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Mental exhaustion: Signs, symptoms, and strategies to help you cope

Last updated

8 December 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Today's world can feel like a treadmill that never stops and keeps going faster. If you don't control it, you will fall off the back.

Challenges and pressures from modern-day technological advancements have led to an increase in mental exhaustion. The expectation to be constantly connected and available, being bombarded and overloaded with news, social media updates, and emails, and the pressure to always be busy have affected our mental health in the form of mental exhaustion.

However, you don't have to suffer from mental exhaustion. Find out what it is, how to recognize the symptoms, and how to prevent and overcome them.

What is mental exhaustion?

Have you ever felt mentally drained and unable to focus on the simplest tasks? This mental fatigue or cognitive dulling is called mental exhaustion. Mental exhaustion evolves into a mental slowness that makes it more difficult to perform tasks.

How can you be exhausted mentally?

As your body becomes fatigued when you overwork it without rest, so does your brain. When your brain receives too much stimulation or intense levels of activity for long periods without rest, this can lead to difficulty concentrating, decreased productivity, and a decline in emotional and mental health.

Mental vs. emotional exhaustion

While mental exhaustion can cause emotional exhaustion and vice versa, the two scenarios affect your body somewhat differently. Mental fatigue affects your brain's performance, while emotional exhaustion affects how you feel.

Mental exhaustion influences cognitive skills, like memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. However, if you feel a lack of motivation to perform tasks or an emotional numbness to things you used to find interesting and exciting, you're experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Stress vs. mental exhaustion

The constant pressure of stress from all areas of your life can cause mental exhaustion. Occupational stress, fatigue, or burnout can mean you are no longer able to physically function or mentally and emotionally cope with stressful situations that never seem to end.

Busy parents balancing work and childcare, carers of chronically ill people, students under academic pressure, or small business owners navigating the challenges of a growing business are the kinds of people most likely to experience stress fatigue.

Physical exhaustion vs. mental exhaustion

Stress and mental exhaustion can affect your body, not just your mind. Signs such as lack of energy, lethargy, or extreme weariness are signs of physical fatigue. 

What is brain fog?

Brain fog is another term for mental exhaustion. When you have brain fog or fuzzy thoughts, you experience poor concentration, confusion, and thinking more slowly than usual. 

Mental exhaustion symptoms

Mental exhaustion does not only affect the brain's performance. Other signs of mental exhaustion can be seen in your body and mental state. 

Mental health and emotional signs

Depression, anxiety, and panic attacks can stem from mental exhaustion. A persistent sense of dread or sad, low, or hopeless moods accompanied by continual worry is not uncommon when experiencing mental fatigue.

You may:

  • Have difficulty processing and managing emotions

  • Feel more angry or irritable than usual

  • Have difficulty caring about anything

You can even experience suicidal thoughts when you're mentally tired.

Physical signs

When you're mentally exhausted, it’s hard for your brain to function when performing tasks. When your brain has to continue to work without rest, it has to allocate more resources to accomplish these tasks. This resource depletion makes the body physically exhausted, giving rise to symptoms. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced when there is no rest.

Some physical symptoms include:

  • Physical tiredness, even after a whole night's rest

  • Too much or too little sleep

  • Headaches, body aches, and muscle tension

  • Changes in appetite

  • Stomach and digestive issues

  • Unexplained or frequent colds

  • High blood pressure and irregular heart rate

Depression and anxiety caused by mental fatigue have been linked to high blood pressure and increased heart rates. These mental health symptoms can reduce the flow of blood to your heart and produce higher levels of stress hormones. Over time, these reactions can lead to heart disease.

Behavioral signs

Anger and irritability can cause you to lash out at people, verbally or physically. You may try escaping your mental exhaustion by using alcohol or drugs or excessively working, exercising, or playing video games.

Isolating yourself from others and out-of-character risk-taking can be other behavioral symptoms of mental fatigue.

The impacts of being mentally exhausted

Because of your behavior as a result of mental fatigue, your relationships with your family and friends can deteriorate. Lashing out, isolating yourself, and the consequences of substance abuse can impact your relationships.

Performing work tasks while mentally exhausted can lead to errors and less productivity, making you vulnerable to losing your job. To compensate, as is common in Western culture, you may find yourself relying on stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks as a temporary solution to overcome your exhaustion. However, excessive consumption of highly caffeinated beverages can be harmful over time. Depending on what type of job you do, these drinks will not prevent the effects of your mental exhaustion from compromising the safety of you and other employees.

