Life is stressful. And sometimes that’s okay. But if you’re depleted to the point that a bit of downtime isn’t enough to feel replenished and everything feels harder than it should, you might be exhibiting a few signs of running on empty, says Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, PhD, a neuroscience research assistant professor at West Virginia University.
“Different people have different capacities for stress. And we generally [experience] a little bit of stress and that makes life exciting. But when we exceed our capacity and we’re running on empty, that means we have no reserve and we’re going to start to move into a period of unwanted experiences and behaviors,” says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. “All of a sudden you’re not in control when you’re running on empty because you don’t have the extra resources normally available to you.”
It’s important to recognize when you’re running on empty in order to a) cut yourself some slack and b) do what you need to refill your tank.
“As you become more aware, you might notice early warning symptoms,” she says. Even if you’re already overwhelmed, you can start strategizing on how to alleviate some of the burdens you’re under. “Sometimes it’s impossible. And so it’s a little bit of a privilege or a luxury to be able to say, ‘Oh, well, you can just take this or that out of one’s life.’ There might be periods where you can’t, if you’re in a caregiver situation or if you are needing to do a certain type of work just to survive and pay the bills.”
Even just saying no to extra responsibilities keeps things a bit more manageable when you’re running on empty. The common signs that you’re running on empty help you to know when it’s time to take a step back.
1. You’re easily irritable
A hiccup in your day, like realizing you’re out of oat milk as you go to make a latte, might normally just be an annoyance that you move on from. But when you’re running on empty, this could seriously derail your day, a Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis says you can have less control over your temper.
2. Your breathing becomes more shallow
When you’re overwhelmed, your breathing can become more shallow, meaning you’re breathing from your chest and not your diaphragm. “Our diaphragm is our main breathing muscle,” Michael Hobbs, an Australia-based sports chiropractor, previously told Well+Good. “When we get stressed, it gets tight and cannot fully contract to allow a full inhalation, or fully relax to allow a full exhalation.” When breathing from your chest, you’ll notice movement in your shoulders and chest rather than the rise and fall of your belly, which happens with diaphragmatic breathing. If you’re feeling anxious, shallow breathing can make it worse.
3. It’s hard to concentrate
One major sign that you’re running on empty is that it’s hard to concentrate. When you’ve got too much on your plate and your head is constantly buzzing through your to-do list, it can be difficult to focus on any one thing for extended periods of time.
4. Your workouts feel way harder than usual
If you exercise regularly and any work feels like a slog, that’s a sign you need to take time to rest. “If you exercise when you are exhausted, you put unnecessary added stress on your body,” says Jessica Mazzucco, a New York City-based certified fitness trainer. “You also compromise on your form and technique when you work out while exhausted, increasing your risk of injury.”
5. You’re carrying excess tension
“You might have a pit in your stomach,” says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. “Your shoulders might have tension or the face might have a little bit of a furrowed brow.” Some of this tension is tied to the shallow breathing mentioned earlier. When you’re breathing from your chest instead of your diaphragm, your neck and shoulders have to work harder which can result in pain.
6. You’re not sleeping well
When you’ve got a lot on your mind, getting adequate sleep is made all the more difficult. And when there’s too much to do or you’re working long hours, getting enough sleep can be impossible. But if you’re not sleeping well, that can make everything else you’re dealing with even harder. “After a day or two of reduced sleep and inability to feel fully rested and refreshed, one may be able to power through important events, meetings, etc,” says sleep doctor Temitayo Oyegbile-Chidi, MD, PhD. “But after continual reduced sleep, the brain is unable to adequately compensate.”
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