Are you dealing with mental fatigue?
Picture this scenario: You head to work, feeling as though you’re well-rested, and midway through your morning, you’re already tired. You’re drained and worn out, even though your day is barely started.
Or, through the course of a relatively light day of work — no meetings, no taxing decisions, no major fires to put out — you feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Or, you get these same feelings — mental tiredness, lack of brainpower to process even the simplest thoughts — on a Saturday, when things are at their least stressful.
If any of the above sounds familiar or you’ve had bouts with exhaustion, decreased motivation, lack of sleep or loss of appetite, or sustained irritability, you’re most likely suffering from mental fatigue.
Without proper care and attention to your mental health, mental fatigue can turn into far more severe conditions, including:
- Fluctuations in weight
- Increased susceptibility to illness
In this guide, we’re going to break down what mental fatigue is, what causes it, and how you can overcome it.
What Is Mental Fatigue And What Causes It?
Mental fatigue or mental exhaustion is just that, the sense that your brain is running on empty. You can’t think clearly. It’s a challenge to process even the simplest information. You’re mentally and emotionally drained.
For many individuals, they feel like their mind is in a constant fog.
A few examples of mental fatigue might include:
- Asking someone the same question twice, without realizing it
- Having to review basic information multiple times before grasping it
- Snapping at unsuspecting friends, family, or coworkers over petty irritations
Concentration on any one task is nearly impossible, you have trouble focusing or maintaining focus, and even small things seem impossible.
Mental fatigue can happen to anyone at any time, especially those who’ve experienced very little rest over a certain period. Stress is a common trigger and the brain fog can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
For many people, rest is the solution to mental fatigue. In other instances, by simply stepping away from the source of stress for a while, you can take back control of your mental state.
For others, however, mental exhaustion may prove debilitating. If not dealt with properly, it can cause serious health issues that go way beyond brain fog.
In extreme cases, mental fatigue may lead to detachment and isolation from others, deep feelings of anger, apathy, or hopelessness.
Symptoms of mental exhaustion
Although mental exhaustion is primarily associated with your mental health, it can also be detrimental to your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Emotionally, you can experience:
- Anxiety and depression
- Feeling really unmotivated
- Irritability (often increasing in intensity as the fatigue worsens)
- Lack of productivity
- Trouble focusing on even the simplest, most straightforward tasks
- Feeling less positive and more pessimistic
- Anger at the smallest issues or inconveniences
- Lack of concern for yourself or those around you (even those you care about)
- Isolation or detachment from others, either on purpose or subconsciously
- Sense of impending dread or constant hopelessness
From a physical standpoint, mental exhaustion may result in:
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain or loss (often dramatic changes)
- Aches and pains
- Chronic physical fatigue, weakness, tiredness
- Trouble sleeping, including insomnia
- Greater susceptibility to illness
Chronic mental fatigue will heighten physical and emotional symptoms. What may otherwise be a minor headache can become a crushing pain when mentally exhausted. A fleeting bout of anxiety in normal circumstances can result in uncontrolled worry.
Outward signs of mental fatigue
Beyond your mental or physical state, mental fatigue will also impact your behavior. If left unchecked, it can create rifts in your relationships, both personal and professional.
Mental fatigue places a strain on your social interactions, either causing you to lash out at others or withdraw from those closest to you.
You can also experience a sudden lack of motivation. The worse the mental exhaustion, the more likely you are to call in sick, look for reasons to avoid or miss work, or reject social or work-related commitments.
In the worst cases, your productivity may drop dramatically, and you may not recognize the person you’ve become.
Causes of mental exhaustion
Mental fatigue can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and in any environment. It can be caused by many different factors, both personal and professional.
Some causes of mental fatigue and exhaustion include:
- Jobs with high levels of stress
- Working extended periods without taking breaks
- Having to make too many decisions, leading to decision fatigue
- Constantly switching between tasks
- Poor balance between your personal and professional life
- Lack of satisfaction with your current job situation or being unemployed
- Financial struggles
- Living with a serious illness of having chronic health issues
- Having to care for someone with a serious illness or who has chronic health issues
- Being isolated socially
Bottom line: If you don’t pay close attention to your emotional health, social support system, or overall work-life balance, you’re more susceptible to mental fatigue.
8 Scientifically Proven Strategies For Overcoming Mental Fatigue
Thankfully, if you suffer from mental fatigue, there are ways to alleviate the mental drain.
From changes in lifestyle and work habits to taking time for yourself, eliminating exhaustion isn’t difficult. It does, however, require developing healthy habits and sticking to them.
Structure your day to match rising and falling energy levels
One of the first steps to reducing mental fatigue is getting in tune with how your energy levels rise and fall. Even at your most rested, you deal with ebbs and flows of energy throughout your day.
Everyone does. You have periods of high-energy and moments when that energy wanes. These up and down cycles are called “ultradian rhythms”, and each cycle lasts somewhere between 90 to 120 minutes.
In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz note:
These ultradian rhythms help to account for the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle—and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery.
You’re at your most productive in 90 to 120-minute peak energy cycles and your least productive during 20-minute “troughs” in between.
To take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms, figure out when your peaks and valleys occur and schedule your day’s task around them. To learn your ultradian rhythms, keep a log for a few weeks of your energy levels each hour. This will give you a fairly good feel for when your energy is at its highest and when you need to take breaks. Alternatively, you can use the Rise sleep app to help you calculate your ultradian rhythms.
Structure your day so that your work on your most important tasks when your energy levels are highest. When your energy levels dip, tackle the mundane stuff – answer email, review reports or saved articles, or perform low-priority tasks that don’t demand too much or your brainpower.
