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Why You Feel Emotionally Drained
Pamela D. Wilson - Caregiver Subject Matter Expert Pamela D. Wilson - Caregiver Subject Matter Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Denver, CO
Wednesday, December 14, 2022


The Caring Generation® – Episode 156 December 14, 2022. Ever wonder why you feel emotionally drained at the end of the day? Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson shares tips for understanding emotional exhaustion, managing burnout, and having essential family caregiver conversations.

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Ever wonder why you feel emotionally drained? Research from A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness confirms that most of us live and react emotionally versus focusing on rational thought when interacting with others and making decisions.

Thought processes, reactions, and emotions are processed by the brain in different patterns depending on the situation. Understanding and managing caregiver emotions can be complicated.

Caregiving: Understanding and Managing Emotions

For example, we go through a day. A compliment makes us feel good. Getting cut off in traffic equals a bad feeling or frustration.

Listening to music results in positive memories. Forgetting an item at the grocery store or misplacing car keys can result in exasperation. The reason why you feel emotionally drained may be that your emotions are up and down all day. Many caregivers put their needs second.

Why Do I Feel Emotionally Drained?

For proof, go through an entire day. Write down why and the emotion you feel each time your mood changes—being emotionally drained results from attempting to balance emotions with logic.

Tips to recover from being emotionally drained include:

  • Noticing signs of being emotionally drained or burned out
  • Identifying how the brain responds to events
  • Learning ways to build up emotional reserves which can help you react less emotionally
  • Responding to conflict and initiating uncomfortable conversations instead of waiting or putting off projects or discussions you might not want to have—but know you should

Let’s begin with the signs of why you feel emotionally drained. A lack of sleep drains brain reserves.

Have you noticed how much better off you start the day when you’ve had a good night’s rest? Feeling energetic and positive is your brain’s way of saying, thanks for giving me a break to reset.

Threats and Fear Result in Feeling Emotionally Drained

Being emotionally drained can result from feeling afraid or threatened by people or events. For example, you argue with someone because you feel your ideas are under attack. 

Or, your aging parent was diagnosed with cancer. Your mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario, making you fear what will happen next. 

Do you find yourself dwelling on why other people think the way they do because they don’t think the way you do? Or do you think of an event that repeats over and over again in your mind that makes you feel emotionally upset?

Is your self-esteem, dignity, ego, or self-worth feeling a little off-centered? Maybe it’s been one of those weeks where one bad thing after another keeps happening, and you’re done—you’ve had enough.

Procrastination Delays Emotional Relief

Other signs of feeling emotionally drained include procrastination in deciding or resolving a disagreement with another person. For example, an aging parent asked you for more caregiving time.

While you would like to be helpful, there is no more available time in your schedule. So instead, you feel guilty because you don’t want to say no, and you delay having this conversation with mom or dad.

After all, you don’t want to disappoint them. Situations of conflict where one procrastinates dealing with the issue can grow in size and scope.

Maybe you are in denial about the situation worsening or your ability to continue to do everything. Being realistic about a parent’s health allows practical planning for the future.

The problem gets worse. You dread having to deal with it—so you lose more sleep, and your mind sees the situation as a worsening nightmare.

The complicating factor is that being emotionally drained makes it difficult for the brain to think of solutions to problems and act on them. As a result, delaying responses or decision-making can make you feel worse instead of coming to a timely resolution that offers emotional relief.

Relationship Challenges Can Cause Emotional Reactions

When procrastination occurs, the reasons why you feel emotionally drained grow in proportion to your relationship with the person with whom the challenge exists. For example, maybe mom or dad is sick.

Seeing one or both of them suffer stresses you out. However, you’re more stressed about the increased time they want from you and the complications this causes with your job, school, family, and free time.

On the other hand, the reason why you feel emotionally drained might relate to an argument with your siblings about not contributing time to care for elderly parents. You are doing everything, and they are going on with their lives.

You feel the situation is unfair and don’t understand why they are not interested in making caring for mom or dad more of a priority. This gap in the desire to care for aging parents links back to the adult child’s relationship with their parents.

Positive relationships result in a desire to help. Not-so-good relationships results in adult children who have little or no desire to help unless feelings of duty or responsibility take over

Every Reaction Has a Back Story

One of the fundamental issues in looking at any situation is understanding the background or context a person gives or what events came before the issue. For example, you have a customer service issue.

