Woman holding mug
Share on Pinterest

Mentally exhausted, burned out, brain fried — whatever you want to call it, it happens to all of us at some point. It tends to sneak up on you after periods of stress or heavy thinking.

You probably don’t have any trouble recognizing when you’re physically exhausted. Your limbs might feel heavy, your eyes droopy, your energy zapped. But knowing when you’re mentally exhausted can be trickier.

“It’s easy to get so busy juggling everything you have on your plates that you fail to recognize when you’re headed toward mental exhaustion or burnout,” says Megan MacCutcheon, LPC.

How can you tell if you’re dealing with mental fatigue? MacCutcheon advises watching for:

  • feeling overwhelmed or run down
  • feeling out of touch with your feelings and emotions
  • lacking enthusiasm for things that typically bring you joy
  • stomachaches and digestive problems
  • head pain
  • changes in appetite
  • sleep problems, including disrupted sleep or fatigue

You might also experience other changes in mood or emotions. Cynicism, apathy, lack of motivation, and trouble focusing can all be signs of an overworked brain.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, here are some tips to help you recharge and avoid future burnout.

Your mind and body don’t exist independently of each other. There’s a lot to be said about the importance of the mind-body connection, but here’s one key to keep in mind: What’s good for one is often good for the other.

Don’t skimp on sleep

Sleep may take a backseat to everything else when you’re under a lot of stress. But your body needs sleep even more than usual when you have a lot going on.

Cutting back on sleep may seem like a good way to get more things done, but the more likely outcome is that you’ll feel exhausted and take longer to get things done.

The amount of sleep each person needs can vary, but aim for 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night.

Eat well

Regardless of whether you’re dealing with mental or physical fatigue, exhaustion could make you turn to comforting or soothing foods, especially those that are quick and easy.

Depending on your preferences, these foods may have a lot of sugar, or empty calories. There’s nothing wrong with having a treat, and any kind of food is better than no food. But for an added cognitive boost, try to make sure you’re getting helpful nutrients.

Brain foods

Foods to try include:

  • high-fiber foods like oatmeal, beans, and nuts
  • protein-rich foods like yogurt, lean meats, eggs, and fatty fish
  • whole fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries, broccoli, and oranges
  • whole grains

Also, take care to stay hydrated and eat at regular times. You might feel like you’re too busy to eat, but going hungry can lower your blood sugar and deprive you of cognitive energy.

If you’re feeling too stressed or busy to have a proper meal during the day, keep nutritious snacks like fruit, yogurt, raw vegetables, and nuts close at hand.

Exercise

A tired brain can sometimes benefit from a quick refresh. If work or school has sapped your ability to concentrate, take a break from your desk and get outside if you can.

Generally speaking, the more you exercise, the better. Try to devote at least 2.5 hours to moderate exercise each week, but aim to do more if you can.

That being said, any exercise can help. If you can only manage a 15-minute walk on your lunch break, you’re still benefiting by giving your brain a break, improving your mental clarity and possibly even relieving some stress.

Sure, you could spend those 15 minutes getting more stuff done, but you’ll probably be able to work more efficiently if you give yourself a break.

Be physically affectionate

Sex and other intimate contact can offer many benefits.

It can help relieve stress, improve your mood, and may help you get better sleep. Connecting intimately with a romantic partner can also help remind you that you have support, which can help reduce the strain of any emotionally taxing things you’re dealing with.

Physical affection doesn’t always need to involve sex, though. A hug from a friend or family member or a cuddle session with your pet can still give you a mental boost.

Once you get your physical needs met, take a look at how you’re going about your tasks. Maybe you’re in a situation where something absolutely has to get done, but you just don’t have the time or energy to do it.

Rather than fretting about everything you have to do, take a step back for some clarity.

Break it down

When you’re already functioning at full capacity, thinking about a big job you have to get done can make you feel as if your brain is ready to shut down. You’re already mentally exhausted, so a new project may seem too daunting for you to even make a start.

Instead of letting thoughts of the entire project overwhelm you, try breaking the task down into smaller parts.

For example:

  • first, you’ll print out your research
  • then, you’ll create a spreadsheet
  • then, you’ll write up a data analysis
  • then, you’ll compile a final draft

Each task, when considered separately, may seem more manageable on its own. Try not to think ahead to the next step while you’re working. Just focus on what you’re doing at the moment. This can help prevent panic and make it easier to move smoothly from task to task.

Ask for help

This is a big one. And it can be hard — really hard. Try to get comfortable with asking for help if you need it.

