Is mental exhaustion draining you? Read on to find out

July 19, 2021 - 17 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 you still feel drained even after a good night’s sleep, you might be mentally exhausted. The trouble is that the more tired you feel, the less you’ll want to do something about it. What is mental exhaustion, and how do you overcome it when you’re...well, exhausted?

What is mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion is a type of overuse injury. 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.

What are the causes of mental exhaustion?

Typically speaking, people feel mentally tired when they’ve been under long-term stress. This is especially true for stressors that require increased cognitive load or reduce resources. 

For example, completing a challenging project with many moving parts and tradeoffs may need project management skills and political savvy (increased load). Traveling for work may leave you feeling jet-lagged (reduced resources).

But many stressors involve both. 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.

Here are 7 common causes of mental and emotional exhaustion:

Chronic stress
The most common 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 lead to empathy or compassion fatigue. It can become difficult to muster an emotional response to the constant strain.

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.

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 or 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 evolve into burnout.

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 the office.

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.”

Emotional stress
Many factors can cause emotional stress. But no matter the cause, the experience is similar. Thinking about negative feelings, events, and circumstances can make it difficult to relax.

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.

What are the symptoms of mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion creeps up on you. Like burnout, it’s the result of prolonged stress over a period of time. As such, you might not notice that you’re feeling fried until symptoms become really noticeable. Some symptoms of mental exhaustion include:

Emotional symptoms:

  • Feeling a lack of interest, motivation, or pleasure
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Getting easily annoyed with others
  • Cynicism, doubt, and pessimism
  • A persistent feeling that something bad is about to happen
  • Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed
  • Depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts

Physical symptoms:

  • 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:

  • 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)
  • Increased risk-taking behavior

Side effects of being mentally exhausted

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

  • 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

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

Mental exhaustion overlaps significantly with stress, depression, physical tiredness, and burnout. At a glance, they look very much alike. Some may even use the terms interchangeably. There are some key differences, however, between these experiences and how to best resolve them.

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 qualified mental health professional.

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.

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. But it takes effort and awareness to change the patterns that lead to mental exhaustion. The good news is, you don’t have to tackle it all at once to start feeling better. Here are 11 ways to overcome feeling mentally tired:

  • Eliminate the stressor
    It may seem obvious, but if you can get rid of the stressor, 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.
  • Work-life balance
    If it’s not possible to get rid of the stress altogether, 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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.  
  • Get outside
    While you’re changing up your environment, spend some time outdoors. The feel of fresh air and sunlight can be invigorating. If you have to 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.
  • 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. If it’s something challenging or complex, you may even slip into flow — a state well known as the antidote to burnout.
  • 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.
  • Avoid self-medication
    When you’re having trouble relaxing, it’s tempting to do something to help “take the edge off.” However, this kind of escapist behavior becomes habit-forming. It has nothing to do with whether the substance is addictive or even if it’s something you ingest. You’re not actually craving the substance, but the way that it makes you feel. Self-medicating with substance use can damage your relationships, health, and career.
  • 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.
  • 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 short-cut to mental exhaustion.
  • 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 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 isn’t forever. It didn’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 July 19, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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