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Here, we’ll look at mental exhaustion, its symptoms, and how to handle this particular type of fatigue.

Also called mental fatigue, this feeling can be akin to the sensations of tiredness and ‘drained’ you feel after physically working out.

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What is mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion can be characterized in different ways, but that drained, tired, and overwhelmed feeling can occur after prolonged periods of intense mental work. When your brain has to work at an intense level for an extended period without a break, or it has too much stimulation without the downtime needed to process everything, you might experience a feeling of mental exhaustion.

What can cause mental exhaustion?

There are many potential causes of mental exhaustion, and triggers can vary between individuals. Common examples include the following:

  1. Living with the symptoms of poor mental health or mental illness can lead to a prolonged strain of effort
  2. Long study or work periods with insufficient break periods
  3. Overwhelming responsibilities leave little room for rest, recuperation, or leisure time (‘me’ time or self-care.)
  4. Anxiety and worry, where lots of mental energy is spent each day worrying about issues, problems, or sources of stress

Understanding what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t

Most of us will experience periods where we feel physically fatigued, especially after periods of exercise and training, busy lifestyles, and the general ‘get up and go’ of daily life. And these same sensations occur when we have mental fatigue.

When we have mental fatigue or exhaustion, we may find it difficult to:

  • Think clearly and solve problems
  • Think logically
  • Process and moderate our emotions

This is ‘normal’ as daily life tends to challenge us, especially if we are putting mental pressure on ourselves somehow. The symptoms tend to lessen or disappear once we rest again. But if we don’t get that rest, mental exhaustion does kick in, leading to lingering difficulties with relationships and the myriad challenges of daily life.

What is the difference between emotional and mental exhaustion?

Mental loads describe cognitive skills, such as memory, thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. When we describe something ’emotional’, we tend to talk about feelings and our abilities to identify and process them appropriately (or manage them) and then express them. The mental aspect is perhaps the more objective, and the emotional is the more subjective.

Emotional exhaustion tends to occur when you work through feelings that might be painful, difficult, or unwanted. These feelings could be:

These exhaustive states can lead to similar symptoms, such as a lack of motivation, detachment, apathy, and a sense of being trapped. Some people talk about experiencing ‘burnout’; this is an accurate term – burnout comes from mental and emotional fatigue.

Understanding the signs of mental exhaustion

The typical signs of mental exhaustion include:

  • Depression and persistently low or sad moods, including feelings of hopelessness and a lack of control
  • Anxiety, which may linger even without an apparent cause
  • A sense that you don’t care about anything
  • A feeling of pessimism, cynicism, and detachment
  • Irritability and anger
  • A sense of dread or impending doom
  • Difficulties in managing emotions
  • Lower energy and minimal productivity
  • Feelings of lethargy with slower responses and movements.

Mental exhaustion can also have physical symptoms too. You may not realize that these symptoms are driven by mental exhaustion, as they can be vague and attributable to many things. They may also come on quickly or over time. These signs can include:

  • An upset stomach (especially in children, often with anxiety)
  • headaches and other general body aches
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, including insomnia, drowsiness, and chronic fatigue
  • Changes in weight and appetite
  • Frequent bouts of illness, such as colds and flu
  • Recurrent infections of common conditions such as thrush, cold sores, or conjunctivitis (which can be associated with a sense of being ‘run down’.
  • A general ongoing sense of being unwell

Behavioral signs may also be present in children and adults. For example:

  • A tendency to put off tasks and jobs such as homework, household jobs, work admin, and so forth
  • A decline in academic, work, or fitness performance
  • A reluctance to engage in leisure activities that you once enjoyed
  • Increased use of alcohol and other substances which have not been prescribed to you
  • A tendency to avoid people that you would usually be pleased to see
  • Irritable or distracted feelings when in company and difficulty following what is going on when people interact
  • Increased time off work or school
  • Challenges managing everyday responsibilities or sticking to commitments in your work or personal life

What is the difference between stress and mental exhaustion?

Everyone experiences some form of stress in their daily lives, and some can be good for us, causing beneficial hormonal changes in the body, for example (such as the hormetic changes that occur when we stress our body physically by lifting weights or by engaging in intermittent fasting.) Some stress is simply the body’s response to scary, overwhelming, or new situations – such as the adrenaline that is released on a scary fairground ride.

