Is your brain tired? Here are 6 ways to treat mental fatigue

December 1, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is mental fatigue?

4 emotional symptoms of mental fatigue

4 physical symptoms of mental fatigue

What causes mental fatigue?

6 tips for coping with mental fatigue

What are the consequences of mental fatigue on work performance?

Feeling drained? Does your brain want to go on an indefinite vacation far away from where you are now? You may be experiencing mental fatigue. 

Mental fatigue is an all too common feeling these days. Uncertainty, high stress levels, and a demanding lifestyle are making our minds feel downright exhausted. But living in a state of permanent mental fatigue can have consequences on our personal and professional well-being

Let’s explore how mental fatigue affects us, its symptoms, and what we can do to treat it. 

What is mental fatigue? 

When your brain feels exhausted and unable to function properly, it leaves you mentally and emotionally drained. This is commonly known as brain fog or mental fatigue. 

According to recent research, an overstimulated brain impairs your cognitive abilities. This affects your productivity, decision-making skills, or memory. For example, brain fog makes it hard to concentrate. Even simple household tasks like washing dishes or doing the laundry seem cumbersome. 

Additionally, a period of chronic stress can be taxing on your mental well-being, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, irritable, and detached. 

Long-term mental exhaustion also affects your professional life. When your symptoms aren’t managed, it leads to workplace burnout. Symptoms of workplace burnout include a lack of belief in your abilities, decreased job satisfaction, and a lack of motivation

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned mental fatigue into a widespread global issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes this “pandemic fatigue” as demotivation, alienation, complacency, and hopelessness. As this feeling has become the norm for many people, it’s increasingly important to learn how to cope with mental fatigue and its symptoms. 

4 emotional symptoms of mental fatigue

Mental fatigue is insidious — its symptoms develop gradually and are not always noticed. Most commonly, these manifest themselves as various emotional issues. Let’s explore some of the most tell-tale emotional signs of mental fatigue and how they affect your emotional well-being:

1. Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms of mental fatigue. 

worried-girl-lying-on-bed-mental-fatigue

It develops because prolonged mental fatigue triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This is also known as your fight or flight mode. This causes you to be in a constant state of panic or worry about the future. People who suffer from anxiety have a hard time making decisions as the fear of “what if” overtakes them. 

Always feeling anxious should act as an alarm bell, telling you something isn’t right.

2. Languishing 

BetterUp research suggests that 55% of employees are languishing at any given moment. 

Languishing can be described as a feeling of emptiness and stagnation. This feeling develops when your mind feels depleted of energy. 

Someone stuck in a state of languishing frequently feels apathy and a disconnection from friends and work colleagues. If this feeling persists, it can gradually isolate you from people in your life. 

3. Low resilience 

When you’re mentally fatigued, challenges seem nearly impossible to overcome. This lack of inner strength and confidence makes you less resilient in the face of an acute stressor. 

For example, someone lacking emotional resilience can easily crumble under the pressure of a challenging work assignment. Low resilience makes you see work or life challenges as a setback rather than an opportunity to learn and grow. 

4. Depression 

Mental fatigue and depression are interconnected. Fatigue is a symptom of depression and vice-versa. 

Depression is a mental health disorder that can have multiple causes, including stressful life events. It’s characterized by a sense of hopelessness and a lack of energy to engage in daily life. 

4 physical symptoms of mental fatigue 

The characteristics of mental fatigue aren’t just emotional. They can also show up as physical symptoms that impair your physical health and well-being:

1. Physical fatigue 

Your mental health has a direct effect on your physical health. Where there’s mental fatigue, there’s bound to be physical exhaustion

The high level of stress that causes mental fatigue also causes you to feel tired, weary, irritable, and lethargic. 

2. Sleep issues 

People suffering from mental exhaustion often experience trouble sleeping and even insomnia.

These sleep problems arise due to the emotional side effects of mental fatigue like anxiety or depression. Being in a constant state of alertness and worry makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep. On the other hand, clinical depression can cause you to oversleep, which can throw off your circadian rhythm

3. Increase in illness 

A weakened mental and physical state can lead to various health problems. Some of these include: 

  • Muscle aches and tenderness
  • Headaches and migraines 
  • Stomach problems
  • Weakened immune system 

4. Poor eating habits 

Unhealthy eating habits are common for someone suffering from mental exhaustion. According to a study, young adults were more likely to engage in emotional eating or eat less under mental stress and fatigue

Not getting the proper nutrients and indulging in junk food high in sugar impairs cognitive abilities. It also contributes to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. 

What causes mental fatigue? 

Mental fatigue can stem from a multitude of factors or just one particular stressor. Finding the root cause of your mental fatigue is an important first step to treating and overcoming it.

Stress and uncertainty 

Experiencing acute stress over a long period leads to both mental and emotional exhaustion

The pandemic created an unprecedented time of stress and uncertainty for millions of people around the world. According to Dr. Louis A. Faillace from the University of Texas Health, our bodies have been in survival mode during this time

New routines, social isolation, and processing the loss of loved ones have caused cognitive dulling in many. Cognitive dulling is a type of mental fatigue that causes a decline in productivity, difficulty concentrating, and a decline in mental health.

