Put wellness at the center of your life with membership

Lucy Maher

Updated: 12/23/2022

We couldn't arrange to have more hours added to the day, but if you're drowning in tasks, this advice will serve as a lifeline.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Last year, Americans felt the highest levels of stress and worry in a decade, according to an annual Gallup poll. In fact, about 45 percent of American adults surveyed said they had felt “a lot” of worry, compared with a slightly lower global average of 39 percent.

Enter the birth of a new malady: responsibility fatigue, a burned-out feeling that arises from having too many obligations — to family, work, friends, extended family, community, household and the management of finances.

Part of the reason for our rising stress levels is that demands on our time have increased, says psychotherapist Lia Avellino, advisor of Head and Heart at THE WELL. "The number of hours in the day remains the same, yet our expectations for ourselves have multiplied," she says.

"The number of hours in the day remains the same, yet our expectations for ourselves have multiplied."

Consider this: The word "priority" first came into the English language in the 1400s, Avellino says. Note that it was singular, meaning "the very first or prior thing" — it wasn't made plural for another 500 years. (Avellino gives props to Greg McKeown's book, Essentialism, for the basis of this idea.) "Today we have multiple priorities — work, digital communication, family obligations, romantic relationships, exercise, food shopping, financial planning — and struggle with triaging: What and who gets our attention?"

Another contributor to responsibility fatigue: being on and available around the clock. “Digital devices make it ‘easier’ for us to work remotely, but also make it possible to work all the time,” says Avellino. “Research found that as a person's weekly work hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness.” Sound familiar? Keep reading.

The Markers of Responsibility Fatigue

How can you differentiate between being stretched a little too thin and feeling like you're under an avalanche of duties? Avellino says there are several specific red flags, including these four:

  • When asked how you are, you typically answer "busy" or "tired."
  • You pay attention to the needs of others, but often neglect your own.
  • You say "yes" to most things you are asked to do, regardless of your capacity or interest in doing them.
  • You often feel anxious or resentful.

“Anxiety is our body's way of letting us know to pay attention,” says Avellino. Symptoms of anxiety can include feeling nervous, restless or tense; having a sense of impending danger or doom; a rapid heart rate; feeling weak or tired; trouble concentrating or trouble sleeping; as well as digestive issues. Compounding the problem: Those of us who are already overwhelmed with responsibilities often don't read these internal messages, so we live in a consistently activated and anxious state. Says Avellino: "Resentment is often an indicator that we've given beyond our limits.”

Ways To Ease the Burden

By tweaking common behaviors, you can get a lot better at coping with everything on your plate.

1. End the comparison game.

The first step is re-evaluating the value of being busy. “Being busy has become a measurement of our social capital, our self-esteem and a metric of enough-ness,” says Avellino. “Often, underneath the question ‘Am I doing enough?’ is ‘Am I enough if I am not doing?’"

According to Social Comparison Theory, a concept in psychology, we often base our social and personal self-worth on how we stack up against others. This isn't inherently bad; in fact, it can be beneficial — as long as you're comparing yourself to people with similar values, belief systems, and intentions, Avellino notes.

However, with today's perfectly curated social-media feeds, it can become damaging if you're constantly comparing yourself to extraordinarily successful types. Take some time away from the phone with these four tips to limit digital distractions.

2. Avoid contagious emotions.

Another tactic to minimize responsibility fatigue: Learn how to empathize with others without taking on their emotional burdens. In other words, “be the thermostat, not the thermometer,” says Tara Allen, RN, a certified health coach, personal trainer and nutritionist.

If your partner, child, parent or friend is having a hard day and they vent to you, you may take that energy on, immediately causing your day to feel more overwhelming. "The truth is, your loved ones will be better off when you set your own temperature," Allen says.

"When you prioritize your mental and physical health, you'll not only feel better, but you'll be able to manage your current responsibilities with more grace and less resentment."

3. Fit in a workout.

Taking some breaks in your day can also help offset the effects of responsibility fatigue. Exercise — even a quick walk around the block or a five-minute jump-rope session in your foyer — can reduce stress hormones and release endorphins which in turn improve mood. In one study, 62 percent of adults who exercise or walk to help manage their stress said doing so was very or extremely effective.

4. Prioritize self-care.

“Self-care is a common phrase these days, but is it as common of a practice?” asks Allen. It's not just about bubble baths and massages: Self-care can be as simple as finding ways to inject some fun into your life, such as date nights, spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen or playing uplifting music while you tackle mundane tasks. "When you prioritize your mental and physical health, you'll not only feel better, but you'll be able to manage your current responsibilities with more grace and less resentment," Allen says.

5. Join a support circle.

Finally, working through stressors with like-minded people can help you identify the root causes of responsibility fatigue and come up with concrete solutions, says Avellino. "For a low time commitment, they offer a high emotional return for the busy modern adult," Avellino says, adding: “These forums allow for a ‘pause’ in your week so you can reflect on your thoughts, feelings and behaviors and make changes that allow you to live your life in a way that better serves you. Research, ancient traditions and personal experience tell us that human beings are wired for connection. This need for deep connection doesn’t turn off, just because we have responsibilities."

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