If we’re living with regular bouts of anxiety, then the likelihood is that we feel bone-wearily exhausted with a foggy head that no amount of sleep seems to ease.
What Does Anxiety Exhaustion Feel Like?
Anxiety exhaustion can be like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Our head is foggy; our thoughts never quite finishing themselves. Searching for an answer to a question, or trying to remember how to do something we do daily, like making a cup of tea, can feel like mentally wading through treacle. Our eyes sting and keep trying to close. We might have a piercing headache. Every single one of our muscles aches, including muscles we didn’t even know we had. Our breathing can feel laboured and taking a full, deep breath can feel heavy and almost painful. Each of our limbs feels as though our bloodstream has been replaced with lead. Everything hurts. Standing, sitting, lying down… all of it feels too hard. It all feels like our body needs more support. Sound, light, smells, tastes and things we touch can all feel too much – almost as though they’re attacking us. The world can feel fuzzy or furry, particularly around the edges.
Despite all of this, many of us will keep trying to do all of the things we feel are expected of us. We might get frustrated with ourselves for not being able to do things to the same standard as we’d be able to achieve if we weren’t so tired. This frustration is often exacerbated by our inability to understand why we’re so tired. Often we feel like we should just ‘push through it’, and ‘be better’.
Having an understanding of the things that might be contributing to our tiredness can help us to be a little kinder to ourselves. Our tiredness isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s our body’s natural response to long-standing anxiety.
Our Body In ‘Threat Mode’
When we’re anxious, our body is in ‘threat’ mode. This means that it’s preparing to fight or run away from something. Physiologically, our heart speeds up; beating faster and harder to pump oxygenated blood to our muscles. We can often feel our heart beating faster and might begin to breathe more rapidly as our airways dilate and more oxygen enters our blood. Each of our senses becomes more sensitive – we’re able to hear smaller sounds, our pupils dilate and our peripheral vision improves. Our brain begins to work more quickly so that we’re better able to make decisions. This speed-up can cause our thoughts to race. The newly oxygenated blood rushes to our muscles and sugar and fat are converted for use so that we can fight or run away if needed. As our digestive system isn’t needed to help us ‘fight or flight’, it slows down and the blood supply is reduced which can cause problems with our digestion.
All these changes and more occur very quickly without us consciously deciding to make them happen.
Lots of things can feel like a threat to us; change, exams, feeling embarrassed, worrying about a family member, running late, the pressure to remember everything our child needs for school, not knowing what to wear, politics… the list goes on. With so many threats each day, our ‘threat mode’ can be almost constantly activated.
It’s no wonder we’re tired!
When anxiety strikes, jiggling and fidgeting often come with it. Our legs might begin to shake. We might play with our hair, our nails, something in our pocket, or a piece of jewellery. Sitting still can present a challenge and we could find that we’re constantly standing up, sitting down, and changing position. Sometimes we might be aware of it, but there are times when we have no idea that we’re doing it until someone points it out.
We might not think of this movement as anything significant. After all, when promoting exercise people rarely include sitting on a sofa playing with a piece of blue tak, alongside going for a walk, throwing a javelin or rowing a boat. However, if we begin to notice how much we’re moving, we could be surprised at how it adds up.
If we are always moving, fidgeting, on the go, pacing, rocking, and fiddling, then we’re never at rest. We never let things settle and give our body a break – our heart rate never settles and our muscles are permanently burning through energy.
When we’re anxious, we often tense up. This is all part of fight-or-flight mode; our muscles are tensed up ready for us to run away or attack our enemy. But when we’re getting ready for a doctor’s appointment or waiting for a meeting with our boss, there’s not anywhere we can run to or anything to attack. So we stay tense. Our shoulders rise and become taught, we might clench our leg muscles, our core might tense-up; our whole body becomes stiff.
Often we won’t notice how stiff we are until either someone points it out, or it begins to hurt. Even when we notice our stiffness and consciously unclench, we might find that it’s not long before we’ve accidentally clenched-up again.
This tension can put a lot of strain on our bodies and leave us feeling drained.
Thinking, thinking, thinking
Our brain is a muscle. Muscles get tired. When we are overthinking everything, mentally running through things over and over again, and worrying about different scenarios, we are putting our brain through its paces.
It’s mentally exhausting.
At the end of a day of non-stop thinking, we often feel stressed and overloaded. We might have thought so much that our brain needs to almost ‘reboot’ itself, in the same way that if we open too many things on a computer then it crashes and we have to turn it off and on again. Our brain might go completely blank for a little while making it difficult to think about anything at all – we might forget how to do things, even things that we do daily such as cleaning our teeth. It can take a while, and often some rest, before we feel up to thinking or doing anything again.
