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How Do You Know When You’ve “Hit the Wall"?

When we need to address mental and emotional fatigue.

Key points

  • The concept of hitting the wall can be applied to mental and emotional fatigue in everyday life.
  • When you feel like you've hit a wall, take a pause to rest and evaluate the situation that led to your fatigue.
  • Stress management and knowing where your wall is are the keys to better navigating anxiety, overwhelm, and fatigue.

Most have heard the phrase “hit the wall.” This phrase, whose origin stems from marathon running, when a runner has reached the limits of their endurance, has been used across many sports and athletic endeavors. It can be associated with giving up, even failure. The athlete has nothing more to give and can go no further. Avoiding the dreaded hitting of the wall could mean more training and preparation, both physical and mental.

Hitting the wall has also been applied to mental and emotional fatigue in everyday life. We can hit the wall when under a lot of stress or pressure, and this can be a combination of internal and external factors. Many people hit the wall at various points, and many even push past it without realizing it. Both hitting the wall and pushing past it can reverberate through a person’s life, impacting relationships, work, etc. It can help to understand and identify the warning signs, some of which are discussed here as we further explore hitting the wall.

The Phenomenon of Accumulated Stress and Anxiety

As people strive to achieve their goals, they take on varying stress levels. Each person can handle a certain amount of stress while still feeling stable and comfortable, as well as fulfilled. In addition to the stress that a person voluntarily takes on, which they may have a certain degree of control over, additional stress can be involuntarily added to a person’s life, which the person will usually not be able to control. A glaring example that we’re all keenly aware of is the Covid-19 pandemic. Stress can accumulate when we fall behind in tasks, we don’t have an adequate amount of time, and when we lack control of one or more situations.

Stress and anxiety are related phenomena. Physiological stress relates to an induced biological state prepared for danger based on external pressures, whereas psychological stress relates to the internal emotional turmoil that a person may experience. Stress initiates the sympathetic nervous system that tells us to “fight” (confront), “flight” (avoid or move away from), or “freeze” (mentally disconnect). Anxiety pertains to the fear or worry of anticipated danger, which is the cause of stress. For many, anxiety can be painful. For some, the anxiety can be so painful that they go towards avoiding or disconnecting.

If a person does not see the accumulation of stress and anxiety, they may notice that they are lashing out at friends and family or see a negative change in their performance or interactions at work. For those of us that push past the wall, we may not initially feel this accumulation of stress. When you think back to stressful periods of your life, you may find that they crept up on you. Then the straw broke the camel’s back, and then… you hit that dreaded wall.

Immediate or Eventual Avoidance

Different kinds of people can hit walls for different reasons and at different times. For example, some incredibly regimented people can have difficulty compartmentalizing their focus on tasks and therefore be overwhelmed by a growing list of “to-dos.” Whereas for other people, avoidance of tasks can overwhelm due to the inability to follow through, which can lead to accumulated or past due tasks. Avoidance can lead to an accumulated amount of unfinished tasks, which can lead to more stress. You can see how this snowballs or becomes a downward spiral. As discussed earlier, this can have a deteriorating effect on one’s relationships and life.

Facing the Wall Is Confronting a Mountain

When people hit a wall, it is usually when their anxiety and stress have brought them into a “fight”/”flight”/”freeze” state without the opportunity to think through the problem with success. This could happen, for example, when time has run out, and external reminders make us confront what we have not accomplished; or a new obligation or pressure has been added, and the burden just becomes too much.

Furthermore, intense negative emotions will dampen the thinking process necessary to handle stress, burdens, and goal-oriented initiatives. A person may reach a point where the stress and anxiety become overwhelming, but the coping mechanisms to handle this are hampered and weakened. A person may have excellent skills in high-stress situations, but if they hit the wall, those skills may not be there. Imagine the marathon runner hitting the wall yet still trying to maintain their pace. They are just not physically able to do it.

What can we do to overcome our stress before we hit the wall? One approach is to act by making progress on something small that brings the task list down. We follow through on our plan regardless of how we feel about it. This victory can give us confidence and also help us recover our skills and get back ‘into the groove.’ In addition, we remove ourselves from experiencing shame by focusing on the task at hand rather than any negative judgments of ourselves. Shame over unfinished projects or unmet expectations can contribute to a downward spiral as the negative judgment can create a lack of confidence, which can impact performance and handling stress, and you see how a cycle can form or perpetuate.

We can also reach out to those we’ve appointed as helpers to help us through the problem. It could be a person who is our sounding board, a friend, spouse, tutor, coach, or a trained psychotherapist. Talking through the issues can help us better define them, frame them, and work through them. In addition, just venting or blowing off steam can help, but only if done in small doses and at low frequency. Furthermore, another person can help us see from the outside-in vs. inside-out, giving us another perspective and perhaps moving us from feeling hopeless to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Knowing Where Your Wall Is

Good athletes know their limits. They know where their wall is, and they train to push it further back and cope when they know they are approaching it. We can borrow this strategy for our everyday lives. Everyone can hit the wall, and it can feel like a weakness, but when you know where it is and when you’re approaching it, you can turn it into a reminder to take control and draw upon your strengths.

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