Reach out to a co-worker, friend, family member, or partner to see who can help you out. Keep in mind that they don’t necessarily have to help you with whatever it is you’re trying to get done. Having someone pick up groceries, make a phone call, or just listen to you vent can bring about some relief.

Do what you can

Sometimes, even when you devote all of your mental resources to a project, it still falls short of what you’d consider your best, or even good work. This can feel pretty disheartening.

Instead of thinking about what you might have done, try thinking about what you were able to do with what you had. It’s not always possible to complete a task exactly as you envisioned it. There are times when the most you can manage is getting the work done as quickly as possible.

If you feel you’ve let yourself down, it may help to remind yourself you gave the work your best shot and got it done. Managing to get a project done while dealing with stress, overwhelm, or cognitive fatigue is something you can be proud of.

While mental exhaustion can affect anyone, students have a particularly high risk of it. When your brain is fried, it’s harder to retain and recall all that information you’ve spent hours studying.

Rather than driving yourself into the ground, try these study habits to help you work more efficiently.

Take good notes

We’ve all faced the challenge of paying attention in class. Maybe you have an early class, a class right after lunch, or an evening class at the end of a long workday.

Writing things down can help them stick in your mind. Taking notes can also help you stay alert and focused, and good notes will make good study material later.

Professors often mention key concepts that will appear on exams during lectures, so taking notes can put you a step ahead in your studies.

When it comes time to study, you may feel more prepared and less overwhelmed by what’s ahead.

Change up your study habits

How do you typically study? Do you reread assigned chapters? Review chapter highlights? Go over your notes, focusing on the things you didn’t understand the first time?

Simply reading over the chapters or your notes may not help, especially if you tend to zone out while reading. Trying a new approach to studying could make a difference in your level of cognitive energy and your grades.

Studying tricks

Give these study methods a try:

  • Make flash cards for key concepts. Keep them nearby so you can whip them out when you have some time to kill.
  • Start early. You may not have a lot of free time for studying, but even a few minutes of review each day can help you become more familiar with course material. This can reduce the need to cram your studying into one or two nights before the test.
  • Study in a group. Form a study group and go over material together. A collaborative approach may help you feel more motivated to study, but your classmates can also offer insight on trickier topics.
  • Break up your study periods. Take time for walking breaks, snack breaks, and brain rest. This can help you recharge and avoid cognitive overload.
  • Make study periods longer and more focused. The longer you study, the more likely you’ll end up struggling to maintain your concentration. Instead, take 30 minutes to an hour for each study period. Quiz yourself on what you studied at the end of your session to check your learning and see what to focus on next.
  • Explain material to someone else. If you can teach a concept, you’ve probably got a good handle on it. Talking a topic through with a classmate, friend, or family can also help you identify concepts you’re less familiar with. This can give you a good idea of what to study.

Study greener

Nature can have a positive impact on mental and physical health, and these benefits may also extend to your studies.

Older research conducted at Washington State University found evidence to suggest adding plants to study areas could help you feel more attentive and less stressed, possibly leading to increased productivity.

The study was small and the authors agree that more research is needed to support their findings. But unless you’re allergic, there’s not much risk associated with adding a plant to your room or office, so why not give it a try?

Learn more about the potential benefits of keeping houseplants.

Consider a new study spot

If you feel exhausted the minute you start studying, consider moving your session somewhere else. Your bedroom may not be the best place to study, especially if you mainly use it for sleeping. A change of environment could help reset your focus.

Try the library, your favorite coffee shop, or even a different room in your house. If the weather allows, try a new study spot outdoors.

Adjust your schedule

Studying at the end of a busy day is rough, and your brain probably isn’t at its sharpest then, anyway. Try adjusting your study time so that you can put in some time when you feel more alert, like over breakfast.

Managing stress is easier said than done, but making an effort to clearly understand the underlying causes of your stress can be a big help.

“When you consider every item on your to-do list and think through every stressor filling your mind, you’re often better able to recognize just how many things are crowding your brain and contributing to mental exhaustion,” MacCutcheon says.

She asks clients dealing with mental exhaustion to acknowledge everything on their plates — even minor things, such as making a doctor appointment or shopping for a birthday present.

You can’t always eliminate every stressful thing from your life, but these tips can help you keep your stress from completely wiping you out.

Find time to unwind

Self-care plays an important part in wellness and stress relief. This includes things like staying active, getting enough sleep, and eating well. But self-care also means taking time for things you enjoy.