Finally, after a long time on hold, a live person responds. But the person doesn’t seem able to respond to your concern.

It seems more like they are following a script of asking and responding to your questions. The problem—whatever it is —is important and time-sensitive to you.

What you might not know is that the person on the other end of the phone may have come back from a leave of absence due to the death of a parent. Or maybe this person’s child was diagnosed with cancer yesterday.

There is a back story to every interaction which is a reason to be kinder than necessary. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their personal challenges even when they result in being distracted, impatient, or emotionally distant.

What Happens When the Brain is Overloaded?

why you feel emotionally drainedIn any situation, unless we have a close relationship with a person—and still sometimes not then—will we ever have the context or the background of what’s happening in their life?

Taking a moment to understand the context and background is a crucial consideration if the tendency exists to respond to situations from a place of emotions. A part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, located behind the eyes and the forehead, regulates behaviors.

Research confirms the PFC is the brain’s executive function that controls concentration, abstract thought, working memory, and social appropriateness. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is negatively affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex is why family caregivers notice that aging parents are forgetful, unable to follow through with simple 1,2,3 sequential tasks, have difficulty problem-solving or analyzing information, and at times may exhibit uncharacteristic behaviors or make inappropriate comments. Dealing with dementia is emotionally challenging because there are so many unknowns.

Chronic stress negatively affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex. For example, suppose you are a family caregiver or experiencing stress in any area of life.

In this case, you may be mentally distracted, forgetful, snap, say the wrong thing, regret your behavior, or have difficulty solving problems. This interruption in the functioning of the brain may result from self-protection.

Reasons Caregivers Shut Down

The caregiver’s brain says, “I can’t take this anymore, so it’s time to shut down.” When mental exhaustion occurs, the thalamus, or the part of the brain in the back of the skull, can take over.

For example, the thalamus is associated with food seeking and consumption. Stress tells you to eat a box of cookies, cake, pie, or a bag of chips, drink a bottle of wine, or seek out drugs to respond to emotional triggers for comfort.

Motivation is a thalamus function specific to goal-directed behavior, learning, and engagement with others. If you feel depressed, anxious, or experience addictive behaviors, your brain is stressed and overwhelmed to the point where seeking help is a positive next step.

Why you feel emotionally drained means that the front part of your brain that has reserves to help you cope with unexpected situations is worn out. As a result, the brain lacks sufficient strength or mental resources to respond positively or proactively.

So the part of your brain that reacts to fear, threats, or control shows up. A better response to threats or fear is managing thoughts in the prefrontal cortex to avoid the thalamus taking over to damage relationships or opportunities.

Gaining Insights Into Being Emotionally Drained

If you complete the exercise of tracking emotional ups and downs for a few days, you might have insight into why you react the way you do. With this insight, you can build emotional reserves to respond positively to stress.

You can give the logical side of the brain assignments to evaluate information before responding. How does one begin?

The first step is to observe situations instead of having an immediate emotional reaction. So, for example, an aging parent yells at you. Responses might include:

  • “I don’t deserve this when all of my time is committed to helping you.”
  • “It’s going to be another bad day with mom or dad.”
  • “Here we go again. Nothing I do is ever right. I don’t know why I bother.”

But what if, instead, aging parents yell, and you don’t assign emotions or assumptions about the reason for the yelling? Instead, hold your feelings and investigate.

Then, as you might do for a baby that cries and can’t tell you what’s wrong, you begin to ask questions and think beyond the current situation. First, ask aging parents why the need to yell exists. Is mom or dad impatient, feeling ignored, hungry, in pain, unable to get something they want, or angry?

Know that it’s also to set a boundary and say. “I’m here to help you. When you yell, I feel stress and anxiety, which makes me feel bad, and I don’t want to help you. So if you want my help, let’s find a better way to resolve the concern that caused you to yell.”

This response is an example of having emotional or brain reserves to respond immediately to a situation that might feel threatening instead of burying the emotion and feeling worse. To further understand why you feel emotionally drained when these situations arise, compare not responding immediately to how you might have snapped back before you had information about being intentional to identify your emotional responses.

