How Strong Emotions (Even Good Ones) Tire Us

If you’ve ever experienced a surge of strong emotions – be it positive, such as a surge of happiness, or negative, such as a surge of anger – then you’ve probably also experienced the crisis that occurs when those emotions subside. … While we usually think of exhaustion in physical terms, it can also be mental. If you’ve ever come home after a long day at work feeling exhausted despite sitting at your desk all day, it has to do with mental exhaustion.

As Emma Seppala, a professor at the Yale School of Management and author of The Path of Happiness , noted in a Harvard Business Review article , high-intensity emotions are a contributing factor to mental exhaustion. Too many of these high intensity emotions, whether positive or negative, can lead to burnout.

Emotions can be classified by intensity

One of the ways psychologists classify emotions is by differentiating them in two dimensions, including high and low intensity, and positive and negative. High-intensity positive emotions include excitement and delight, 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 fatigue.

It’s easy to see how intense negative emotions like anger can be tiring. What we don’t think much about is that high-intensity positive emotions are exhausting as well, although the sensations are very different.

High Intensity Emotions Will Make You Shatter Afterwards

If you experience high levels of arousal or a surge of happiness, these feelings don’t last forever, and when they pass, there is a crash that comes later.

As Seppälä writes :

Excitement, even when it’s fun, includes what psychologists call “physiological arousal” – the activation of our sympathetic system (“fight or flight”). High-intensity positive emotions are associated with the same physiological arousal as high-intensity negative emotions such as anxiety or anger. Our pulse quickens, sweat glands are activated, and we flinch easily. Because it activates the body’s response to stress, arousal can drain our system if it persists for a long time – chronic stress compromises our immunity, memory, and attention span. In other words, high intensity – whether negative states like anxiety or positive states like arousal – drains the body.

Some people are predisposed to experience more intense emotions.

About 15-20% of people are considered very sensitive , which in part means that they experience more emotions than others. These are people who, when they are happy, are really happy, and when they are sad, they are inconsolable. As they go through the ups and downs of life, the increased intensity makes them more vulnerable to exhaustion than others.

Even for people who are not highly sensitive, situations will inevitably arise in which it is easy to relinquish strong emotions, be it an overwhelming feeling of excitement or intense anxiety. For many of us, the past year has been a source of great anxiety, including for people who tend to be fairly level-headed at more normal times.

Emotional balance is the key to success

This does not mean that we should never experience strong emotions. Emotional diversity is an important aspect of life that adds depth and richness that we need. However, we need to be mindful of balance. There will be exciting days, as well as days when stress and anxiety are what propel you through difficult times, but there are other, less intense emotions that will serve us well in many other situations without overwhelming your body.

The key to managing your emotions without burnout is balance. To counteract the stress of high-intensity emotions, try to make time for quieter activities that lead to emotions such as contentment or serenity.


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