Ever struggled to get out of bed for weeks at a time? Gotten to the point you’re wishing for the day to be over by the time you put on your socks because your brain is already trudging through the larger pressures of work, social life, and the constant violence on the news?
If you ever considered yourself as “productive,” feeling low with life might be one of the most frustrating speed bumps of your life. But talk to your friends and family: it’ll be clear you’re not the only one feeling this way. Welcome to the world of mental exhaustion.
Mental exhaustion, defined:
Also known as mental fatigue or burnout, mental exhaustion arises from prolonged stress — whether it comes from our work, relationships, life events, or all of those.
Think of the mind as a cup. A glass can only hold so much liquid before spilling over. Stressors are like water; too many cause our mind to feel flooded beyond capacity. At that point, our ability to process new information or make informed decisions is impaired. Don’t give yourself time to reset and the cycle continues.
The symptoms of fatigue are different for everyone. However, as stressors slowly build up over long periods of time, we might not recognize the impact right away. In fact, the people around us may notice changes in our behavior before we do.
We’ve listed a few examples of the impact mounting stressors may have below. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself, you may be suffering from burnout.
- higher rates of infection and lowered immunity
- muscle pain (chest pain, back pain, etc.)
- gastrointestinal distress
- sleep disturbances or insomnia
- headache or dizziness
- high blood pressure or heart palpitations
- apathy, anhedonia, or a general loss in motivation
- increased irritability
- cynicism and a more pessimistic worldview
- feeling overwhelmed and helpless
In addition, friends might complain that we’re never around. Our bosses say we’ve taken too many sick days. Family members remark how we’ve been more grouchy or impatient with them lately, and our flakiness with plans are frustrating loved ones.
These behavioral symptoms and more could be the result of the physical and emotional consequences of mental exhaustion.
- Schedule relaxation time. We’re all busy, but creating pockets in your day to recharge is critical for staving off exhaustion. Follow what works for you and your personality. We’re all different and may need to recuperate in different ways.
- Exercise without screens or distractions. There’s evidence that exercise doesn’t just make you stronger, it also improves your self-control, brain health, and anxiety level. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, split into several 5-minute walks if needed.
- Take notes during meetings. Feeling overwhelmed can cause one to experience mental fatigue. Taking notes improves your memory and helps you assume more control over your situation. Try writing by hand rather than typing on your computer as studies show that doing so improves learning.
- Journal your feelings. Evidence shows journaling could help lower symptoms of depression or anxiety within just a month of writing. Start small — begin by writing for just a few minutes every day.
- Go for a walk in nature. Not only are you getting exercise, as mentioned earlier, but it’s been well-documented that spending time around nature may improve mental well-being and cognitive function.
- Listen to instrumental music. This is a great chance to break out your earbuds and jam out to some classical music. Studies have shown that listening to non-verbal tunes can both help with relaxation and improve learning when studying.
- Establish your locus of control. Ask yourself: What factors are within your control? Life is hectic, and can leave you feeling overwhelmed and powerless. Take a lesson from the Stoics and realistically examine what you can and cannot control in life. Make a list and ground yourself in what you do have control over.
- Try to sleep more. Definitely easier said than done, but it’s worth working on your sleep habits. Insomnia and unrestful sleep can result in a higher likelihood of burnout down the line. If you’re having trouble snoozing, try changing up your sleep environment, getting into a sleep routine, and more.
- Consider a medication change. The wrong medication can have negative effects on your mental well-being. If you’re trying out a new prescription and don’t feel better after 12 weeks, your symptoms get worse, you’re experiencing wild mood swings, or more, it may be time to see your doctor.
- Visit a professional. If you’re still feeling lost, it likely wouldn’t hurt to talk with a therapist. Processing your inner feelings could be a cathartic experience, and it may help to see your thoughts from an outside perspective.
“Stress is something that happens to everyone. Mental exhaustion is not, necessarily,” said licensed therapist Jor-El Caraballo in an interview with Greatist. Caraballo is the cofounder of NYC-based mental health practice Viva Wellness and has experience tackling issues faced by people identifying as LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC.
“Everyone has to deal with [stress] to some degree. But mental exhaustion is the culmination and the outcome of stress… when it feels like you can’t really function as a result of all those factors,” he said. “You hit this psychological wall.”
Similarly, while the symptoms like exhaustion might point to depression, that doesn’t necessarily mean the person experiencing exhaustion is depressed.
However, Caraballo warned that if mental exhaustion continues for long enough, it could result in the development of a clinical diagnosis like depression, anxiety, or even PTSD.
That’s why Caraballo stressed the importance of being “proactive” and stamping out mental exhaustion before the consequences have too much impact on our lives.
“Theoretically you could [wait it out],” he said. “But as you do that, what is your quality of life during that time?”
There are three main areas of life that may contain stressors. These are:
- loneliness and isolation
- experiencing discrimination and/or microaggressions in public or online
- difficulties in platonic or romantic relationships
- stress over tight deadlines and excessive demands
- struggling with unemployment or facing the risk of being laid off
- disagreements in the workplace, like wage disputes
General health and lifestyle
- chronic illnesses like diabetes, HIV/AIDS, or cancer
- mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or OCD
- physical injuries like stress fractures, back pain, or limited movement
Caraballo indicated that the causes are numerous, especially during this time of social upheaval that can cause proximity burnout or mental exhaustion.
When stressors, like chronic illness or systemic violence, may be out of your control, it’s important to be realistic — realizing what you can and can’t change is also a way of combating mental fatigue.
“I think that for Black people in particular, one of the common causes is the ongoing onslaught and having to relive the trauma almost daily,” he said.
“You’re continuously exposed to people who look like you dying or being seriously injured or people devaluing the lives of people who look like you. That’s an ongoing injury.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also placed additional stress on people, Caraballo continued, explaining that adjusting to a new way of life and dealing with social isolation has resulted in extended mental exhaustion.
Protective factors can be key to cutting down the negative impacts of situations we can’t improve. These are tools and habits that help counteract risk factors, including everything from nurturing a positive self-image to having a supportive friend group.
While some factors might change over time, like your income level or social connections, others, like self-discipline and social skills, stay with you throughout your life. Not having these factors growing up could lead to a higher risk of burnout down the line or other consequences like depression and substance use.
While there are many stressors we won’t be able to change in our lives, we can gain tools to help reduce them.
For example, while you might not be able to change a paralyzing injury, a supportive social circle can help lower the stress and change your outlook on life. Systemic racism may be difficult or impossible to escape, but strong advocacy skills can help you feel control and even improve the situation.
Mental exhaustion is painful and yes, exhausting. But despite how difficult it may seem in the moment, situations can be lifted and changed. Give the tips listed above a shot, and remember to take it easy — giving your mind a break and delegating tasks when needed are crucial to fighting off fatigue.
If you’re experiencing extreme symptoms of exhaustion and are unable to change them on your own, it may be time to see a doctor or therapist.
Remember to prioritize your self-care and nurture those protective factors — it’ll pay off in the long run.
Kevin Jiang is a Canadian journalist covering health, science, and a bunch of other neat stuff. Read more from him on Twitter.