Some of us who live with anxiety have particular rules or rituals we follow. We’ve often ended up following these patterns because it helps life to feel more manageable. But sometimes, we can become almost ‘trapped’ in the rules that we’ve created which can lead to a lot of frustration.
We might follow the same routine each day, have to check that we’ve locked the door multiple times, or walk a certain way home. All of the checking in on things and sticking rigidly to routines or plans that life sometimes likes to blow off course can be really hard work. Getting stuck in certain loops or cycles can mean that we keep trying to fulfil our routines whilst running on empty. For example, if we always clean on a Tuesday then we might find ourselves attempting to drag a hoover across the carpet at 8 pm despite barely having the energy to stand.
As much as these rituals can feel ‘safe’, and give us a way to manage the complex, unpredictable world around us, they can also be utterly exhausting, and force us to keep going when we have nothing left to give.
Checking, checking, checking
For some of us, our anxiety results in an awful lot of checking. Checking and double-checking to see that we’ve locked the door. Getting up five times during our evening meal to make sure that the cooker is off. Driving back to our house to check that we’ve remembered to turn the lights off. It can go on and on.
All this over-thinking, repeated checking, and rationalising the ‘need to check’ thoughts can tire us out. Whereas most people do something once and it’s done, we might have to do it six or seven times and, as a result, use six or seven times as much energy. It’s no wonder we’re exhausted.
When we’re very anxious, we rarely move around at a gentle speed. More often than not we will be going faster than is perhaps necessary. We’ll rush from task to task without pausing to catch our breath. Writing and re-writing lists, checking things, double- and triple-checking things, over-preparing and overthinking, mean that we have an awful lot more to cram into our time than someone who isn’t anxious. So we run at super-speed to try and fit everything in.
Anxiety can have a significant impact on how much sleep we’re able to get. When we try to go to sleep our mind begins to race. Often we find that not only are we thinking of the things we need to buy from the supermarket and the parts we need to get to fix the dishwasher, but we’re also worrying about something we said to someone last week and an event that happened six years ago. It’s as if the minute our head hits the pillow all of our anxiety gremlins wake up and start trying to make themselves heard.
It doesn’t end when we’re asleep, either. Our dreams can be full of anxiety, taking twists and turns that we don’t want to watch or experience. We might find that we wake up regularly during the night, sweating, shaking and feeling breathless.
When morning finally comes around we’ll often feel as though we haven’t slept at all. It’s exhausting.
Eating And Drinking
Anxiety has a number of physical symptoms. This can include feeling nauseous which can put us off our food. Our appetite might be non-existent and the thought of food only makes us feel worse. Any hunger we do feel can mix in with the nauseous feelings so we don’t always recognise it as hunger at all.
Drinking can also be more difficult when we feel nauseous. That combined with needing to go to the toilet more often and sweating more can lead to us becoming dehydrated.
Hunger and dehydration can feed into our exhaustion, especially when our anxiety means that we’re burning through more energy than we would be if we weren’t anxious.
During the ‘fight or flight’ phase, we’re on high alert, and our body is flooded with energy. When a period of anxiety ends, our adrenaline often runs out. This is called adrenal fatigue and can leave us feeling drained.
Things That Can Help
With anxiety, it can sometimes take a little bit of trial and error to find the things that work for us – because we’re all different, we all have different triggers and respond to the world around us in different ways.
In terms of tiredness, there are a few things we can do to manage it.
Trying to eat a relatively healthy diet, and to drink enough, even if we have to set reminders on our phone or stick to a particular routine for a while, can help us to replenish nutrients and energy that we’re rapidly burning through.
Practising good sleep hygiene can improve our sleep quality and the speed at which we get to sleep. We might find it helpful to start going to bed earlier, that way even if it takes us a while to get to sleep we should still get a decent number of hours. It might also be helpful to use a weighted blanket; there is evidence to show that they can help us to feel calmer and can improve our sleep quality.
Pacing, balance, and allocating our energy to the highest priority tasks can help us to cope with the limited energy that we have. Spoon theory is often a good starting point. Learning to pace ourselves and to manage our energy can be frustrating, to begin with; it’s difficult when we don’t have the energy to do the things that we want or need to do. But it can also be an essential part of managing our anxiety without burning out.
Through careful management, we can reduce the impact that it has on our lives, and prioritise our energy for the most important tasks.
Taking time for self-care and caring for our basic needs provides a solid foundation for us to work from. It’s important to prioritise our ‘self-care non-negotiables‘ because doing so allows us to feel better able to cope with whatever life throws our way.
It’s also important to remember that we’re not alone in this. There are people who want to help and support us. Friends, family, mental health services, charities and our GP are all there if we want to talk to someone.
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