Why Emotions Hit the Roof

Approaching situations from a higher level of emotional consciousness is a path to reduce feelings of being emotionally drained. Because when your emotions hit the roof, only you know why you feel the way you do.

Sometimes lifelong patterns exist that result in the same things happening repeatedly. Do you wonder about a particular outcome that isn’t what you hoped for or expected?

  • Young adults may want an A on an exam but not put in the time to study because socializing and partying are a higher priority.
  • You want a promotion at work, but you put in minimum effort. As a result, other colleagues who put in extra time and effort are promoted—you feel angry.
  • You’d like siblings to help you care for mom and dad, but all you do is yell at them and express frustration.

Until we gain insight into why we react the way we do and the effect of our responses on others, it can feel impossible to understand why you feel emotionally drained.

The attention you pay to your thoughts and understanding how and why the brain works as it does when you are exhausted can help you create different thought patterns and responses.

Past Experiences Offer Confidence to Manage Fears and Threats

For example, mom or dad doesn’t feel well today. This is a repeat situation. What might you do?

  • Take a moment to think through the steps you took the last time this happened.
  • Do you take their temperature and blood pressure, monitor oxygen levels, take blood sugar or go through a list of processes or questions to identify the issue?
  • Is it time to call the doctor’s office or schedule an appointment?
  • Or is the solution giving mom or dad fluids for possible dehydration or food because of low blood sugar, or medication for pain or another condition?

While this repeat event may frighten you and send you into worst-case thinking because you have experienced this before, you remain calm. You know what steps to take, and you go through the process of elimination and confirming the issues.

Experience is a Great Teacher

Experience, when outcomes have been positive, is a great teacher and a confidence booster. Success in managing life experiences builds emotional reserve and resilience.

Being a caregiver is a stressful job—yes, it’s work. Caring for sick parents whose health is up and down can be emotionally draining.

The solution is to improve skills of all types. Think of the stress of emergency medical responders or doctors working in hospital emergency rooms. These are high-pressure, time-sensitive positions that require a sense of calm and decision-making.

The same goes for other first responders like fire personnel, the national guard, and the military. Persons in these positions receive training and education.

The same opportunity to learn exists for family caregivers. While you might not think that the role of a caregiver has similarities to the positions I just described, it does.

  • Caregivers accompany aging parents to the emergency room
  • They deal with a variety of emergencies if elderly parents have extensive health concerns
  • The phone ringing can represent a danger signal that something is wrong

Let’s talk about fear and feeling threatened as it relates to why you feel emotionally drained. Caregivers of aging parents deal with real and perceived challenges every day.

A dreadful situation for one person may not be a big deal, but it might be a disaster for another person. Heightened fear or anxiety can occur when watching a scary movie or taking a parent to the emergency room.

The Difference Between Real and Perceived Fears or Threats

So how can caregivers tell the difference between real fears or threats versus those that feel real but are manufactured by the mind? As we discussed in the first part of the program, take a moment to examine the thoughts bouncing around in your head and the corresponding feelings.

When in a fearful or threatening situation, take several deep breaths to bring yourself into the present moment and focus on what is happening. While your brain may want to go to the worst possible scenario, stop that thought.

Let’s use the example of an aging parent receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depending on your family’s experience with this disease, thoughts may immediately go to worries about health declines, who will care for parents, and so on.

On the other hand, if you know nothing about the diagnosis, you might not realize the importance of creating a plan to care for parents.

So somewhere in the middle, when hearing the news, work to balance your response so that it doesn’t sway negatively or positively. Ask the doctor what you should know about managing the condition.

Balancing emotion with logic can support others around you, like aging parents or siblings who might think the worse or catastrophize when stressful situations arise. Being cool under pressure gives others confidence and might help them balance emotions that can make situations unnecessarily stressful.

Using Emotional Reserve to Solve Problems

Taking emotional reserve further, let’s say that you have to talk to aging parents about moving out of their house because they need more care than can be provided. Instead of dropping a bomb on your parents about moving without having a plan, create a strategy and a plan.

  • Investigate options for care communities and how to pay for the community.
  • Learn everything you can about what’s involved when parents move into assisted living, memory care communities, or nursing homes.

Fear of the unknown can be highly stressful. Gather information, so you have answers to the questions your parents are most likely to ask.