“It’s also critical you find time to unwind,” MacCutcheon says. “Make sure you aren’t putting your own self-care on the back burner.”

She recommends giving yourself time each day to engage in activities that bring you joy and give you energy. Doing so can help you recharge, prevent overwhelm, and reduce your risk of becoming too stressed to function.

So, pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read, enjoy your favorite movie, or spend an evening doing something creative or even nothing at all. Your brain will appreciate the chance to relax.

Practice mindfulness

MacCutcheon also recommends mindfulness practices to help decrease stress.

This evidence-backed approach involves:

  • paying attention to what’s happening around you
  • staying involved in the present moment rather than thinking about other worries or challenges
  • keeping an open mind
  • practicing acceptance

How to start

Just STOP:

  • Slow down.
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Observe not only what’s happening, but what you think and feel about it.
  • Proceed with an open, accepting attitude.

Talk about it

When you’re stressed and overwhelmed, it can be hard to open up, especially if you feel like your loved ones are under stress, too. Try to remember that the people who care for you probably want to help in whatever way they can, even just by listening.

Simply telling a loved one about the things stressing you out can help you feel less alone. Plus, they might be able to offer some advice that’ll make the task at hand easier to face.

Alternately, consider talking to a co-worker, teacher, mentor or supervisor, or guidance counselor. Some workplaces also have designated professionals on staff to provide employee support and help people dealing with stress both in and out of the office.

Moving forward, there are things you can do to avoid becoming overwhelmed the next time life gets busy.

Maintain balance

Your work is important, but so is your personal life. If you focus on one and exclude the other, both might end up suffering.

“When you’re able to recognize all you have going on and can value the importance of maintaining balance, you are in a better position to avoid mental burnout,” MacCutcheon says. It can help to take a step back and explore some ways to set aside time for all aspects of your life.

Some challenges, like a graduate thesis, big deadline, or a restructure at work, are temporary, and you may need to devote a little extra time to them for a while.

If your job or field of study consistently demands so much from you that it negatively affects your personal relationships or self-care, you may want to consider whether it’s truly the right profession for you.

Make wellness a priority

Remember, your mind and body are connected in a lot of ways, so make sure you stay on top of your physical health.

For example:

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Opt for nutrient-rich foods more often than not
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about any persistent health concerns, even if they seem minor.
  • Take time off to recover when you get sick.
  • Commit to regular exercise, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk on your lunch break.

Don’t be afraid to say no

We all have certain work, school, or home responsibilities we can’t avoid on top of commitments to friends and family. Trying to do everything or make everyone happy can run you dry.

Saying no can be difficult. You might even want to take on extra responsibilities at work to prove your worth, especially if you’re seeking a raise or promotion. And who doesn’t feel bad about having to turn down a loved one asking for help?

But remember: You’re just one person. It’s simply not possible to support everyone in your life all the time. Support your own needs and practice saying no when you don’t feel up to helping out or if you’re already burdened with other projects or tasks.

If you regret not being able to help, you can always soften your refusal by saying something like, “I wish I could help, but I’ve got a lot to deal with right now. Please keep me in mind if you need help in the future.”

Mental fatigue can sometimes be a sign of an underlying issue, including:

See your healthcare provider if:

  • mental fatigue affects your personal life or performance at work or school
  • mental fatigue occurs with significant changes in mood or behavior
  • your fatigue stops you from taking care of daily responsibilities
  • you’ve recently had a head injury
  • you have a fever that won’t go away, notice unexplained bruises, or often feel generally unwell
  • you get frustrated or irritated easily
  • you have trouble managing your time
  • you have a persistently low mood or think about suicide
  • you feel nervous, worried, or frightened much of the time, with or without a clear reason
  • mood changes happen rapidly without a clear cause

If your symptoms seem more physical than emotional, it may help to start by talking to your primary healthcare provider, who can help you narrow down a possible cause.

If you’re dealing with mostly mental health symptoms, consider talking to a therapist or asking your healthcare provider for a referral. Even a few sessions with a mental health professional can help you better understand your mental exhaustion and come up with ways to combat it.

If you need help now

If you’re considering suicide or have thoughts of harming yourself, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP (4357).

The 24/7 hotline will connect you with mental health resources in your area. Trained specialists can also help you find your state’s resources for treatment if you don’t have health insurance.

Everyone feels fried from time to time, usually during a period of high stress. Once the stress resolves, so does the exhaustion.

If you feel chronically drained and have trouble reducing stress on your own, consider getting help from your healthcare provider.