Overcoming mental exhaustion: causes, symptoms, and how to cope

January 6, 2022 - 22 min read
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What is mental exhaustion?

What are the causes of mental exhaustion?

What are the symptoms of mental exhaustion?

Side effects of being mentally exhausted

How is mental exhaustion different from stress, depression, burnout, or physical exhaustion?

11 ways to overcome mental exhaustion

When should you go to a wellness specialist?

If getting out of bed after a good night’s sleep feels impossible sometimes, you might be suffering from mental exhaustion. The constant tiredness that comes with this mental exhaustion can make it feel impossible to overcome. You’re not alone - nearly 75% of workers have reported similar feelings since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion is a feeling of extreme tiredness, characterized by other feelings including apathy, cynicism, and irritability. You may be mentally exhausted if you’ve recently undergone long-term stress, find it hard to focus on tasks or lack interest in activities you usually enjoy.

Mental exhaustion often happens as a result of overuse, like physical overuse injuries. Even though you can’t point to it, it has more in common with repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel or tennis elbow. Rather than overstressing a muscle group, mental and emotional exhaustion come from overstressing your mind.

Can you be exhausted mentally? 

Mental exhaustion is completely possible and is probably more common than it should be. After a long period of stress or time of intense emotions, mental exhaustion is bound to happen. Just like our bodies show symptoms after we push too hard, our minds are bound to display signs of mental exhaustion if we don’t take proper care.

What causes mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion can be caused by many things. Typically, though, people feel mentally tired after experiencing long-term stress. This is especially true if the stressors increase a person’s cognitive load or reduce their resources. 

For example, you may be responsible for completing a challenging project with many moving parts and tradeoffs. This would require a high level of project management skills and political savvy (e.g., increased load). 

Another example would be traveling for work. Constantly changing time zones would leave you feeling jet-lagged (reduced resources). Many stressors involve both reduced resources and increased load. 

Work travel to an unfamiliar country where you don’t speak the language amps up the cognitive load. Taking care of a sick family member may involve coordinating medical care and interpreting unfamiliar terms while managing emotions (increased load). But you may also be getting less sleep (reduced resources). Over time, increased responsibility and stress plus poor self-care can result in mental exhaustion.

 

7 common causes of mental and emotional exhaustion

Though a wide variety of stressors can cause you to feel mentally drained, we’ve boiled down the 7 most common causes of mental exhaustion below. 

1. Chronic stress

This is the most frequent cause of mental exhaustion. Chronic stress keeps your brain — and body — on high alert all the time. Over time, this begins to wear away at your well-being. Chronic stress can also lead to empathy or compassion fatigue. It can become difficult to muster an emotional response to the constant strain.

2. Uncertainty

The human stress response was designed to work efficiently in the face of short-term stress (think fight-or-flight). However, it’s a much less effective response to a constant, nagging feeling of uncertainty. Unfortunately, uncertainty has become far too normal of a feeling since the start of COVID-19 pandemic. This has made mental exhaustion more common than ever. 

3. Work stress

Stress at work can take many forms. It can arise from a values mismatch, difficulty managing tasks and priorities, or a high-demand, risk-oriented job. Some jobs (or programs of study) involve a lot of new learning. They could also require processing and making sense of a lot of information. Whatever the reason, it’s not always possible to leave work at work. Left unchecked, workplace stress can even evolve into burnout. Your work stress could bleed into your weekends and ultimately, develop into a bad case of the Sunday scaries

4. Family issues

Few things are more stressful than worrying about a family member. Being a caregiver for young children, sick relatives, or aging parents can be mentally taxing. Even if everyone’s healthy, families can bring all kinds of stressors. Divorce, disagreements, and estrangements have a way of following you into all areas of your life. Ultimately, family troubles can be a big cause of mental exhaustion.

5. Juggling multiple commitments

In addition to caring for family, many people have other commitments on their plate — those commitments come with details, schedules, logistics, and challenges. Balancing an intensive school or training program, a second job, or a freelance business can leave you feeling like you’re never “off.” If you’re not able to, or don’t know how to, manage your priorities, you’re at risk of becoming mentally drained.

6. Emotional stress

There are dozens of things that can cause emotional stress. No matter the cause, the experience is similar. Constant negative feelings, events, and circumstances can make it difficult to relax. This emotional exhaustion can quickly lead to mental fatigue.

