Why emotional exhaustion explodes addiction + 15 strategies

Emotional exhaustion puts you at greater risk for addicting behaviors. Whether you surf social media, watch videos or news, or play a mindless video game to clear away the stress, it always seems like you waste more time than you want.

So read on for ways to counter the loop of emotional exhaustion symptoms -> addiction.

emotional exhaustion Pinterest Pin

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

What is emotional exhaustion?

Here are some symptoms of emotional exhaustion:

  • mood swings: easily irritated, depressed, worrying, overwhelmed, numbness, etc.
  • neglecting self-care, leading to burnout
  • lack of motivation and energy
  • paradoxically, finding it hard to sleep

Emotional exhaustion is a form of stress. So if you are or have been very stressed on a given day, your brain wants to calm down.

Stress is also psychosomatic, so physical jobs can generate the same need to relax. I used to binge-watch on days I was most tired and stressed and my legs were sore so I lied down too long.

Either way, emotional labor ends in this need to relax.

Emotional labor and emotional exhaustion

A healthcare worker burnout from emotional exhaustion
Photo by Cedric Fauntleroy on Pexels

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined her theory of emotional labor in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. However, the term is often misused for slanted political aims these days. So let’s use the definition she gave in a 2018 interview with The Atlantic (political article):

“Emotional labor, as I introduced the term in The Managed Heart, is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it.

From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this. Teachers, nursing-home attendants, and child-care workers are examples.

The point is that while you may also be doing physical labor and mental labor, you are crucially being hired and monitored for your capacity to manage and produce a feeling.”

– Arlie Hochschild

This means maintaining a professional demeanor or a smile (or “smiling tone”) as part of your job. Some more examples are:

  • retail
  • waitstaff or fast food
  • receptionist
  • doctors, nurses, and other medical staff
  • salespeople, over the phone or in-person
  • customer service & call centers
  • anyone in management
  • etc.

But there’s a problem with this. Supressing your true emotions and being “always on” builds up stress. What’s more, it requires willpower, a finite resource. Hence the exhaustion part of emotional exhaustion.

And that leads to vulnerability to addiction.

A cute, smiling flower.


Let’s talk ego depletion

Willpower is a finite resource. What feelings you suppress now explode later.

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

– Sigmund Freud

I could cite several scientific studies, but to be brief, ego depletion is a temporary breakdown in values and goals you cared about before you were tired. Emotional exhaustion, or physical, leads to it.

Natasha Dow Schüll’s work on Vegas gambling addicts showed that after a long day, people craved the unthinking, automatic allure of slot machines. The “machine zone” didn’t have real-world problems or other people, just self-dissolving escape.

Unfortunately, some got stuck in their attempt to escape emotional exhaustion. I think there’s overlap here, some kind of psychological vulnerability.

When your battery is low, you need to recharge. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you binge-watch, video game, or scroll social media longer than you’d like, the solution is to substitute. Because elimination creates a void that must be filled.

  1. Learn to recognize when you’re vulnerable
  2. Substitute
bored teenager scrolling on smartphone

1. Recognize when you’re vulnerable

“…self-regulation is weakened by prior exercise of volition, either in the form of resisting temptation… or making a responsible choice.”

– Baumeister et al., “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?”

Willpower is not specific to particular domains. When you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT), you have less ability to resist temptation.

And although HALT is a good starting point, there are other indicators.

Emotional exhaustion is easy to spot: your emotions are stronger across the board. You’re unable to control them with your depleted willpower.

This is why addicts have it rough, or why they may say “I’ve given up X again!”

“If you’re trying to resist temptation, you may find yourself feeling the forbidden desires more strongly just when your ability to resist them is down. Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever.”

– Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Man in claustrophobic box presses against its sides
Stress feels like this sometimes.

In my ebook Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors, I list over ten gems Baumeister and his colleagues (he’s the world’s leading researcher on willpower) unearthed in their studies spanning decades on how to increase willpower when you need it most.

Some people say willpower won’t work. I discuss that in the book, too.

But for now, I say follow my article on Charles Duhigg’s habit loop, because you break habits by making habits.

And there’s no better way to do that than through the Quests strategy in my book. I distill over 50 studies and 8 books into powerful, simple advice to build habits that break your old, bad ones. Leading experts in habit formation, psychology, marketing, education, and more agree: the best way to tame that dragon, addiction, is to build a life that rules it out.

Did I mention I use Quests myself because emotional exhaustion is my second-biggest addiction trigger?

2. Substitute.

There’s nothing wrong with stress release, but if you want to cut down or quit a bad habit, try one of these instead.

Start with affect labeling: say “I’m feeling tired/stressed right now.” Then “I’m noticing that I’m feeling tired/stressed right now.”

This puts distance between yourself and your thoughts. In that space, you then choose how to react. (This is my “one simple trick” I used.)

See also:
Leaves on a stream: self-distancing for cravings and withdrawal

  • lock your controller, remote, or phone up for an hour if you can’t help grabbing it
  • breathwork– try box breathing or that “leaves on a stream” I linked to above
  • something creative to transform emotion into art– drawing, music, cooking, those adult coloring books I hear so much about, etc.
  • music therapy– sad, relaxing, or screaming black metal, as long as it pulls you out of stress
  • yoga
  • mindfulness meditation… which is not a scary or woo-woo thing!
  • keep a stress journal to notice patterns, and write BY HAND
  • go for a walk, cycle, dance… get in nature if you’ve been indoors all day
  • connect with others who make you feel calm; for example, eat with a friend, volunteer, join a club etc.
  • laughing; cute animal videos are good if you can control yourself
  • a soothing bath that doesn’t involve your device
  • follow the Avoid, Alter, Adapt & Accept strategy in this article on stress management
  • read an interesting book far away from your device (improves focus over time)
  • Never lie down with a device (including remote control)!

And lastly, remember, one major criterion of addiction is lack of control, no matter how hard you try. So don’t demonize your choice of emotional exhaustion relief as silly or an obvious distraction.

If you make it something you only get to do when you’re stressed, and you genuinely enjoy it, it’ll become something you look forward to. And no guilt later!

woman sitting on a rock, reading a book outdoors
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The fight against stress is neverending.

You must tame stress to tame addiction. So if you know any more tips for emotional exhaustion, leave them in the comments!

Why emotional exhaustion explodes addiction + 15 strategies

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