If you’ve ever felt a rush of intense emotion — whether a positive one, such as a surge of happiness, or a negative one, like a rush of anger — then you’ve probably also experienced the crash that comes when those emotions abate. Although we usually think of exhaustion in physical terms, it can also be mental. If you’ve ever come home after a long day of work feeling exhausted, in spite of the fact that all you did was sit at a desk all day, that’s due to mental exhaustion.
As Emma Seppälä, a lecturer at the Yale School of Management and the author of The Happiness Track, noted in a Harvard Business Review article, one of the contributors to mental exhaustion is high-intensity emotions. Too many of these high-intensity emotions, whether they are positive or negative, can lead to burnout.
Emotions can be classified according to intensity
One way that psychologists classify emotions is by differentiating them according to two dimensions, which includes high and low intensity, as well as positive and negative. High-intensity positive emotions include excitement and elation, while low-intensity positive emotions include calmness, serenity, or contentment. When it comes to negative emotions, high-intensity emotions include anger, anxiety, and fear, while low-intensity emotions include sadness, boredom, and tiredness.
It’s easy to see how high-intensity negative emotions like anger can be exhausting. What we don’t think about as much is the fact that high-intensity positive emotions are also exhausting, albeit in a way that feels very different.
High-intensity emotions make you crash afterwards
If you’re experiencing a high level of excitement or a rush of happiness, these feelings don’t last forever, and when they wear off, there’s that crash that comes afterwards.
As Seppälä writes:
Excitement, even when it is fun, involves what psychologists call “physiological arousal” – activation of our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system. High-intensity positive emotions involve the same physiological arousal as high-intensity negative emotions like anxiety or anger. Our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Because it activates the body’s stress response, excitement can deplete our system when sustained over longer periods – chronic stress compromises our immunity, memory and attention span. In other words, high intensity – whether it’s from negative states like anxiety or positive states such as excitement – taxes the body.
Some people are predisposed to feel emotions more intensely
Approximately 15-20% of people are thought to be highly sensitive, which means, in part, that they experience emotions more intensely than others. These are the people that, when they are happy, are really happy, and when they are sad, they’re inconsolable. As they cycle through the highs and lows of life, the increased amount of intensity leaves them more vulnerable to exhaustion than others.
Even for people who aren’t highly sensitive, there are bound to be situations where it’s easy to default to an intense emotion, whether it’s an overwhelming sense of excitement or an intense amount of anxiety. For many of us, this past year has been a source of intense anxiety, which also includes people who are usually pretty even-keeled during more normal times.
Emotional balance is key
This isn’t to say that we should never feel intense emotions. Emotional variety is an essential aspect of life, one that adds a depth and richness that we need. However, what we need to be mindful of is balance. There will be the exciting days, as well as the days when stress and anxiety are what propel you through the tough times, but there are other, lower-intensity emotions that will serve us well in many other situations without unduly taxing your body.
The key to managing your emotions without burning out is balance. To counteract the stress of high-intensity emotions, be intentional about taking the time to do calmer activities, the ones that lead to emotions like contentment or serenity.