7. Poor self-care

Without gas in the tank, you won’t get very far. When you get busy or you’re feeling a bit down, it’s easy to neglect self-care. However, over time this will affect your ability to be resilient in the face of stressful situations. If you have a chronic illness, like multiple sclerosis or chronic fatigue syndrome, brain fog may be a side effect. Rather than pushing through, it’s important to be especially diligent about self-care.

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What does mental exhaustion feel like?

So how do you know if you are suffering from mental exhaustion? Mental exhaustion symptoms can range from tiredness when you wake up in the morning, to a deep sense of apathy about work, friendship, and life. Mental exhaustion feels like cynicism, emptiness, an inability to focus, and even a sense of hopelessness. 

This mental fatigue can also trigger your sympathetic nervous system, leading to feelings of panic, anxiety, and worry.  These mental exhaustion symptoms can make daily life incredibly difficult. 

What are the symptoms of mental exhaustion?

The good news? You’re not alone in facing mental exhaustion. Let’s dive deeper into mental exhaustion symptoms so that you can find out how to overcome them.

Emotional symptoms related to mental exhaustion:

Physical symptoms related to mental exhaustion:

  • Fatigue or exhaustion, even after a full night’s rest
  • Sleep disturbances and changes in pattern (either too much or too little)
  • Headaches, body aches, and muscle tension
  • Changes in appetite
  • Stomach issues and digestive upset
  • Unexplained or frequent colds
  • High blood pressure or irregularities in heart rate

Behavioral symptoms related to mental exhaustion:

  • Inability to sit still, difficulty relaxing
  • Forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, reduced focus, procrastinating
  • Isolating oneself from others
  • A sense of “going through the motions”
  • Lashing out at friends, coworkers, or loved ones
  • Self-medicating through the use of alcohol, drugs, or other things (like video games, excessive work, or physical activity)
  • Exhaustion at work and trouble completing tasks
  • Out-of-character lifestyle changes, like increased risk-taking behavior

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Side effects of being mentally exhausted

Mental exhaustion is difficult enough to deal with on its own. However, the side effects of being mentally exhausted can compound the problem dramatically. People who are mentally and emotionally exhausted often experience these side effects:

  • Difficulties in relationships
  • Decreased performance at work, including more mistakes
  • Inability to follow complex ideas or resolve challenges
  • Reduced self-efficacy
  • Feelings of disconnection and isolation
  • Taking more time off of work or missing social events
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Reduced resilience to stress and negative emotions
  • Missed opportunities
  • Lack of follow-through with important projects
  • Decreased satisfaction across all areas of life
  • Affected decision-making and long-term planning capacity
  • Decreased physical health

How is mental exhaustion different from stress, depression, burnout, or physical exhaustion?

Stress versus mental exhaustion 

Stress is a term that refers to anything that temporarily taxes a person’s mental, physical, and emotional resources. Our bodies respond to both good and bad stress in similar ways. Ideally, we’re able to quickly resolve stressors and return our bodies to a state of balance. Long-term stress leads to mental exhaustion — not the other way around. 

Depression versus mental exhaustion

Depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by a persistent low mood. People that are mentally exhausted often feel depressed, and those that are depressed feel mentally drained. Many symptoms, like lack of pleasure, sleep disturbance, and cognitive impairment overlap. However, the terms aren’t interchangeable. Depression needs to be diagnosed by a mental health professional. It is a serious mental health condition that needs to be treated by qualified providers.

Physical versus mental exhaustion

If you’ve ever left the gym feeling exhausted but exhilarated, you’ve felt the difference between mental and physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue, like mental exhaustion, comes from prolonged stress — but from stress on the body. This could be due to not getting enough sleep, an illness, or other physical strain. 

Burnout versus mental exhaustion

Of all the conditions we’ve mentioned, burnout is the most similar to mental exhaustion. They share a significant number of symptoms, and both are caused by long-term stress. Burnout, though, is classified specifically as a workplace phenomenon. On the other hand, mental exhaustion can be caused by anything — not just work stress. Mental exhaustion in one area of life can often lead to job burnout, even if the initial stress wasn’t work-related.

Mental fatigue shares many symptoms with burnout, depression, stress, and physical exhaustion. Because of that, we can use some of the same techniques to overcome it.

