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Running on empty? Nine ways to reverse exhaustion

Whether you’re struggling to get going in the morning or reaching for caffeine more than usual, exhaustion can suck the fun out of life.
We ask the experts about the early warning signs of exhaustion and how to reclaim your spark.

Ange Chappel knows exhaustion. When her children were young and she was juggling work and a busy home life, her tiredness levels hit their peak.

“I was 38 and the exhaustion ebbed and flowed across two years,” recalls the business owner.

“Every day felt like a ‘rinse and repeat’ of the other,” adds Ange, referring to the endless housework, after-school activities, and social and work commitments she had on her plate.

“The nightly wines that I’d position as my ‘reward’ ironically were energy zappers, resulting in broken sleep, sluggishness and lethargy. 

“I was at the end of my tether.”

Hello exhaustion

Ange’s story is not unique. Dr Tessa King, a women's health GP at Jean Hailes, says she often sees patients who are running on empty. “They’ll come in complaining of fatigue, feeling tired or lacking energy,” she says.

Psychologists define exhaustion as “a state of extreme fatigue”. It’s overwhelming tiredness and not being able to function as you normally would. Technically, exhaustion isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it can be a symptom of a health condition or the result of outside factors like your lifestyle, says Dr King.

So what’s driving the problem?

Dr King says exhaustion can occur for many reasons. “Work is a big one – there might be high expectations, long hours, stress or burnout,” she explains.

Other obvious lifestyle-related causes include parenting and caring responsibilities, poor diet, too much alcohol, not enough exercise and poor sleep, she adds.

Of course, medical issues and life stages can play a role too. Think pregnancy, menopause, nutritional deficiencies and thyroid issues.

Dr King also points to post-viral fatigue, which can occur after a cold, COVID-19 or the flu. “It’s one of the most common medical reasons people present with significant fatigue and it can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to two months,” she says. (If you have post-viral fatigue that is extreme or lasts beyond a few weeks, visit your doctor.)

Get to know the signs

When you’re stressed and overwhelmed, it might be tempting to dismiss the early warning signs of exhaustion and push on.

If you’re someone who gets used to functioning while fatigued, it’s also possible to miss the signs altogether.

Here, Dr King lists some of the subtle to more obvious signs of exhaustion:

  • Lacking motivation to do things you’d normally do
  • Feeling as though you’re running on empty
  • Reaching for sugar or caffeine to boost your energy
  • Feeling irritable or up and down emotionally
  • Having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Getting sick more than usual
  • Having difficulty sleeping or getting out of bed
  • Having significant sleep or mood disturbances

Being on the lookout for these signs and checking in with yourself can save a lot of trouble in the long run. Bear in mind these can also be signs of other issues, so if they persist it’s important to see your doctor.

From bad to worse

Unsurprisingly, health psychologist and CEO of the Sleep Health Foundation Dr Moira Junge says ignoring exhaustion can increase the risk of chronic health conditions and impact quality of life.

“It depends on what’s causing it, but it’s fair to say that pushing through and not addressing exhaustion is likely to be harmful,” says Dr Junge.

So how do you solve the exhaustion problem?

According to medical doctor and burnout counsellor Amy Imms, it’s not always easy. “Women tend to carry a huge amount of the mental [and domestic] load within relationships and families,” she says. Many also experience “pressure to be ‘perfect’ in every sphere of life … The problem is, our society doesn’t have the structures and support to make that remotely achievable, so women feel like they’re failing”.

Dr King agrees that addressing exhaustion is complex and often ‘easier said than done’. But, she adds, sometimes simple tweaks can be effective.

Revival tips

For Ange, cutting back alcohol and prioritising quality sleep made a huge difference to her energy levels. Now at 44, she exercises regularly, is less irritable and is the founder of a mindful drinking app.

Here, Dr King shares her revival tips:

  1. Identify the cause – Speak to your GP if you’re unclear what’s fuelling your fatigue, or if you need health support.
  2. Divvy up tasks – Share the load at home and work.
  3. Drink less – If you drink alcohol, see if reducing your intake makes a difference.
  4. Move more – Exercise can improve energy levels, so try to fit some into your routine.
  5. Eat well – Consume enough healthy fats, protein and minimally processed carbohydrates (e.g. vegetables, wholegrains and fruits).
  6. Unwind – Try to schedule downtime into your day or week.
  7. Prioritise sleep – It’s important to get enough quality shut-eye.
  8. Take breaks – Whether you’re doing paid or unpaid work, try to recharge with regular breaks (e.g. lunchbreaks, available work leave).
  9. Get help – Seek social or mental health support if you are struggling.

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Last updated: 
15 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
15 April 2024