hormonal imbalances
- hypertension, or high blood pressure
- postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)
If you suspect that a medical condition is causing your exhaustion, it’s a good idea to check in with a healthcare professional. They can help:
- identify your symptoms
- run tests to confirm a diagnosis
- explain your treatment options
Sometimes exhaustion can become extreme. When this happens, it’s usually called fatigue, and it can be a sign of an underlying condition that requires professional support.
Some signs it may be time to talk with a healthcare or mental health professional about fatigue or severe exhaustion include:
- feeling so tired you’re afraid you’ll fall asleep while driving
- not being able to fall asleep for multiple days in a row
- having thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Exhaustion can make getting through day-to-day life feel nearly impossible, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Self-care activities can help with many forms of exhaustion, but working with a trusted healthcare or mental health professional is likely to be your best option if the exhaustion is severe.
If you’re experiencing exhaustion by itself or in the form of burnout or fatigue, you have many options for addressing it. A good first step in dealing with exhaustion is to try some self-care strategies like:
- taking a rest day or mental health day
- trying to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night
- checking on your sleep habits and creating a bedtime routine
- incorporating some movement into your day, like a walk, dancing, or a trip to the gym
Sometimes all the self-care in the world doesn’t do anything to reduce your exhaustion. If this is happening to you, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed — it just means it might be time to check in with a healthcare or mental health professional, like a doctor or a therapist, for some extra support and guidance.