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11 ways to overcome mental exhaustion

When you’re mentally exhausted, even fun things sound like work. This can make it even more challenging to manage stressors. However, it takes effort and awareness to change the patterns that lead to feeling mentally tired. The good news is that you don’t have to tackle it all at once to start feeling better.

1. Eliminate the stressor

If you can eliminate the root cause of your mental tiredness, do it. Sometimes things that we think we should do take up an enormous amount of mental energy. Ask yourself, “Is this even something I want or need to do? And if so, does it need to be done right now?” Often we can decrease our stress by relaxing our own expectations. Not everything needs to be done perfectly — or at all. 

2. Work-life balance

If it’s not possible to get rid of what’s stressing you out completely, try reducing the amount of time you spend on it. Fill your non-work, non-responsibility time with things that make you happy. Improving your work-life balance can boost your resilience, creativity, and mood. It can also help keep a difficult situation in perspective until you can move past it.

3. Clear your space

Physical clutter often takes up mental space as well. Each item that’s in the way, broken, or waiting to go out represents an unfinished task. Tackling the mess will give you some breathing room and a sense of peace. It will also make you feel accomplished, helping you build some momentum towards the rest of your to-do list. 

4. Schedule (and take) regular breaks

Your brain, body, and eyes need some relief from focused effort. Take a 5-minute break every hour to walk away from your desk. Set a timer to remind you and prioritize this time even when distractions try to get in the way.

5. Get outside

While you’re changing up your environment, spend some time outdoors. The feeling of fresh air and sunlight can be invigorating. If you don’t have time during work, see if you can take a meeting at the park or go over your notes at an outdoor cafe. Exposure to sunlight is important in regulating serotonin, vitamin D, and your circadian rhythm.

6. Do something new

As adults, we don’t often make time to play or try new things. While you probably can’t imagine adding one more thing to your plate, it’s worth the effort to get out of your comfort zone. Trying new things can give you a boost of energy, especially if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do. If the new activity is challenging or complex, you may even slip into flow — a state well known as the antidote to burnout.

7. Reduce screen time

Endless video calls, emails, and notifications can wear you down quickly. Your phone and email keep your mind in a constant state of responsiveness. Taking a digital detox — even if for a few minutes at a time — can give you a break from being on call. Take the time to give your brain (and your eyes) a break.

8. Find positive ways to distract yourself

When you’re having trouble relaxing, it’s tempting to do something to help “take the edge off.” However, this kind of escapist behavior can quickly become a bad habit that doesn’t make you feel better in the long run. Instead of coping with self-medicating substances, focus on positive methods of distraction. For example, you can cope with mental exhaustion symptoms by connecting with a friend, cuddling with a pet, or even exercising. You can also try relaxation techniques or breathing exercises.

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9. Take care of yourself

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, but it doesn’t actually make you stressed. It helps your body respond to stress by making more glucose available, giving you a quick burst of energy. Because of this, stress is extremely demanding on the body. You can combat this by making sure to drink plenty of water, eat nourishing foods, and prioritize healthy sleep habits.

10. Focus on what you can control

Your challenges may seem overwhelming, and when we’re stressed, we often lose sight of the resources at hand. Try making a list of every possible solution to a problem, no matter how outlandish or unlikely it may seem. You may find that more help is available than you thought. Trying to do everything alone is a shortcut to mental exhaustion.

11. Talk to a coach or therapist  

If you’ve been feeling drained for a while, getting an outside perspective can be helpful. A therapist, coach, or counselor can help you see where you can reduce your stress. They can also provide helpful tips on improving your self-care and work-life balance. If necessary, they may even be able to help you navigate a change of career.

When should you go to a wellness specialist?

Talking to a coach, counselor, or therapist is always a good idea. However, mental exhaustion can make it hard to reach out for help. 

If you experience any of the following, you should contact a specialist right away:

  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Thoughts and plans of harming yourself or others
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Several absences from work
  • Being in danger of losing your job
  • Inability to take care of your children or loved ones
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene

These are all indicators that your mental health condition may be more serious than mental exhaustion. You may need professional help to begin feeling better. 

Even though it may feel overwhelming, mental exhaustion doesn’t last forever. Mental fatigue doesn’t happen overnight, and you likely won’t recover overnight. But with support and self-awareness, you can begin to overcome mental fatigue and develop habits to help yourself thrive again.

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Published January 6, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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