Common causes of mental and emotional exhaustion

Pressure at work that overwhelms you with constant stress is probably the most common cause of mental and emotional exhaustion. Your social interactions, personal responsibilities, and financial situation may also present challenges, resulting in fatigue.

In addition, when this fatigue begins to manifest, you can fall further and further behind on important tasks. The weight of having to decide to either attempt to continue working to complete these tasks or drop them entirely can increase the level of fatigue exponentially.

Demands of work

Mental and emotional exhaustion can result from the constant pressure of juggling multiple responsibilities, meeting deadlines and expectations, and the demand to always be available. This situation can cause a heightened level of continuous stress and upset your work-life balance.

Having to address countless emails and constantly focusing on the computer screen during video meetings can also add to your exhaustion.

Online social interactions

Although social media is an excellent way of maintaining social contact with a huge number of people worldwide, it can also lead to stress, resulting in mental and emotional exhaustion. Feeling the constant pressure to be connected, the need to be constantly updated and validated, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) on the positive experiences of others may prevent you from disconnecting and taking a break.

In addition, the mental stress of creating and maintaining an ideal version of your life as compared to others on social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. When you compare your situation to others online, who often embellish their reality, this can make you strive for unrealistic personal success and happiness, resulting in mental exhaustion.

Personal responsibilities

Becoming a parent for the first time or caring for a sick family member may impact your mental well-being. This unfamiliar, increased responsibility may cause you to feel overwhelmed and mentally drained. In addition, the lack of sleep and less self-care you might be experiencing due to your added responsibilities may contribute to your mental exhaustion.

Financial worries

Fourteen million Americans have over $10,000 of credit card debt, and 15% of Americans have had credit card debt since before 2006.

Constant panic, stress, and anxiety can result when you feel like you'll never be able to pay off your credit card debt. You amplify these conditions when you need to use credit cards to cover essential living expenses or have lost your job and spent considerable time looking for a new one. These financial worries can drain you mentally to the point of giving up.

Ways to overcome mental exhaustion

Now that you can recognize mental exhaustion and what the source might be, knowing methods to overcome it will help you get back to feeling rested and mentally efficient sooner rather than later.

Some tips on how to recover from mental exhaustion include:

  • Remove the stressor

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Get more sleep

  • Exercise

  • Check in with basic needs

  • Reconsider your working conditions

  • Learn how to better control and manage your personal finances to relieve stress

Sleep and relaxation are the best ways to deal with mental exhaustion. However, if being mentally exhausted prevents you from sleeping or causes difficulty in relaxing, other methods like exercising and removing the root cause of your mental fatigue will help you recover from the mental exhaustion you feel. They will also increase your ability to sleep and relax.

How do you mentally rest?

Reduce the amount of screen time you typically have during the day and put your devices away an hour before bed. At work, take short breaks throughout the day. These breaks help maintain high levels of productivity, energy levels, and your ability to focus without the possibility of fatigue setting in. Take a day or two before and after a vacation to decompress.

Preventing mental exhaustion

Make sure you get seven to nine hours of sleep at night and increase your level of self-care by taking the time to:

  • Exercise

  • Eat healthily

  • Enjoy relaxing activities

  • Focus on positivity and gratitude

Also, limit your alcohol intake. Regularly drinking alcohol can interfere with your sleep patterns and harm your mental health and well-being. Setting boundaries, especially regarding your work-life balance, is also key to preventing mental exhaustion.

Taking a vacation can offer a fresh perspective on your daily life, providing another way to circumvent mental exhaustion. While vacations can be costly, managing your finances to allow these opportunities to relax and recharge should be considered a priority.

When should you go to a wellness or healthcare specialist?

If you've done everything you can to overcome mental exhaustion but nothing seems to help, talk to a wellness or healthcare specialist. They can offer suggestions unique to your situation.

You should especially see a professional if you're experiencing depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts because of mental exhaustion. Also, see a wellness or healthcare professional if you find yourself self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. A specialist can help you deal with your mental fatigue in other ways.

Know how to recognize and overcome mental exhaustion

Mental exhaustion, especially long-term mental fatigue, can harm your personal relationships and professional expectations. It’s important to recognize your mental exhaustion and its source as soon as possible. Then, you can incorporate techniques to combat fatigue and get your mental clarity back.

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