Mental exhaustion can include both physical and emotional symptoms, including anger, sadness, and a sense of powerlessness. Furthermore, you may struggle with your work performance and overall productivity. Although mental exhaustion can certainly take a toll, you can learn how to effectively treat and overcome your symptoms.
What Is Mental Exhaustion?
Mental exhaustion (also known as burnout) can stem from long-term, chronic stress. It often coincides with feelings of helplessness and being trapped. You may feel like things will never change, at the same time recognizing that something has to. If you’re constantly overwhelmed with daily responsibilities, you may suffer from this condition. In some cases, it can be so debilitating that it makes basic tasks feel impossible. It’s important, however, to remind yourself that you can recover from burnout and exhaustion.
Mental Exhaustion vs. Stress
Everyone experiences stress, but stress itself is not the same as mental exhaustion. Some stress is acute, meaning it’s specific and time-oriented to a particular situation. Other stress is more chronic, meaning it’s prolonged and ongoing. Chronic stress can lead to mental exhaustion.1 Because it’s pervasive, its ramifications can significantly affect your physical and emotional health.
Mental Exhaustion vs. Physical Exhaustion
Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, mental and physical exhaustion are not the same. Physical exhaustion is the result of feeling physically tired. This can happen when you don’t get enough sleep or when you work beyond your physical capacity. The body may be tired, but the mind is typically alert. After getting enough rest, you feel better.
It’s important to note that chronic physical exhaustion can lead to mental exhaustion. Overextending the body without proper rest, nutrition, and relaxation can undoubtedly result in burnout symptoms. This may explain why many professional athletes experience mental exhaustion.2
Mental Exhaustion Symptoms & Signs
Mental exhaustion typically includes a combination of several symptoms. Some of these symptoms may emerge gradually as milder levels of mental fatigue. You might dismiss them for something else or ignore them completely. Others come on quickly and affect your well-being immediately.
Toxic stress is one of the leading culprits for mental exhaustion. Therefore, if you feel constantly overwhelmed and anxious by your day-to-day life, you are at a higher risk for developing these symptoms.
Emotional signs of being mentally exhausted may include:3
- Increased depression
- Constantly feeling stressed or anxious
- Lack of motivation
- Irritability and frustration
- Feeling powerless
- Suicidal thoughts
- Ongoing desires to “escape” reality
- Cynicism and pessimism
- Problems with concentration
- Productivity issues and procrastination
Physical signs of being mentally exhausted may include:
- Feeling physically exhausted
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Chronic pain
- Insomnia or other sleep issues
- Appetite changes
- Feeling “heavy” in the body and moving slowly throughout the day
- Other unexplained aches or pains
Behavioral signs of being mentally exhausted may include:4
- General disinterest in work or other obligations
- More conflict with loved ones
- Lack of concern for consequences due to missed obligations or poor performance
- Intolerance towards co-workers or clients
- Increased absenteeism at work
- Increased carelessness or lack of personal responsibility
Why Am I Mentally Exhausted?
You might be mentally exhausted if you’re working or living in a high-stress environment. Being in a high-pressure job or school program can certainly contribute to this phenomenon. Furthermore, if you lack support, healthy coping skills, and proper stress management skills, you are at an increased risk of developing unwanted symptoms.
Common causes and circumstances that cause mental exhaustion include:
- Lacking time or resources for self-care
- Starting a new position
- Financial distress
- Caregiving for a loved one
- Having a child
- Grieving a loss
- Having pre-existing symptoms of depression or anxiety
- Feeling unsupported, burnt-out, or abused in your workplace
- Experiencing other significant life changes (relocation, divorce, death of a loved one)
9 Ways to Overcome Mental Exhaustion
Mental exhaustion may feel draining and frustrating, but you can learn to manage your symptoms. Early prevention and treatment are crucial. The longer you ignore the problem, the worse the issues may become.
Nine effective ways to help manage and overcome mental exhaustion include:
1. Identify Stressors
Consider the leading triggers that may be contributing to your mental exhaustion. It might be helpful to track your emotions for a week to develop insight into specific people or circumstances that make you feel most stressed. Once you have more awareness, you can start developing strategies to cope with these challenges.
2. Focus On What You Can Control
Know that your personal efforts and decisions can affect your behavior.5 With this mindset, try to focus on what’s in your control. You may not be able to fix everything, but you can pay attention to your thoughts and responses.
3. Remove Certain Stressors
If possible, try to cut out some stressors entirely. For example, if you feel overwhelmed by laundry, consider outsourcing the service. Or, if you feel burdened by a specific administrative task, see if you can delegate it to another team member.
4. Plan Breaks
We all need time to rest and recharge, and taking breaks can help us be more productive. Build in time for breaks throughout your day. Every few months, aim to take a day off. If possible, prioritize taking a vacation when you can (though plan wisely to avoid the post-vacation blues).
5. Exercise Regularly
Physical activity can reduce stress symptoms. If you’re pressed for time, even taking a short walk or completing rigorous household chores yields positive health benefits. Aim to make regular exercise a consistent part of your routine.
6. Prioritize Sleep
Stress also tends to correlate with poor sleep. Try to optimize your sleeping arrangements by going to bed at the same time each night, investing in a high-quality mattress and set of sheets, and avoiding excess distractions before going to sleep.
7. Practice Ongoing Stress Management
To help reduce your stress levels, it’s beneficial to prioritize self-care on a regular basis. Mindfulness is an easy way to feel more present during your day. Consider taking a few deep breaths or meditating for a few minutes the next time you feel overwhelmed.
8. Ask for Help
Although it may feel embarrassing or challenging, learning to ask for support is an essential life skill. People who care about you want to help you. However, it’s your responsibility to identify what you need and reach out accordingly.
9. Consider External Changes
In some cases, you may need to reevaluate a situation altogether. This is especially true if you are in an unhealthy relationship or work in a toxic job. There are always different options, and it may be time to explore those alternatives right now.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy can offer reassurance and appropriate tools for managing your mental exhaustion. Certain treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) offer solutions for changing your thoughts and improving your coping responses. Speaking to a trusted professional can also help you feel supported and motivated during this vulnerable time.
Final Thoughts on Mental Exhaustion
If you are struggling with mental exhaustion, you’re not alone. Many people experience this issue at some point in their lives. However, you can learn how to manage and eventually overcome your symptoms. Practicing self-care, reaching out for help, and reflecting on what needs to change are the best steps for moving forward.
For Further Reading
If you’re mentally exhausted or know someone who is, here are additional resources: