The Effects of Exhaustion on Your Physical Health and Body
As parents, we often run ourselves into the ground trying to stay on top of work, chores, our kids, and other responsibilities. But how does that affect our physical health and bodies?
It seems like parenthood, regardless of which stage you’re in, goes hand-in-hand with exhaustion. However, even with our endless supplies of coffee and other not-so-ideal methods of staying awake and getting our work done, prolonged exhaustion can lead to some serious health concerns.
What is Exhaustion and What Does It Do to Our Bodies?
Exhaustion is the point at which we have used up all of our available mental and physical resources and go into a state of chronic fatigue and other impairments. While many people get tired from doing strenuous types of work or experiencing a lot of mental stress, exhaustion is a bit more than that. When a day of rest and a good night’s sleep has no effect on your level of tiredness and you’re finding it hard to function, you’ve likely reached the point of actual exhaustion.
If not addressed and resolved, what can exhaustion do to our bodies?
Exhaustion Can Weaken Your Immune System
A reasonable amount of the stress hormone “cortisol” is essential for healthy functioning and for stimulating our immune systems. When you’re overworked, overtired, not getting enough rest, and constantly feeling stressed though, your body is going to have significantly higher cortisol levels. Although a small amount is good for our bodies, too much cortisol leads to prolonged and increased inflammation. This eventually causes our immune systems to get burnt out and not function as well.
The immune system’s job is to protect the body inside and out by repairing damage and fighting off infections, bacteria, and viruses. When your immune system becomes weakened, you may find yourself getting sick more easily. Prolonged exposure to stress or exhaustion on levels that actively affect the immune system can sometimes even lead to allergies, certain skin conditions, chronic immune conditions, and even organ damage caused by the chronic inflammation.
Exhaustion Can Cause Weight Gain (or Weight Loss)
Weight gain and weight loss are well-known side effects of excessive stress and exhaustion.
When it comes to weight gain, this is often caused by poor dietary habits (eating junk food, eating at unusual times or more frequently) coupled with individuals being either too tired or too depressed to engage in any regular exercise. The change in the body's chemical makeup due to excess stress can also impact gut health and metabolism, also leading to potential weight gain.
For some folks, weight loss occurs when they are overwhelmed with exhaustion. This can be due to chemical changes affecting their metabolisms (just as these changes cause weight gain in others) or from self-neglect, such as not being sure to eat enough throughout the day.
Having a balanced diet and a balanced sleep schedule are essential factors in maintaining a healthy weight and managing one's stress levels.
Exhaustion Can Cause Headaches and Worsen Migraines
Tensions headaches state the cause right there in their name: tension. Exhaustion, as well as stress, can be a primary cause for some people to experience headaches. When our bodies and minds are not functioning well, the chemical changes along with the extra inflammation have to manifest somehow. What makes more sense than getting a nasty headache?
For those of us who struggle with migraines, exhaustion is nearly guaranteed to be trigger for the majority of those afflicted. Especially for us who experience chronic migraines, managing our stress levels is absolutely mandatory for trying to prevent another migraine from being set off and keeping the frequency of our migraines to a more tolerable level. Exhaustion and all of its physical and mental symptoms are horrible contributors to the worsening of these intense, skull-piercing, crushing headaches.
If you notice yourself having headaches more often—or notice that your migraines are becoming more intense or more frequent—it may be time to check in with your doctor.
You May Experience Chronic Fatigue
Chronic fatigue is practically synonymous with exhaustion at this point. When you experience exhaustion and simply can't push yourself any harder, your body seems to never stop being tired. You may ache, feel weak, feel sleepy or overtired, and may even experience pain or discomfort.
With fatigue, you will also likely notice a decrease in mood as well. You may feel less interested in things, less happy or energetic, or simply just lack the energy to care about very much at all.
Exhaustion is a very common cause of the fatigue that many experience, but if the symptoms of fatigue remain persistent, it's wise to consult a trusted physician on the matter to ensure there are no underlying health problems or other issues contributing to the issue.
You May Have Trouble Sleeping
Although it's a bit of a mental side effect as well, trouble sleeping is also an exhaustion-induced problem that significantly affects a person's body.
When you have trouble sleeping, this impacts your mood and memory, increases inflammation, increases your risk for diabetes and heart disease, impacts your coordination and balance, and can lead to a variety of different injuries and accidents when you're burnt out and simply can't get enough rest for your body to recharge and function well.
Sleep is an essential part of one's overall well-being and is a significant factor impeded upon when exhaustion runs rampant.
Exhaustion Can Cause Stomach and Digestive Problems
As mentioned above, exhaustion can have quite an effect on a person's digestive system and lead to weight loss as well as weight gain. However, some of the common side effects of exhaustion and excessive stress (pertaining to the digestive tract) are as follows:
Pain or discomfort
When you see a character on television get sick to their stomach when faced with some heavy or traumatic news, this is why scriptwriters will often have them lose their lunch.
Regularly having digestive distress and any of the problems listed above may lead to long-term health problems and damage to the throat, teeth, digestive tract itself, and endocrine systems. Be sure to consult your physician if these symptoms don't resolve themselves in a timely manner.
You May Begin Having Trouble with High Blood Pressure
We've all seen cartoons with a character that "loses his cool" under pressure, turns red, and nearly explodes. This is actually quite an accurate description of how any type of stress (especially chronic) will begin to affect your cardiovascular system.
High stress levels and a lack of sleep cause your blood pressure to continually keep spiking higher and higher but with no way of resetting and going back down. When you're dealing with exhaustion, high levels of stress and low levels of rest and restoration are pretty much the norm.
Unfortunately, this commonly found combo in those struggling with being exhausted all the time can lead to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even heart attack. More recent studies are also linking some of the common symptoms of exhaustion to those who are developing irregular heartbeats.
If you're experiencing any heart-related symptoms whatsoever, be sure to immediately book an appointment with your doctor to have your symptoms evaluated. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms including pain in your jaws or arms, weakness, chest discomfort, or shortness of breath, you may be experiencing a heart attack and need to dial 911 or emergency services immediately.
What Can You Do to Cope with Exhaustion?
Not every coping mechanism will help every single person, so take these recommendations with a grain of salt. When symptoms are mild, some of these activities are a great starting point for learning to manage your stress levels and maintain good physical health. However, with any severe physical side effects or for those who have underlying health issues already presenting, be sure to consult your physician on how to best improve your level of exhaustion and reduce your associated side effects.
Take time for yourself
This is always easier said than done, but it's always a regular piece of advice for a reason. Most of us tend to lose ourselves in parenthood and equally experience an absurd amount of guilt for taking the time to care of ourselves as well.
Taking a day or even a few hours to relax, do something you enjoy, and regain your peace of mind is not being a bad parent. (You are not "abandoning your child" or being a horrible person, I promise.) How can you expect to be able to take care of another human being if you can't even take care of yourself?
Seek out a babysitter—a trusted loved one, family member, close friend, or even the neighbor's kid who's looking to make a few bucks by watching everyone's kids—so you can take the time you need to get yourself calmed down and feeling better. For those who don't live near family, don't have any close friends to ask for help, or otherwise are unable to find someone to watch their kid for whatever reasons, there are many places out there that provide "Mom's Day Out" programs to keep your little ones busy with crafts, playtime, and other activities in a group environment to give you a few hours of peace.
Ask for help
This is also a hard one, especially for those of us who have been single parents for any stretch of time: you need to ask for help.
Put your pride aside and instead focus on the fact that you are not a superhuman and it's okay to ask for help. Society—and especially the media—would rather paint a portrait of moms (and primary caregivers in general) as "superheroes" that "can do it all" instead of allowing us to distribute the workload of childrearing. To be frank, that is absolute bullcrap, and it really DOES take a village to raise a child.
We can't do everything, we shouldn't be expected to do everything, and we certainly don't have to force ourselves either. Whether it's needing someone to watch the kids for you to get some things done, seeking out support for managing your child's education (both homeschooling as well as traditional schooling), or even asking for help in a professional setting because you're so exhausted that you're struggling to meet all of the responsibilities your job is asking of you—ASK FOR HELP!
There are plenty of people who don't know your situation nor care to understand the effect it is having on you, but there are also plenty of good souls right there and willing to help ease your burdens because they've been there themselves or have had a loved one experience the same issues.
Ask for help. Take that mental health day off from work. Ask for that extension on a project deadline. Find some fellow parents that know what you're dealing with and can lend some good advice to help you through the rough spots. You'll never know if someone can offer a solution to your problem if you don't just ask.
Consider changing your schedule [if needed]
This one is a bit of a doozy, but sometimes it needs to be done. If your current schedule just isn't working out well—whether that's a sleep schedule, work schedule, or your homeschooling schedule—consider making some changes.
With homeschooling, you still need to meet certain attendance requirements and sometimes even hourly requirements (depending upon the program you're enrolled in), but you do have the flexibility to make some changes to best suit both you and your child.
When making changes to your sleep schedule, this can often be a bit difficult and seem rather daunting, but it's just like dealing with Daylight Savings Time: you'll adjust. You may find yourself feeling even more tired and disoriented for a few days and maybe even a week, but your body will eventually adjust, and it will thank you once you've found the sleep schedule that works best for you.
As for changing your work schedule, this may be more difficult to pull off, but some employers can be lenient about this (depending upon the nature of the job) and be able to accommodate your wishes. For those that work from home, you may have even better luck.
Make healthier choices
This is one of those things that you always hear people chirping about, but that's because it's so important. Try to make healthier choices in your everyday life, and you will reap the benefits of those choices in both mind and body.
Try to engage in some regular type of exercise, whether this is walking a few times a week, doing some stretches or yoga, or even lifting some weights at home or in a gym. It doesn't have to be anything strenuous, nor do you have to break a sweat. Just a small amount of activity will go a long way and still contribute to improving your health and your mental wellness.
There's nothing wrong with indulging in a bit of comfort food (aka junk food) every now and then, but it's best to try to make the healthiest possible food choices you can. Finding which foods work best for your body is ideal, and eating the least amount of processed food possible should be a top goal. I'm not going to lie—there are days when I'm just too tired and stressed out and all I need to help me feel better is a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and I will absolutely go get one and then wallow in my exhaustion and bad mood. That one delicious indulgence is not going to wreck me nor significantly damage my health in the long run, but there's a huge difference between having my guilty pleasure on the days when I really have just run out of craps to give and don't have time for healthy choices and eating one of them every single day. You can still have your "bad" foods, but try to make as many healthy food choices as possible.
Also, as usual with this topic, try to spend some time outdoors. Sunshine is great for your mood and can also help calm your nerves and improve your ability to focus. Make the most of your time by taking a walk outdoors, doing a bit of yard work to help your home look nicer, or simply lying outside and sunbathing.
Make time for more social time or more alone time
Last but not least, you need to be sure that you make time to address your social needs. For the extroverts out there, this means that you need to make time to go spend with your friends and loved ones. Schedule a lunch date or a drink one day a week, make plans to go see a movie with your bestie, or maybe make sure that you definitely got tickets to a concert by one of your favorite musical artists coming to a town nearby.
For my fellow introverts, our social needs are quite the opposite. You instead need to make sure to SCHEDULE THE TIME for you to recharge. Often, we prefer our time alone, whether this includes some calming (or just plain good) music or that oh-so-elusive silence we never seem to experience after having kids. Find a Netflix documentary to curl up on the couch and watch, go check out that book that you've been waiting to come in at your local library, or maybe just get your favorite meal as takeout and enjoy it in peace while at home and in your pajamas. Ask your spouse, partner, or another trusted individual to take the kids out for a fun activity for a few hours so you're left to your own devices and can regain some semblance of your sanity.
For more information on how stress and exhaustion can also affect your mental health, please see the post here.