What Exactly Is Mental Exhaustion? Symptoms, Causes & How To Manage
Physical health and mental health go hand in hand—and it's crucial to remember emotional fitness is a vital piece of your overall well-being puzzle. Think of it this way: After a tough workout, it's typical to have sore muscles the next day. The cognitive equivalent would be experiencing chronic stress over an extended period of time. If there isn't any recovery time, your brain hits a wall and your intellectual capacities tire out.
If you've been feeling stressed and inexplicably worn down lately, you may be mentally exhausted.
Here's everything you need to know about mental exhaustion.
What is mental exhaustion?
Psychologist Sheva Assar, Ph.D., defines mental exhaustion as a state of significant mental fatigue that negatively affects cognitive processes as a result of prolonged stressors. "[It's] often accompanied by negative changes in our thinking styles, concentration, and memory, as well as different forms of emotional and physical distress," she says.
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Assar points out the stressors can be twofold: internal, such as holding on to perfectionistic tendencies and having too many expectations of oneself in the midst of uncertainty; and external, from juggling responsibilities, life changes, conflict, and other mental health symptoms on top of everything else going on.
Simply put, the brain isn't meant to fire on all cylinders and handle extreme mental stimulation constantly without meaningful rest in between.
Symptoms of mental exhaustion.
When you're experiencing mental exhaustion, experts say here are some signs you may notice:
Mental exhaustion can affect your body and manifest psychosomatically. As stressors accumulate with limited relief, it may cause mysterious bodily ailments that seemingly come out of nowhere.
Assar says to look out for some of these signals:
- headaches and achy muscles
- tension in one area or throughout your body
- sleep difficulties and/or insomnia
- greater effort needed to complete everyday tasks
- physical fatigue and lethargy
Have things been feeling hopeless lately? Don't be so quick to disregard it for just plain apathy. "Mental exhaustion can negatively influence your thinking patterns and mental processes," Assar says. If you're becoming quick-tempered and snappier more often, you're probably emotionally drained.
Psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein, Ph.D., and Assar share some signs to look out for:
- brain fog and decreased mental clarity
- scattered thoughts
- mind goes blank and you may zone out often
- negative/cynical outlook with feelings of irritability
- poor concentration from being distracted
- having problems retaining and recalling information
- feelings sad and worried more than usual
- experiencing negative thoughts about your current experiences, future, work/personal relationships
"Experiencing a state of mental exhaustion can make you more vulnerable to experiencing emotional distress," Assar says. The distress is a low-level feeling of anguish that saturates your life with a sense of unpleasantness, which makes it difficult to express and process feelings healthily.
If you're mentally exhausted, you may begin to feel:
- a strong sense of overwhelm
- helplessness and numbness
- anxiousness with feelings of sadness
- unmotivated, like nothing matters
- being on edge
As your mental levels deplete, you may start to react to situations counterintuitively since you won't have the energy to do what's best for you. Assar says if you find yourself stopping your usual self-care routine and engaging in unhealthy, unhelpful behaviors, that's a sign you need to recalibrate.
Other behavioral signs include:
- withdrawing from people
- calling out from work and/or canceling plans
- procrastination and/or avoidance
- decreased self-efficacy with your goals and dreams
- increased conflict in your life
- limiting interactions with loved ones
- no longer doing activities you used to enjoy
- difficulties in effectively completing tasks and/or not meeting work deadlines
How is it different from other mental health struggles?
According to Assar, mental exhaustion can be challenging to identify since it progresses so gradually. But unlike other mental health struggles, mental exhaustion is when your brain operates at lower levels due to ongoing, unmanaged stress. Once you take a substantive break and incorporate regular rest into your life, the mental exhaustion typically goes away as well.
"When you are experiencing normal stressors, they are often time-limited, [meaning] you are able to identify a time that you'll be able to experience some relief and identify what would be most helpful to you in the moment," Assar says. As a result, stress feels more manageable and it's easier to return to homeostasis once the situation passes. However, Assar says, mental exhaustion is an overwhelming feeling with limited opportunities for relief. Since you feel too emotionally fatigued to change things, you may feel out of control or trapped in your situation.
Anxiety is a symptom of mental exhaustion, but it's not the primary feature of the condition. Mental exhaustion consists of feeling cognitively overworked. On the other hand, anxiety is a normal response to triggers and stress. If it's pervasive, it may also show up as an anxiety disorder.
Burnout is an occupational phenomenon from feeling overwhelmed with job responsibilities, whereas mental exhaustion can occur from any stressful situation as long as it's persistent. "Mental exhaustion is one component of burnout, but burnout consists of other elements like cynicism and detachment [along with] a decreased sense of accomplishment." Rubenstein notes.
