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What is Mental Exhaustion? 9 Tips to Prevent a Tired Brain

Everyone knows the feeling of tiredness after a long day's work. Heavy eyelids, a foggy mind, and a longing for the comfort of bed. But what happens when each passing week leaves you feeling a little more exhausted? Maybe you're facing down a task list you can't seem to catch up with, high-pressure deadlines that keep piling on, along with a few personal life curveballs to top it all off. If you've been struggling to shake the stress and are feeling perpetually drained every day -- it's very possible that you are experiencing mental fatigue.

High-stress periods tire you out mentally and emotionally, and an exhausted brain can make everyday life that much more challenging. You might have a hard time concentrating on simple tasks, find your mood down, your irritability high, and feel like everyday responsibilities are suddenly huge 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 their days, and 41% said they feel burnt out by their work. 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 mental exhaustion, and habits to help prevent this kind of burnout in the future. In this post, we'll explain what mental fatigue is, its major causes and symptoms, and share some helpful tips on how to prevent and overcome mental exhaustion across your personal and work life.

What is mental fatigue? 

What exactly is mental fatigue? And how is it different from regular stress or job burnout? Mental fatigue is a chronic state of stress and exhaustion forced on your brain due to intense ongoing mental activity.

While stress, job burnout, and mental fatigue often overlap and contribute to one another -- mental fatigue, also known as cognitive dulling, is characterized as a general and chronic condition, while stress is generally temporary, and burnout is typically referred to as a workplace phenomenon.

Mental exertion.) (and exhaustion) is not unlike physical exertion. When we push ourselves too hard and for too long with cognitively and emotionally demanding tasks, we can eventually wear our brains out. A stressed brain will try to keep up in survival mode, but without recovery, will become overwhelmed beyond its cognitive capacity to the point where daily functions can become 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 a lot like what you're going through? Let's go through some common symptoms of mental exhaustion, and factors that can contribute to brain fatigue.

What causes mental exhaustion?

Mental exhaustion is typically caused by prolonged exposure to stress. Whether in your personal and/or professional life, stressors from an increased cognitive load (like a more work responsibilities due to The Great Resignation), dealing with an intense personal experience (like losing a loved one) and/or decreased resources (like getting less sleep, or less personal time), the brain becomes overworked from constantly having to be attentive and can shut down -- leaving you feeling drained and overrun.

Here are some examples of what causes mental fatigue:

  • Overwhelming workload

  • High-pressure demanding job

  • Job dissatisfaction

  • Family or at-home stress

  • Big 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 common causes of mental fatigue, it is not an exhaustive list. The reality is, anything that causes you 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 load. 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? Have I neglected any healthy habits or needs I should be prioritizing?

What are the side effects and symptoms of mental fatigue?

As mental fatigue starts to creep in due to extended exposure to stress or emotional overwhelm, your brain eventually becomes too tired to function properly -- affecting your wellbeing, productivity, memory, and decision-making skills across all areas of your life.

In your professional world, mental exhaustion can make you feel discouraged about work, struggle to focus on your tasks, and prevent you from meeting 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 turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking or drugs, and increased feelings of anxiety and depression about everything. Other negative side effects can look like feeling generally hopeless or numb about the state of your life, and withdrawing from friends and family.

Mental fatigue can show up differently in everyone, but here are the 10 most common signs of mental exhaustion to look out for:

  1. Feeling perpetually tired

  2. Having trouble sleeping

  3. Getting sick more often

  4. Changes in appetite

  5. Irritability and mood sensitivity

  6. Trouble focusing on tasks

  7. Increased anxiety and depression

  8. Reduced cognitive flexibility

  9. Detachment or apathy

  10. Constantly feeling overwhelmed

Mental exhaustion symptoms can dramatically affect your day-to-day professional and personal life which is why it's so essential to be in-tune to changes in your behavior and feelings -- especially in times of stress. At the first sign of these symptoms, evaluate your circumstance and be prepared to implement treatment to aid your tired brain. Mental fatigue is no joke, and if you're currently in the depths of it, know that you can get through. Let's dive into overcoming mental exhaustion.

9 tips to prevent & overcome mental exhaustion

If you're hitting a lot of these red flag symptoms, it's time to take a look at how to combat mental fatigue.

In order to make impactful improvements to your wellbeing, you should not be looking for a one-time quick fix. Overcoming and preventing mental fatigue requires adopting long-term positive habits. While taking a break may buy you a couple more weeks, it's only a matter of time before you end up in the same position without implementing healthy changes to your weekly routine.

Here are the top 9 tips to prevent and overcome mental fatigue: 

1. Make time to relax 

Rest is crucial -- so don't wait to prioritize it until you're already stressed and overrun! If you can, use your vacation time to plan some R&R, and/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.

Unwind by doing a digital detox, practicing mindfulness, or take a deserved afternoon on the couch to watch TV, start a new book, or do absolutely nothing.

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 bed-time 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 want to reach for unhealthy snacks to self-soothe, eating for your brain health is a key factor in maintaining a happy and healthy cognitive function. Incorporating foods that are specifically rich in omega-3s and flavonoids have been proven to help with brain fog!

So instead of grabbing for a bag of greasy potato chips, try some dark leafy greens like spinach and broccoli, salmon, walnuts, dark chocolate, fresh berries, or citrus fruit.

4. Declutter your space

Feeling overwhelmed by the clutter? Having an organized and tidy environment reduces anxiety, improves your self-esteem, and can make you feel more in control.

Take some time to tidy up your home and work spaces -- especially if you're spending the majority of your day in the house working remotely or in a hybrid work setup. Clean up your frequented areas like your desk, your bedroom, and your kitchen (even just a little) to improve your overall mindset.

5. Move your body 

While regular rest is important, it's also not an excuse to get out of stretching those muscles once in a while. 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 have a positive effect on your mental health. For example, getting outside for a quick walk on your lunch break not only gets the endorphins flowing, but also gives you a serotonin boosting dose of vitamin-D from the sun. Bonus if there are trees or animals to look at, both of which 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 the tasks you want to get through this week, your regular habits like lunch, weekly planning, or exercise, even breaks after meetings so you and if you have a big meeting on the calendar, don't be afraid to block a short break for yourself afterwards so you're not leaving yourself open for a back-to-back meeting.

7. Say no to things that you don't have time or energy for

This might be the hardest one of all, but one of the most important. You simply cannot (and don't need to!) do everything all the time. Spreading yourself too thin by overextending 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 to get your time back? For starters, there's a good chance that you sat through a few pointless meetings this week (up to 71% are). As a parent, maybe you really don't need to be volunteering for the third school bake sale this year, and in your personal life, you really don't have to say yes to every social invitation you receive. By simply explaining to your colleagues or friends that you don't have the availability, 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 if you need it 

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 might want to withdraw and isolate when you feel down -- and taking time to rest and chill is important! -- reaching out for help from your support system or from a 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 so we can accommodate a workload beyond our capacity 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 main forces driving our product and the value we provide for our users. We automate balancing work and life so you can prevent mental fatigue with realistic planning and goal setting around what you're actually able to accomplish. Automatically defending your schedule, creating a manageable weekly work plan, and prioritizing healthy habits every day allows you to be more productive, happier, and prevent mental exhaustion from derailing you again.

Top comments (1)

jschleigher profile image
James Schleigher

Time blocking is very important! Although my work is always busy, I schedule a short break every hour and take a walk during lunch break. It can help to maintain my focus and refresh my mind at the same time. I like that many task management software offer a calendar feature so I can organize my tasks and easily scan my schedule for the day. So far, I like to use Tick Tick and Quire.