The role of stress hormones in your body

The biological stress response releases a hormone surge of cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that help your body to go into a ‘fight or flight’ mode and respond to the perceived danger or threat with fast physical movement and quick thinking. When the external stressor has been removed or dealt with, your body should return to its calm and stress-free state, releasing calming chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin to calm the system naturally. But if you remain chronically stressed, your body and mind can become exhausted.

How chronic stress creates fatigue

When your mind (or body) continues to face challenges that trigger the stress response, or your body believes that it is facing these challenges, your cortisol – or stress hormones – remain elevated. Over time, these elevated levels can interfere with our ability to sleep, digest food and fight off illness. A good acid test is to ask, ‘Do I feel well? Am I sleeping well? Am I eating regularly? Do I feel positive and like my usual self?’ If not, it’s a good starting point to investigate whether you need extra rest and recharge time.

Mental exhaustion versus physical exhaustion

You may ask whether you are feeling mental or physical exhaustion, mainly if your body has been under stress from both input types. Here are some drivers of physical exhaustion:

  1. Having a physically demanding job (which can, of course, also be mentally challenging)
  2. Working out in a demanding way, such as an intense HIIT or strength training session
  3. Having poor or interrupted sleep for several nights in a row (common amongst shift workers or new parents)
  4. An illness, or the recovery period after an illness.

When you are physically exhausted, you may then find you become mentally fatigued fast too. Think about times when you’ve had a long and demanding day on your feet, and your brain also wants to relax and perhaps unwind with a good film in the evening.

Conversely, if you are mentally tired, it is far harder to put in high physical performance. In particular, physical tasks requiring strength and endurance can feel far more demanding and taxing – and simply behind our capabilities.

Whare the likely causes of mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion will occur in people at different times, at different levels of stress, or for different reasons. The driving factors are usually tasks that require a lot of emotional and/or cognitive effort, with insufficient breaks or downtime. For example:

  • You might have a demanding and pressured job
  • You might also work very long hours without enough rest or time off
  • You might not enjoy your job and find it stressful as a result
  • You might be worried about money, your security, or a family member
  • You might be caring for someone
  • You might be experiencing grief, such as the loss of a loved one
  • You might be parenting a young baby
  • You may have a lack of emotional support and a poor level of work-life balance

Ways to handle mental exhaustion

The first sign is usually to recognize that you are displaying the signs of mental exhaustion in some way. From this point, you can work out how you might seek to improve the situation. For example, you could make lifestyle changes that address the stressor at the source by removing or mitigating it, or you might add coping strategies that bring extra rest and self-care into your life.

Here are some things to try:

Remove the mental stressor

It’s not always possible to remove the sources of stress in your life, but you can ask for help. For example, you could ask a coworker to assist you with a task, delegate some responsibilities or get help from family members to keep the house clean. If you are a caregiver, look at alternatives for professional care or ask others to help. There are, for example, organizations that exist to help caregivers with support, friendship, and practical services in recognition of the challenging burden that caring can put onto individuals and families, especially without support and respite.

Find ways to rest and recharge

Optimal rest and recharge will look different for everyone, but the sorts of things you could try include:

  • Clearing your diary to enjoy a couple of quiet days with easy tasks
  • Booking a proper holiday and then taking it!
  • Keeping an hour free each day to do something you enjoy
  • Engaging in sport or a form of fitness you enjoy – as a benefit, this will encourage stress-relieving endorphins to flood your body and help you to rest, sleep better, fend off illnesses and generally cope better with life’s challenges.
  • Turn off your digital devices two hours before bedtime to enjoy better quality sleep
  • Try yoga, meditation, guided visualization, or gratitude practices such as journaling. Research suggests that meditation can be particularly effective in improving chronic stress.
  • Look at alternative practices such as aromatherapy, massage, tai chi, and even basic walking!
  • Focus on getting quality sleep with a good bedtime routine. You could try a hot bath before bed, do some stretching, enjoy some reading, and dim the lights before bed. Keep a notepad beside the bed to write down any thoughts crowding your mind.

The power of gratitude

Some research suggests that gratitude practices and exercises can lead to various benefits, such as:

  • Reduced stress and greater happiness
  • Fewer signs and symptoms of physical illness
  • An enhanced sense of wellbeing
  • Better relationships
  • Better sleep
  • Lower stress

Exhaustion and the role of exercise

It can feel hard to rest when you are exhausted. Although it seems counterintuitive, if our body is flooded with stress hormones, it will be unwilling to move out of the ‘flight or flight’ response and into a calm and accessible position. After all, when we are chronically stressed, our body thinks we are in danger and must be ready to respond.

Exercise can help clear these stress hormones and encourage the body to release calming and naturally pain-relieving hormones such as endorphins and dopamine, which help bring our mind and body back into alignment. Research suggests that exercise doesn’t need to be intensive or particularly advanced. Even walking – particularly outdoors in nature – can be profoundly beneficial. Exercise also helps us sleep and regulate our appetite, building our natural resilience to life’s stressors.

There is no ‘right’ exercise; the proper exercise is any type you enjoy, can do, and can build into your routine without adding extra stress to the equation. You can also combine exercise with social interaction to gain more stress-relieving benefits. For example, you could try the following:

  • Learning tai chi, yoga, or a similar meditative practice that brings the mind-body connection back into balance
  • Swimming, which helps to bring the brain into a profoundly and beneficially restorative meditation-like state
  • Dancing, which can be a lot of fun and social
  • Walking with a friend to talk and enjoy the outdoors together
  • Picking up a sport you used to enjoy for distraction, health benefits, and social benefits if you are in a team or group setting

Medication routes

If your symptoms of mental exhaustion are becoming severe, it can be worth seeing a doctor. For example, you may find that your ability to work, maintain relationships, and look after yourself is suffering. You may find that you are causing dangerous situations, such as driving erratically because you cannot concentrate or experiencing prolonged insomnia. Your doctor may suggest several things:

  1. Medication, such as anti-anxiety medications
  2. Therapy or counseling so that you can learn mental coping strategies with the help of a qualified therapist (if this is available to you)
  3. Complementary approaches, such as yoga, massage, aromatherapy, art therapy, or even pet therapy, could be tried in conjunction with medication and therapy, depending on the severity of your mental exhaustion.

Mental exhaustion: taking care of the basics

For many people, it helps to assess the basics before moving towards a more interventionist approach, such as medication. In our medicalized culture, it’s very easy to get a prescription, but there are often basic things you can do to take care of your needs and find ways to manage your symptoms. This can also give a sense of pride and achievement in your self-care ability. For example:

  1. Focus on your nutrition to ensure you eat well and get enough protein, good fats, vitamins, and minerals. This also means minimizing unhealthy foods such as sugar, alcohol, and processed food, which can strain your body, rob you of energy, and lead to a negative mental state over time.
  2. Avoid chemical stimulants and excess alcohol. Stay away from online gambling and other addictive diversions, which can seem enticing to switch off, but rapidly cause other issues.
  3. Check your support to see whether you can get more help from others around you. Talk to your family and loved ones to see if there is more they can do to help. They may not even realize that you are struggling with your mental load.
  4. Consider whether you can re-engineer your working life and get another job if you are stressed and unhappy with your existing one. Can you work different hours, find a job closer to home, or even change careers? Start looking at options. This positive mental load can free up energy to feel excited and enthused about life.
  5. Connect with your hobbies, passions, and interests to create this sense of excitement about your life again and to create a sense of possibility and ownership.
  6. Rest, relax, recharge and sleep. Whether that’s taking 5 minutes to close your eyes in the afternoon, doing a yoga Nidra, or turning out your reading light early at bedtime, quality rest is an investment in your health, energy, and vitality levels, and it will result in far higher energy during your waking hours.

Summary

Our daily lives can be increasingly stressful and demanding, and many of us are dealing with mental exhaustion. This can often have similar symptoms to emotional exhaustion and go hand in hand with physical exhaustion if we lead very challenging lives with various stressors.

The good news is that there are different ways to handle mental exhaustion, and we can see an improvement simply by tweaking different areas and making small changes in our lives. Often the starting point is to admit that our mental load is too much to bear and seek help. We can also look to take care of the small things, such as our rest, nutrition, and exercise, and then consider the broader factors that are causing mental exhaustion to build up. Often we can change more than we realize, especially if we begin by making small steps and then build our wins over time.

Where required, medication, therapy, and complementary therapies can also be very helpful and play a valuable role in helping people to feel well, balanced, and ready to enjoy and experience their lives to the full once again.