"Mental exhaustion is seen a lot with depression, but it is not the same," Rubenstein differentiates. "Depression is a mood disorder, which is a cluster of symptoms experienced consistently for at least two weeks. Mental exhaustion is a symptom that can come and go."
What can cause mental exhaustion?
Mental exhaustion happens when rest isn't proportional to the emotional and mental energy that you're expending throughout the day. Similar to a physical workout, your brain capacity also needs time to recoup from stressors through leisure and relaxation.
There are many potential chronic causes of mental exhaustion but it includes pandemic anxiety, relentless work obligations, little to no work-life balance, financial worries, domestic responsibilities, dissatisfaction with one or several areas of your life, and major life events.
6 tips for managing mental exhaustion:
1. Limit use of social media and screen time.
"Your mind is constantly taking in content that is either stimulating or negative. This can be draining to your emotional and cognitive processing, as well as interfere with healthy habits like sleep," Assar says. Taking a break from the never-ending content and screen time will help regulate your neurotransmitters and reduce stress.
2. Engage in a nightly routine and get good-quality sleep.
"Our sleep quality can have a significant impact on energy, cognitive processing, emotional well-being, and more! Consider taking time each night to engage in activities that are relaxing to you on a holistic level and will help you in being able to sleep," Assar says. This can look like putting away electronics an hour before bed and intentionally using that time to recharge with journaling or a mindfulness exercise.
3. Take intentional and relaxing breaks throughout the day.
According to Assar, this can look like engaging in a deep breathing exercise, taking a walk around the neighborhood, doing a light stretch, or checking in with oneself. "Taking a few minutes between different activities and tasks can help you experience some separation between the tasks, refocus your attention on the new tasks at hand, contribute to feelings of motivation and positive emotions, as well as giving your mind and body some time to rejuvenate."
4. Engage in daily self-care.
"Dedicate time each day for you to engage in self-care such as regular exercise, connecting with at least one person a day, [doing] a gratitude practice, or being outside in nature," Assar recommends. These refreshing activities can boost good chemicals in your body, which helps alleviate symptoms. "It is important to take a holistic approach to improving mental exhaustion by focusing on a combination of self-care and effective emotional/physical coping skills on a regular basis."
5. Cross items off your to-do list.
"Making a to-do list of all the things that are contributing to your stress or that you need to complete can provide some relief," Assar says. "It can be relieving to identify and visually see what you need to do to reduce your overwhelm." It doesn't have to be goals related to productivity either; you can make a to-do list for relaxation so it's prioritized in your life.
6. Reduce the stressors.
"Mental exhaustion is often overlooked as just a normal part of life, but it can feel anything but 'normal,'" Rubenstein says. "Work on reducing draining activities and increasing refueling activities. It's important to replace what is exhausting you with fuel that energizes you." These activities can look like cozying up to a new film, dancing to your favorite music, calling a friend to catch up, or ordering delicious food for the evening. If you're looking for more immediate results, removing the stressor will offer the most relief. It's easier said than done, but it will help with your health in the long run.
What can you do if it's due to circumstances you can't control?
"Even if circumstances can't change, it's helpful to look at a person's response to the circumstance," Rubenstein advises. "Instead of focusing externally, look inward [since] this is what the person has the most control over and is the easiest place to start." By changing your response to stress positively, you can experience more relief.
On top of focusing on what you can control, it's imperative to also center self-care in your life. Set aside mindful time whenever you can to cultivate stillness and breathe into the present moment. All of these micro-moments eventually add up. Mental exhaustion makes it hard to maintain healthy coping skills, but Assar says it'll be a needed practice to take on so that symptoms don't intensify and lead to burnout.
When to seek extra help.
Assar recommends seeking professional help if the mental exhaustion is persisting and worsening in your life and you're not sure what to do to start feeling better. "Ultimately, people should reach out whenever they feel like they would benefit from additional support; however, some signs that someone would benefit from professional support is if their distress is interfering with their day-to-day life functioning and quality of life."
If a loved one is experiencing mental exhaustion, she encourages being a reassuring presence for them. Let them know you're there and that they can always reach out to you if they need someone to talk to. "You can also discuss the benefits of professional support and help to reduce the stigma that a person may have in relation to mental health treatment."
Although it's easy to wave away mental exhaustion in the moment, it can have debilitating long-term effects. You don't have to feel like you're always in an emotional malaise—things can get better by incorporating rituals into your schedule where you don't have to be "on" and you can just be. Paying attention to your emotional state in all of its nuance and focusing on preventive self-care will help improve your mental health.