Everyone knows the feeling of exhaustion after a long day’s work. Heavy eyelids, a foggy mind, and a longing for the warmth and comfort of our home. But what happens when each passing week leaves you feeling more exhausted than the next? Maybe you’re facing a task list you can’t seem to stay up with, high-pressure deadlines that keep piling on, or even a few personal life curveballs to top it all off.
If you're struggling to shake the stress, and feel perpetually drained every day – chances are, you’re experiencing mental exhaustion.
High-stress periods tire you out mentally and emotionally, and an exhausted brain can make everyday life that much more challenging. You might have difficulty concentrating on simple tasks, feel moody and irritable, or suddenly view your day-to-day responsibilities as massive undertakings.
Unfortunately, mental fatigue is not an uncommon side effect of today’s demanding hustle culture. Nearly half of US workers feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day, and 41% feel burnt out by their work. As of October 2022, the average burnout rate is 60.2% across departments – that’s over half of the workforce burned out. These numbers are highest in the Millenial and Gen Z generations, who appear to struggle the most to balance both the increasing workloads and overwhelming societal expectations placed on them.
The good news is there are simple steps you can take to overcome these mental health symptoms – and to develop habits to prevent this kind of burnout in the future. In this post, we’ll explain what mental exhaustion is, its major causes and symptoms, and share 9 helpful tips on preventing and overcoming it across your personal and work life.
What is mental exhaustion?
Mental exhaustion, or mental fatigue, is a chronic state of brain stress due to intense cognitive activity. This can leave you feeling extremely physically tired, as your brain has undergone severe mental energy and strain.
How is mental exhaustion different from everyday tension or job burnout? While stress, job burnout, and mental exhaustion often overlap and contribute to one another – mental fatigue, also known as cognitive dulling, is characterized as a general and chronic mental health condition. To compare simply, stress is generally temporary, and burnout is a state of mental exhaustion that’s specific to work. Mental exhaustion has many similar symptoms of the burnout workplace phenomenon, though it can be caused by both work or non-work stresses. workplace phenomenon
Mental exertion (and exhaustion) is not unlike physical fatigue. We can eventually wear our brains out when we push ourselves too hard and for too long with cognitively and emotionally demanding tasks. A mentally exhausted brain will try to keep up in survival mode, but without recovery, will become overwhelmed beyond its cognitive capacity. This can lead to our simplest daily functions becoming unmanageable. Just like you’d rest sore legs and depleted energy stores after running a marathon, you also need to let your brain recover after prolonged exposure to intense mental stress.
Starting to sound like you’re experiencing mental exhaustion? Let’s go through the common symptoms of mental and emotional exhaustion, and the key factors that may be contributing to your brain fatigue.
What causes mental exhaustion?
Mental exhaustion is typically caused by prolonged exposure to stress. This can result from both personal or professional stressors including an increased cognitive load (like more work responsibilities due to The Great Resignation), dealing with an intense personal experience (like losing a loved one) or decreased resources (like lack of sleep or personal time). The brain becomes overworked from constantly having to be attentive and can shut down – leaving you feeling drained and overwhelmed.
Here are the top causes of mental exhaustion:
- Overwhelming workload
- High-pressure demanding job
- Job dissatisfaction
- Family or at-home stress
- Significant life events (like loss or having a baby)
- Uncertainty about the future
- Chronic illness or mental health issues
- Overextended commitments
- Societal or global stressors
- Not prioritizing self-care
While these are the top causes of mental fatigue, it is not an exhaustive list. In reality, anything that causes consistent emotional or mental stress can lead to an exhausted brain.
If you think you’re experiencing mental fatigue, take a look back at any recent changes in your life that could be contributing to your stress. Some questions to ask yourself – have I gone through any major life changes in the past three months? How many responsibilities and commitments have I been fitting onto my plate? Is my current routine sustainable long term, or am I overworked? Have I neglected any healthy habits or needs I should be prioritizing?
What are the symptoms of mental exhaustion?
As mental fatigue starts to creep after extended exposure to chronic stress or emotional overwhelm, your brain eventually becomes too tired to function properly – affecting your well-being, productivity, memory, and decision-making skills across all areas of your life.
In your professional life, mental exhaustion makes it much more challenging to stay motivated at work, focused on tasks, and able to achieve your team goals – leading to even more work-related stress.
In your personal life, mental fatigue can cause tension in your relationships due to irritability and mood instability, health problems from unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking or drugs, and increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Of course, this just creates more emotional stress in a vicious cycle – leaving you feeling hopeless or numb about your life and withdrawn from friends and family, further worsening the situation.
Mental exhaustion can show up differently in everyone, but here are the 10 most common symptoms to look for:
- Always feeling tired
- Having trouble sleeping
- Getting sick more often
- Changes in appetite
- Irritability & mood sensitivity
- Trouble focusing on tasks
- Increased anxiety & depression
- Reduced cognitive flexibility
- Detachment or apathy
- Constantly feeling overwhelmed
Mental exhaustion symptoms can dramatically affect both your professional and personal life, which is why you need to recognize changes in your feelings and behavior – especially in times of stress. At the first sign of these symptoms, assess your situation and apply the necessary treatment to aid your tired brain. Mental fatigue is no joke – if you’re currently in the depths of it, know you can get through. Let’s dive into overcoming mental exhaustion.
