Mental fatigue defined: Also known as mental exhaustion or burnout; it arises from prolonged stress – whether it comes from work, relationships, life events, or all of these.
After you’ve been physically working for a while then your body may begin to feel tired and drained. Suppose you continually ignore the physical symptoms from overwork and do not rest. Therefore, your body will begin to show wear and tear and start to break down, eventually forcing you to stop through injury and exhaustion. Even if we were not engaging in excess physical demands but were continuously fed unhealthy food, unclean enough water, and got too little sleep, soon enough, our physical bodies would stop functioning. Consequently, when your brain is exhausted, it could be suffered from mental fatigue.
What are you feeding your brain?
Let’s take a moment to check how we treat our mental ‘bodies’. Are we aware of what we are ‘feeding’ our minds from all external and internal input? How much noise is there in our lives? How much unnecessary information? Think of your typical day. Is there enough time set aside for quiet, where our minds are at rest? Or is there a steady stream of input coming in without a break? What’s the quality of that input? Are there healthy, loving thoughts about ourselves and our lives? Today, that isn’t very likely… we are bombarded with information from all directions, methods and means – marketing companies have explored every possible way of getting our attention. Our workplaces have become more demanding and technology has found its way into every moment of our day, both awake and asleep.
Recently we have been immersed in tremendous fear, anxiety and worry with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has turned mental fatigue into a widespread global issue. Using our analogy of the physical body, can you begin to see how the way we are living today wreaks havoc on our mental ‘bodies’?
Stress levels and metal fatigue
Chronic or long-term stress can play a role in mental exhaustion. The biological response to stress involves a surge of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which give you the energy and mental clarity needed in high-pressure situations requiring you to think or act appropriately. Once a person has dealt with or removed the stressor, the body’s hormones should go back to typical levels. However, if we are continually stimulated, and our cortisol levels remain high, our body and brain don’t get the chance to rest, recharge and reset. Without the required rest, our hormone levels may become permanently affected, and we may become ‘stuck’ in patterns where unhealthy mental and physical states become normalised.
For example, if someone is living in an environment that continually triggers anxiety or feelings of fear, they are likely to become familiar with these feelings and the neural and hormonal reactions that are produced. In contrast, a person whose experience is dominated by feelings of security, love and care likely will become familiar with the physiological patterns associated with these feelings.
Symptoms of mental fatigue
Mental fatigue may be an underlying symptom of other mental health conditions. If left untreated, it can seriously impair the quality of your life. Working with a therapist can help you strengthen your insight and develop better tools for managing your triggers. Symptoms can include:
- Difficulty with concentration and memory
- Brain fog
- Increased irritability or anger
- Anxiety, depression, hopelessness and low mood
- Sense of detachment and cynicism
- Feeling overwhelmed and not wanting to engage in everyday activities
- Reduced energy, motivation or exhaustion
- Reduced interest in activities that an individual used to enjoy
Overcoming mental fatigue
Unfortunately, years and years of unruly, unrestrained mental activity and input may have created some bad habits. However, there are many ways to help ease and recover from mental exhaustion; firstly, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and exercising a few times a week are essential starting points.
Next, assess where you can reduce the amount of mental stimulus and unnecessary input in your day. Where can you be more selective? Do you need the tv on when you’re not watching, or can you drive without the radio playing? How about negative conversations, full of gossip or irrelevant to you – are they something you can do without? What about the habitual negative inner critic and self-talk? Can you recognise it and then choose not to engage or indulge in it? All these seemingly small things take up valuable mental energy.
Additional tips for overcoming mental fatigue include:
- Removing the stressor(s) if possible
- Taking regular breaks
- Spending some time outside in nature
- Practising self-care every day
- Reaching out for help when you need it
- Setting firmer boundaries around working hours
- Limiting distractions and screentime
- Letting go of perfectionism, overthinking and self-criticism
- Practising mindful relaxation
Just as you would exercise and feed your physical body with care and nurturance, mindfulness-based interventions nurture and heal the exhausted mind and improve emotion and attention regulation. It’s going to take practice…. From as little as ten minutes every day – so that you can take a break from all the noise, learn to still your mind, become aware of your limitations and learn to tune in to what’s best for your mental health and well-being.
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Mizuno K. et al. (2011). Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity. DOI: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-17
Reina, C. S., & Kudesia, R. S. (2020). Wherever you go, there you become: How mindfulness arises in everyday situations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 159, 78-96.
Tran, Y., Craig, A., Craig, R., Chai, R., & Nguyen, H. (2020). The influence of mental fatigue on brain activity: Evidence from a systematic review with meta‐analyses. Psychophysiology, 57(5), e13554.