Emotionally Drained? How to Conserve — and Replenish — Your Emotional Energy

There's no easy answer. But there are steps to take.

by Adam Bulger

After weeks of lockdown and no end in sight, the monotony of quarantine started to feel like too much for Linda Hurst. Without access to the outdoors and little hope of getting a mask on her high-energy toddler, the 27-year-old California blogger and mom of one couldn’t find motivation for anything, not even household tasks. Stress was eating into her. She was emotionally drained, grouchy, and tired, with no motivation for anything.

“I feel like we’re just doing the same thing over and over again,” she says. “Every day.”

Hurst is hardly alone. Parents across the world say their emotional stores have never been lower. The adjectives used in describing their lives tell the story: “Exhausted.” “Drained.” Gutted.” “Zapped.”

“Last week I picked up the phone to four parents in tears on a single day,” says parenting coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus.

No one thought life under a pandemic would be cheerful. But quarantine’s vampiric drain is a shock nonetheless. Parents are staying home, traveling less, spending more time with their kids and watching more Netflix. In normal times, we’d be recharged. But instead we’re emotionally drained. The bare minimum feels like a challenge. While only pure sociopaths are able to live their best life under Covid-19, it’s possible to stave off the worst of it.

The Drain of Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion feels worse than just being tired thanks to the body’s chemistry response to stress. During physical exertion, the brain’s pituitary gland floods the body with pain-relieving endorphins while the adrenal glands produce a form of the hormone cortisol that helps release the feel-good chemical dopamine. Under stress, adrenal glands produce a different kind of cortisol — one that elevates heart rates and blood pressure — without the mitigating influence of endorphins or dopamine. As a result, we’re left tired but unable to rest.

“If we’re just depleted from spinning our wheels or just sitting there stressed at peak vigilance with no real action to take for too long, then then our system is just swimming in cortisol,” says New York clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael.

When you’re emotionally depleted, an extra cup of coffee isn’t going to help. You can’t rise and grind your way through it. San Antonio clinical psychologist Ann-Louise Lockhart says that nothing will change until you acknowledge that you’re feeling what you’re even feeling.

“I keep hearing the same thing from most of the people that I’m talking to, whether it’s in therapy or friends or family members,” Lockhart says. “‘Oh, I’m so exhausted and I don’t know why I’m so bored and I don’t know why I feel so lonely. I don’t know why I feel depressed or anxious.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know why when you’ve been quarantining for six weeks? Of course you’re depressed and lonely and unmotivated.”

Lockhart says people often don’t know how to process emotions as well as they think. “We tend to buffer, numb out, push down, ignore emotions a lot quicker than we do with physical exertion,” she says.

Neil Leibowitz, Chief Medical Officer for online therapy resource Talkspace, notes that multitasking exhausts far more energy than focusing on a single problem or project. With family life under COVID-19 a constant state of multitasking, emotional exhaustion breeds easily.

“Most parents are trying to juggle the added tasks of keeping their children occupied, maintaining their remote schedules, cooking all meals, and cleaning seven days a week with no end date in sight — and in most cases no one to help clean or provide childcare,” Leibowitz says. “There are no playdates. It is a lot of work.”

Leibowitz, a father of five, says he’s been surprised how stressful he’s found COVID. He believes that across the board, parents can find it especially difficult to be the moms and dads they’d like to be. “We are under a lot of stress, whether we realize it or not — due to COVID-19, work, our economic situations, etc., and it is very difficult to avoid getting upset at our children when they misbehave or act out,” he says. “Some of their behaviors are because they are struggling and have difficulty verbalizing what they are feeling. Right now we are struggling to be great parents and may not like ourselves as parents because we are not as sympathetic or as calm as usual.”

How to Fight Emotional Exhaustion

Like many working parents, Tennessee Dad of two Willie Greer struggled at first to balance parenting and professional duties under COVID. “We felt like our parental duties were interfering with work or our work was interfering with our parental duties,” he says. “It just drained me physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

When it’s impossible to physically separate work from home, parents can benefit from imposing even a loose sense of structure. Carmichael, who created a series of videos for families struggling with COVID, suggests designating certain rooms as work-free zones for certain parts of the day.

“That doesn’t mean that everybody has to report to the kitchen for lunch,” she says. “But it does mean that when you go there for lunch during that time, you’re not going to go there and encounter someone on a laptop doing work.”

After two weeks of cooped-up family mayhem, Greer forced back the chaos through scheduling. “We built a routine and set specific times for every chore and work schedule,” he said. We set activities for the children to keep them busy while we worked. But my favorite part of the day is the kids’ nap time — because I get two solid hours of work done.”

Being stuck at home with kids causes stress even for stay-at-home parents. Quarantine has coincided with a particularly wet and cold spring in much of the world. As 30-year-old Calgary mom and blogger Elizabeth noted, the challenge of finding indoor activities for kids only grows over time. “There are only so many board games, crafts and activities you can do with kids before they are bored as well,” she says. “I get so exhausted from constantly trying to entertain the kids that I have zero motivation for self-care or catching up with family and friends on the phone or computer. “

Elizabeth hopes that the warmer weather would lift some of the stress. Research indicates that sunlight can boost mental health. In sunny California, her fellow full-time parent Hurst found relief from emotional depletion after a day of pulling up weeds from her lawn. “The fresh air was great, the sun put me in a good mood and I was overall more motivated,” Hurst says. “Actively doing something all day actually helped me to get out of the COVID blues.”

Another small, but meaningful tactic: skip the sweats. While cut off from the world at large by quarantine, it’s easy to let personal appearance and even hygiene fall by the wayside. Aside from Zoom calls requiring us to be presentable from the waist up, there are few reasons to change out of the clothes we slept in. Nevertheless, Lockhart says it’s important to put in an effort to look presentable every day.

“It really puts you in a different mental state when you do that,” she says. “Because if you just look bummy and go from your daytime to your nighttime pajamas, it really does something to your mental state.”

Putting renewed effort into your appearance is one way to reclaim your self image during the monotony of quarantine. But it won’t work for everybody. Thirty-four-year-old California mom of two and special education teacher Jaymi Torrez landed her dream job two short months before COVID ground her life to a halt. She escaped her housebound doldrums but taking on additional remote teaching work, revisiting The Hunger Game series, and making a whimsical investment in her future self.

“I bought a ukulele.” she says. “I’ve always wanted to learn to play. Heaven knows if I’ll actually have time for it, but seeing that bright blue ukulele every day reminds me of who I am, and what I will be again someday.”