9 healthy treatments for mental exhaustion
If you're hitting a lot of these red-flag symptoms, it's time to take a look at how to overcome your mental fatigue.
In order to make genuine improvements to your well-being, you need permanent healthy lifestyle changes – not a quick fix. While taking a short vacation may buy you a few more weeks, it's only a matter of time before you end up in the same position if you’re not making real healthy changes to your weekly routine. Overcoming mental exhaustion requires adopting long-term positive habits.
Here are the top 9 tips to prevent and overcome mental fatigue:
1. Make time to relax
Rest is crucial – so don’t wait until you’re already stressed and overrun! If you can, use your vacation time to plan some R&R, or be intentional about making time to (really!) relax on your days off, nights, and weekends. In a world that is go-go-go all the time, it can be hard to just chill out.
2. Get better sleep
Just like rest, all sleep is not created equal! Getting in your 7+ hours a night is a great start, but implementing better sleep hygiene into your routine allows you to make the most of your shuteye and maximize brain restoration.
Adopting a consistent bedtime and wake time, unplugging from electronics 30 minutes before bed, and using a comfortable mattress and pillow will allow you to enjoy healthier sleep and regenerate your body and mind to perform at their best.
3. Prioritize nutrition
While stress can make us reach for unhealthy snacks to self-soothe, eating for your brain health is key to maintaining a happy and healthy cognitive function. Incorporating foods specifically rich in omega-3s and flavonoids has actually been proven to reduce brain fog!
So instead of grabbing a bag of greasy potato chips, try some dark leafy greens like spinach and broccoli, or healthy snacks like salmon, walnuts, dark chocolate, fresh berries, or citrus fruit.
4. Declutter your space
Feeling overwhelmed by the clutter? A tidy, organized environment reduces anxiety, improves your self-esteem, and makes you feel more in control.
Take some time to tidy up your home and work spaces – especially if you spend the majority of your day working remotely or in a hybrid work setup. Clean up your most frequented areas like your desk, bedroom, and kitchen (even just a little) to improve your overall mindset.
5. Move your body
While regular rest is important, don’t let that be your excuse for avoiding physical movement. Exercise reduces your stress-induced fight or flight response, regulates your emotions, lowers anxiety and depression, improves memory, and boosts your mood.
And it doesn’t have to be an intense workout (unless you want to!) – just 10 minutes a day can positively affect your mental health. For example, getting outside for a quick walk on your lunch break will get your endorphins flowing and also give you a serotonin-boosting dose of vitamin D from the sun. Bonus – if there are trees or animals to look at, both can further lift your mood and reduce stress!
6. Take back control of your calendar
What’s the best way to get something done? Give it to a busy person. Except, in all likelihood, that busy person is you, and you don’t have the time! But without defending your time on the calendar, there’s nothing to stop people from stealing it from you for their priorities.
So how do you set boundaries in your calendar? Start time blocking your own priorities. Create time blocks for all the tasks you want to accomplish this week, your regular habits like lunch, planning, or exercise, and even breaks. So if you have a big meeting on the calendar, don’t be afraid to block a short break after it to prevent your schedule from being jammed up with back-to-back meetings.
7. Say no
This might be the hardest one of all, but also the most impactful. You simply cannot do everything all the time. Spreading yourself too thin by overextending for every request is a surefire way to exhaust yourself – and saying no doesn’t have to be confrontational or intimidating.
So what are some things you can say 'no' to? For starters, there’s a good chance that you sat through a few pointless meetings this week (up to 71% are). Or as a parent, maybe you really don’t need to volunteer for the third school bake sale this year. And in your personal life, you really don’t have to rsvp to every single social invitation you receive. By simply explaining to your colleagues or friends that you don’t have the time, you can defend your time while letting them know it’s not because you don’t appreciate the offer.
8. Consider your job satisfaction
If you’re continuously stressed in your job and nearing burnout, it’s probably time to reflect on whether it is a good fit for your long-term mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, white-knuckling through a high-stress, unrewarding job is tolling no matter how many healthy habits you have in place.
A simple pros and cons list can provide good insight. Some questions to ask yourself might include: How long have I been feeling mentally exhausted by my job? How would my perfect day be different? Have I brought my concerns to my employer, and explored options with them?
9. Reach out for help
Going through mental exhaustion alone can be, well, exhausting. And if there is anything to take away from this article, it’s that you’re not alone in feeling overrun and drained from overworking your brain with too much mental activity.
Though you’re probably tempted to withdraw and isolate yourself when you’re feeling down (and taking time to rest and chill is important!) reaching out for help from your support system or from a mental health professional is always an option when you need a little extra guidance.
Hustle culture isn’t serving you 💔
Too often, hustle culture makes us set aside our own needs and boundaries to accommodate a workload that we simply don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth for. Overextending yourself week after week is not a sustainable way to be productive. Despite the old school motto of ‘keep your nose to the grindstone’, the world is changing, and employees are taking a stance for their mental health.
At Reclaim, this is beyond important to us, and one of the leading forces driving our product value for users. We automate balancing work and life so you can prevent mental fatigue with realistic planning and goals – around what you’re actually able to accomplish. Automatically defending your schedule, creating a manageable weekly work plan, and prioritizing healthy daily habits allows you to be more productive, happier, and prevent mental exhaustion from derailing you again.
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