Write down a list of pros and cons to prepare for the conversation. While your parents or siblings may be highly emotional about moving out of the family home, how you present the information and your demeanor can steer the conversation in the right direction.

Give everyone time to think about the options you provide. Then, be calm when you answer their questions, knowing they may be coming from a place of emotion, worry, and fear.

Leading High-Stakes Conversations

family caregiver supportIn all high-stakes conversations taking an interest in understanding the other person’s perspective and being a good listener is extremely important.

  • Takes notes as concerns are expressed
  • Ask questions so that you can learn new information
  • Focus on solving the problem at hand

For example, mom or dad can no longer live safely at home. Evidence to support a move for parents relates to multiple hospital visits, not taking medications as prescribed, forgetting or not eating, frequent falls, and so on.

As the primary caregiver, you are the person who must gain control of your feelings and why you feel emotionally drained before you can help aging parents and others in your family. So find a way to respond to emotions that likely include worry, fear, or anxiety.

Present options or solutions and encourage family discussions—our behaviors and communication affect how others respond and treat us. The role of caregiving can place you in high-emotion and high-conflict situations.

Until you learn how to respond in any situation that makes you feel vulnerable or threatened, you may feel emotionally drained. Unfortunately, it can be easier to fall into comfortable old behavior patterns than to identify ways to respond differently. If you are wondering why you feel emotionally exhausted, this may be the situation for you.

You may be unprepared to respond to concerns with aging parents or siblings that repeat. Family members may realize this weakness and take advantage of you, knowing you will not stand up for yourself.

Reframing Situations to Focus on Solutions

Learning skills and responses to disarm a bully—whether an aging parent or sibling—can be the first step to establishing the emotional reserve to respond calmly. Let’s say that a sibling says, “this isn’t an argument, or I don’t want to fight.” What might be a heartfelt response?

You could say, “I don’t want to argue or fight. Let’s look at the pros and cons, both sides, and come up with a solution that is in mom or dad’s best interest. Not an I win, and you lose or the other way around—a win-win for everyone realizing this situation is not ideal. You are my brother or sister. I don’t want to damage our relationship beyond the point of no return.”

Here is another example: someone says you are aggressive or stubborn or uses another term that seems strong. Instead of letting the comment pass or walking away, which can indicate agreement.

Rephrase the statement. “I realize I might appear stubborn, but I am very determined about X, and here is my why. I see that you feel equally strong in the opposite way. Could you help me understand why? “

Rephrasing information to continue a conversation by asking a question can help disarm angry feelings and result in a productive way to resolve disagreements.

Let’s look at another example— perhaps you and the family are facing a difficult decision. You can reinforce the idea that difficult situations have been worked out in the past and that you are committed to finding a solution.

Or if this is a new situation, ask others what solutions they have. Suggest more fact-finding or research so that everyone can work together.

Involving others can be a path toward agreement. When others seem disagreeable, you can ask for clarification of information by saying, “would you clarify what you meant by that?” or “Here’s what I heard, is this what you mean to say.”

Saying Things You Might Not Mean

Emotionally draining situations result in people saying things they don’t mean. So giving an out or asking for further clarification can be a way to make sure that intentions are understood.

If you are in a situation where there is a partial agreement, focus on the agreement to move the conversation forward. “It seems we agree on this, but we aren’t quite there with how to make this happen. Let’s start with what we agreed on and see if we can come up with other options that might work. “

family caregiver support programsAs you can see, there can be many reasons why you feel emotionally drained. There are also various steps to work through once you identify why you feel the way you do.

If you are an emotionally exhausted caregiver, take a time out. Seek help and support to free up space in your life to create solutions.

Check out over 150 podcasts from The Caring Generation, online programs, and hundreds of articles on this website.




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©2022 Pamela D. Wilson All Rights Reserved

About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

   Check Out Podcast Replays of The Caring Generation® Radio Program for Caregivers and Aging Adults HERE

Pamela D. Wilson, MS, BS/BA, CG, CSA is an international caregiver subject matter expert, advocate, and speaker. More than 20 years of experience as a direct service provider in the roles of a court-appointed guardian, power of attorney, and care manager provides one-of-a-kind support for family caregivers and aging adults interested in taking steps to be proactive about health, well-being, and caregiving. Pamela may be reached at +1 303-810-1816 or through her website.


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