Spend energy on high-value activities
If you want to make the most of your brainpower, don’t let it go to waste. Like a vehicle left out in the elements to rust and decay, your brain loses its edge when it’s not regularly challenged or engaged. When you’re less engaged, it’s easier for mental fatigue to creep in.
Build your mental strength by engaging in high-value activities, like reading books (and not Facebook), learning a new skill, or doing hobbies and tasks that enrich you. Find activities and socialize with individuals that will improve your quality of life.
Obviously, there’s a time and place for turning your brain off and binging Netflix. But when your mind is constantly engaged in things you find fulfilling or with people you value, your mental health is less likely to suffer.
Eat foods that will fuel your brain
This is somewhat obvious, but it needs to be stated. Nutrition is a key factor in staying healthy and performing at peak levels.
Simply put, eating good foods will make you feel good. Eating bad foods will make you feel bad.
If you want to keep your mind at peak performance, eliminate refined sugars and heavily processed foods from your diet. Limit caffeine. When you eat, focus on proteins and snack wisely. Avoid candy bars or chips in favor of nuts (such as almonds), fruits, and whole grains.
Additionally, drink lots of water. Aside from the headaches it can create, dehydration impacts your ability to think, reason, and process information. Staying hydrated also maintains your energy levels and keeps fatigue at bay.
Reduce decision fatigue
If you’ve ever felt drained after having to make a bunch of decisions, then you know what decision fatigue is.
In addition to draining on your ability to think clearly, decision fatigue can drain you physically. It can feel like you have a thousand pounds of weight on your head and your shoulders.
To avoid decision fatigue, which often comes from taking on too many tasks at one time, try setting aside specific blocks of time to address specific tasks.
For example, if you’re like most, you read and respond to email throughout the day. Instead, set aside a block of time in the morning and afternoon to address them all at once. Use Freedom to block your email except for those set times.
In addition, take on your most important or pressing projects early in the day when your alertness and energy levels are at their highest. Your mental abilities will be clearer, your mind more focused, and your attention span longer.
By optimizing your time and keeping your attention on one thing at a time, you’ll be more focused on the decision-making process without them overwhelming you mentally.
Of all the ways to beat mental fatigue, eliminating distractions is perhaps the most straightforward. And the most difficult to master.
After all, with so many online distractions to steal your attention from what’s truly important, wasting time is a modern-day pastime. Surfing the internet, scrolling through Facebook, watching YouTube videos, perusing Pinterest, curating playlists on Spotify, playing any number of addictive app games. And on and on.
All of this sensory overload, however, also overloads our brains. The more we engage with time-wasting distractions, the more stress they can create.
Use Freedom to block the apps and websites that distract and overload your brain. Create a recurring session every morning so that you do deep work first rather than wasting time doomscrolling on Facebook.
Make exercise and sleep priorities
When it comes to your mental health, exercise and sleep are invaluable.
With exercise, it doesn’t require the time commitment as many people think. Moderate exercise – walking at a brisk pace every day for 20 to 30 minutes – can do wonders for your mental well-being.
Beyond helping you get into better shape physically, exercise boosts your immune system and increases endurance. It’s also a great stress reducer and will improve both your mood and anxiety levels.
It’s critical that whatever your exercise routine, it’s easy for you to follow and stick to.
Sleep is also critical. Few things will improve your health faster than getting consistent, sustained periods of sleep. And the truth is, how you sleep (i.e. sleep hygiene) is equally as important as how much.
Your environment should be conducive to a good night’s rest. The room should be dark, quiet, and at a cool, comfortable temperature. Try to avoid electronics, particularly smartphones and tablets, at least two to three hours before bed. (Reading a physical book before bed is perfectly okay.)
As with exercise, create a sleep routine that is consistent and easily repeatable. Keep it calm and ensure that it occurs at the same time every evening (and that you wake up at the same time, too) to ensure the best night’s rest.
Take regular breaks throughout the workday
Conventional wisdom says that the harder you work, and the fewer breaks you take, the more productive you’ll be. While it may feel like you’re getting more done by “powering through,” the opposite is true.
The reality is that your work slows, your focus drifts, and you grow less productive as the day wears on. You also stand a greater chance of increasing your stress levels versus those who take periodic breaks during the day.
Get up from your desk. Take a walk or do some other form of exercise. Sit outside. Visit with fellow coworkers for a few minutes about something other than work.
Even if it’s just for five to ten minutes, briefly removing yourself from the stresses of your day can be very calming. It also gives your mind a break and lets you quickly recharge for the next block of tasks.
Embrace the power nap
Finally, if your brain is on overload, or it feels like your mind is about to melt, shut it down, unplug it, and take a nap. Seriously.
Naps, especially power naps, are the equivalent of plugging in your smartphone in the middle of the day to get a little extra charge.
You may not be tired. You may still have plenty of gas in the tank. But a quick nap between 10 to 30 minutes can get your energy and performance back to their early morning levels.
Albert Einstein used naps to power his brain. His strategy was to hold something in his hand that would make a loud noise when it hit the floor. He would then settle into his armchair and nap until his hand relaxed and the thing he was holding hit the floor. This would allow him to drift into a light doze without falling into a deep sleep.
Take Back Your Brain
Mental fatigue and exhaustion is a serious condition. Not only does it impact your mental and physical health, but it can also harm your productivity at work and your personal relationships at home.
Worse, it can change who you are as an individual, result in depression, and seriously limit your capacity to function normally.
However, by taking stock of your mental health and employing one or more of the above methods for addressing mental fatigue, you’ll find yourself healthier, far more focused, and free from debilitating stress.