A demanding job or lifestyle 

Working in a high-pressure job or having a demanding lifestyle can mentally drain you. You might face an inordinate amount of choices on a daily basis, leading to decision fatigue

For example, a leadership role that requires you to manage multiple teams and work long hours can quickly lead to burnout and a poor work-life balance

working-mom-crying-child-mental-fatigue

A demanding job isn’t the only thing that can cause mental exhaustion. Juggling too many responsibilities at home and work can also lead to chronic fatigue. This is especially true for people in the sandwich generation. After a long day at work, many adults come home to be full-time caregivers of children and aging relatives. 

This kind of responsibility and stress takes a toll on their emotional and mental well-being. 

Living with an illness 

Living with a chronic condition can be mentally and physically debilitating. An illness like fibromyalgia, for instance, causes fatigue and widespread pain throughout the body. People that live with fibromyalgia often experience depression and stress

A challenging life event 

An event that completely turns your life upside down can put a great deal of strain on your mental health. 

Oftentimes, people experience different types of grief as a result. Normal or uncomplicated grief causes short-term mental fatigue. Complicated grief, like the death of a loved one or a divorce, can bring on mental fatigue that impacts your mental health over a long period. 

Other factors contributing to mental fatigue include poor nutrition, lack of sleep, clutter, or compassion and empathy fatigue. Once you identify the causes, start by taking steps to alleviate your symptoms. 

6 tips for coping with mental fatigue

Sometimes, you can remove the source of your mental fatigue altogether. For example, changing jobs can fix brain fog caused by a high-stress work environment. 

Other situations, like living with an illness, are not so straightforward. In these cases, mental fatigue can be managed. Here are six simple ways to cope with mental fatigue and improve your mental health:

1. Create a self-care plan 

Focus on your well-being by devising a self-care plan tailored to your needs. Engage in a few daily practices that bring you genuine joy. These activities can include meditation, deep breathing, spending time in nature, or anything else that improves your mental, emotional, and physical health.

2. Engage in regular exercise 

Regular exercise is one of the best tools to minimize the effects of mental fatigue. According to a recent study, higher physical activity results in less fatigue regardless of your age or gender. 

Staying active through outdoor or virtual workouts gives you a boost of positivity, energizes you, and improves your sleep. Aerobic and muscle-strengthening workouts also help treat fibromyalgia and prevent other health conditions.

3. Eat a nutritious diet 

What you put in your body has a direct effect on your mental health. Drinking enough water and eating foods that are good for gut health increases serotonin. High serotonin levels give your mental energy levels, resilience, and immune system a boost. 

4. Fix your circadian rhythm

Lack of sleep is a common cause or a side-effect of brain fog. If you’re not getting enough sleep, take steps to reset your sleep clock and improve your sleep hygiene

Improving your sleep alleviates anxiety and stress, lessening the symptoms of mental fatigue. If you’re struggling with insomnia, you can reach out to a mental health provider for medical advice or treatment.

5. Stay organized 

According to experts, clutter is distracting, increasing cognitive overload and the production of cortisol, the stress hormone

If your workspace or home is disorganized and messy, it’s time to tidy them up. Staying organized reduces mental fatigue and improves your cognitive activity. 

6. Strengthen your mental fitness 

Mental fitness increases your optimism, cognitive functions, confidence, and sleep. Mental fatigue negatively affects all of these things.

You can start getting mentally fit by meditating, being present, or expressing gratitude.

What are the consequences of mental fatigue on work performance? 

Suboptimal mental well-being affects your performance in the workplace. Long-term mental fatigue can even put your job and career progression at risk. Here’s how this condition impacts your professional life: 

Decline in productivity

It’s difficult to concentrate when you’re mentally exhausted, which leads to a decline in work productivity.

Sleep deprivation, a common side effect of mental exhaustion, makes it hard to focus, impacting your work performance. If your performance declines, you may be at risk of losing your job or being placed on probation. 

Low engagement 

Brain fatigue makes you feel mentally checked out. When you’re in this state, you have a hard time engaging with your work. You’re less committed to your professional goals or the goals of the organization. 

You may find yourself producing lower quality work, contributing less during team meetings, or showing up to work late.

Decreased work satisfaction

Emotional and mental fatigue have negative consequences on job satisfaction. This is especially true when your job is very demanding and leaves you feeling exhausted.

male-employee-tired-at-desk-mental-fatigue

Lack of satisfaction at work impacts both employees and the organization. As a dissatisfied employee’s productivity suffers, it can have a trickle-down effect on their team members. This can cause their productivity to decline. A decrease in performance impacts the morale of employees and affects the bottom line of the organization. 

Lack of motivation 

Mental fatigue makes you feel a lack of motivation in all areas of your life, including work. Zoom fatigue, for example, causes motivational fatigue. This can look like a loss of energy to handle work responsibilities or simple tasks.

Lack of motivation also holds you back from reaching your full potential, as you have no drive to reach your professional goals and progress in your career. 

Don’t ignore the signs of mental fatigue

It’s easy to overlook mental fatigue symptoms when they become a common daily occurrence. 

That’s why it’s important to check in with yourself once in a while and see how you’re doing physically, emotionally, and mentally. Mental exhaustion is a condition that can be managed and overcome by making healthy changes in your life. These include prioritizing self-care or fixing your sleep schedule. 


If you don’t want to do it alone, BetterUp can help. Our coaches will create a personalized plan that’s proven to increase your mental well-being and resilience.

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Published December 1, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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