Welcome to the era of exhaustion, where tiredness is our new currency


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Photo: Tim Gibson for Well+Good

I have a theory that if we followed up with Taylor Swift five years after she first dropped her bags on her New York apartment floor, they’d still be in the same spot, collecting dust, because she was too spent to unpack them. Tired. Sleepy. Wiped. Worn out. She probably told her whole #squad about how she just didn’t have the energy to do it. And the way we talk about sleep isn’t just becoming a popular way to answer questions like “how are you?” or “why are these suitcases still on the floor, Taylor?” Rather, it’s creeping into how we approach the 24 hours at hand. We spend nights wide-awake and days sleep-deprived; our tanks are physically empty, our brains are on overdrive, and—to cut to the chase—it’s defining the time in which we live: Welcome to the era of exhaustion.

As tiredness has become cultural currency, the word now means more than the absence of simply clocking the recommended minimum of at least a solid 7 (something that the Centers for Disease Control confirms that only 2 in 3 Americans do, FWIW). A recent Well+Good survey of 1,478 people is proof: While a piddly 23 percent of respondents reported not getting enough sleep on the reg, a whopping 92 percent feel chronically fatigued throughout the week. And that probably explains why data from Google Trends shows searches for the word “tired” have surged 65 percent in the 15-year span from 2004 to 2019.

This pervasive fatigue is largely emotional exhaustion, fueled by our technology-driven, work-first lifestyles that lead into a spiral of never-ending stress and anxiety that sleep can help with but certainly won’t fix altogether. Research has shown that high workloads positively correspond with high levels of just feeling over it and negatively correspond with the ability to turn off after closing time. In fact, more than 55 percent of respondents to the Well+Good survey cited work, general stress, and anxiety as top culprits for keeping them up at night, and a separate Well+Good survey found that for 64 percent of people, work triggers anxiety. Clearly, work, sleep, and mental health are utterly intertwined for many.

More than 55 percent of respondents to a Well+Good survey about sleep habits cited work, general stress, and anxiety as top culprits for keeping them up at night, and a separate survey found that for 64 percent of people, work triggers anxiety. Clearly, work, sleep, and mental health are utterly intertwined for many.

So even when you flip off the lights and snuggle into the bed, the presentation that’s happening tomorrow or the project that’s 95 percent finished but not quite there yet play on loop in your brain and are likely to keep you from nodding off. “Generally speaking, when I look at the people that I’m seeing in my clinic who are struggling to sleep, anxiety and the inability to sleep definitely go hand in hand,” says neurologist Christopher Winter, MD. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that you’re always reachable, meaning 11 p.m. might as well be 11 a.m. where your inbox is concerned.

Thanks in large part to those palm-sized computers that ding at dinnertime, “we truly are ‘draining our batteries’ each day due to the amount of stimulus and chronic stressors in our environments,” explains clinical health psychologist and insomnia specialist Courtney F. Bancroft, PsyD. So while a good 67 percent of the public likely get the right amount of ZZZs, scientists have found that when work disrupts sleep or stress bleeds into the nighttime hours, our sleep—despite it happening for an appropriate duration—is compromised in the quality department. It all begs the question of whether we’re cut out for the lifestyles we’ve come to adopt. Because as we hum along in our 8-, 9-, and 10-hour workdays, it seems that long-term stress responses are forcing our bodies and our brains to evolve—and not necessarily for the better.

Think of it like this: Evolutionarily, if you saw a lion licking his chops on the horizon, your adrenaline and cortisol (two stress hormones that are produced in different areas of the adrenal glands) would spike together to keep you awake and get you out of the situation to safety. However, our day-to-day lives have evolved past many of the fight-or-flight realities we used to know (the months-long deadline doesn’t require the same surge of adrenaline as a “run, now!” situation). The hormonal response for chronic stress differs from that of the one-off scenario, à la the lion: It’s a lot more like a leaky faucet than a surging garden hose. “Cortisol and adrenaline surge in an acute situation to protect us,” explains Rocio Salas-Whalen, MD, of New York Endocrinology. “But in chronic stress, it’s just mostly cortisol that is being overproduced.” Hyped up on the stress hormone, many people are having a hard time knocking off to dreamland because its very job is to keep us up. “Over time, if we continue to be stressed, these hormones continue to be secreted and can have bad side effects, one of which is insomnia,” says Dr. Salas-Whalen.

“Over time, if we continue to be stressed, these hormones continue to be secreted and can have bad side effects, one of which is insomnia.” —endocrinologist Rocio Salas-Whalen, MD

But though cortisol (rightfully) gets the bad rap for being your hype man once you slip under the covers at 11 p.m. (or let’s be real 9 p.m. if we’re referring to yours truly), it’s certainly not the only hormone that’s rocking and raring to go. Research also suggests that low estrogen levels—which can happen for a number of reasons—can similarly keep you up at night, but with the added punch of messing with the quality of sleep that you do get. “The lack of estrogen shortens your deep-sleep cycle,” says Dr. Salas-Whalen. “So it does make it difficult to go to sleep, but also to maintain a good sleep.”

And while sleep quality is less prominent in the general discourse than is quantity, it’s just as worthy of attention. Deep sleep is, after all, when the brain repairs and slows down to allow you to wake rested. “I do think all these things have a pretty definitive impact on depth of sleep, how much deep sleep we’re getting, and probably to some degree on REM sleep,” Dr. Winter says.

But of course, tiredness could just very well be the new busyness. “Being busy seems to be closely tied to American’s ideas of success, like traveling, working hard to make lots of money, having tons of activities to do with friends and family, taking vigorous (and often expensive) workout classes, and this allows us to almost humble-brag about being tired all the time,” says Dr. Bancroft. “Our verbal expression of how tired we are, is not only accepted in this culture, but promoted, leading to potentially an over-discussion of our ‘tiredness.'”

Sure, sure. It’s something to say, but if we dismiss it that quickly, we’ll never truly get to the root of the problem. Ask a friend. Eavesdrop at Target. Pay attention to when those social-media likes start to roll in late in the evening. There’s more to all this than chalking it up as another trope. Because if we add up all the dark circles and yawns, we can ascertain that life as we know it is changing—and fast. More than any other biological need, our hours asleep define the ones we spend awake, and if every successive waking hour is greeted with a yawn and a cup of coffee in order to perk up, we have some pretty heavy baggage to unpack. But for now, maybe it’s best to just drop those bags on the floor? Because, man am I wiped….

Here’s why one writer says she sleeps best when she’s all by herself—no matter her relationship status. Plus, check out other key findings from the Well+Good survey about sleep.

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