Mental exhaustion can happen to anyone who experiences long-term stress. It can make you feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained, and make your responsibilities and problems seem impossible to overcome.
Feelings of detachment and apathy can wreak havoc on all aspects of your personal and work life.
You may feel trapped in your situation and as if the power to do anything about it is out of your hands, but you can overcome mental exhaustion with some help.
Mental exhaustion causes physical as well as emotional symptoms. It can also impact your behavior, which others may notice even before you do.
Symptoms of mental exhaustion can vary from person to person and often begin to show gradually, creeping up on you during periods of extreme stress. If stress continues to weigh on you, you may reach a point when you feel as though you’re in a dark hole and can’t see your way out.
Many people refer to this as “burnout,” though it’s not officially a recognized medical term.
Even if you’re not experiencing all of the signs and symptoms, it’s important to recognize these are signs that could indicate you are on the path to mental exhaustion or burnout.
Emotional signs of mental exhaustion may include:
- cynicism or pessimism
- apathy (feeling of not caring)
- feelings of hopelessness
- feeling of dread
- lack of motivation
- decline in productivity
- difficulty concentrating
Physical signs of mental exhaustion may include:
- upset stomach
- body aches
- chronic fatigue
- changes in appetite
- weight gain or weight loss
- increased illness, such as colds and flu
Your mental exhaustion can cause you to behave in ways that are out of character for you. Behavioral signs may include:
- poor performance at work
- social withdrawal or isolation
- inability to keep personal or work commitments
- calling in sick to work or school more often
Stress is something everyone experiences from time to time. It’s our body’s natural response to positive and negative situations that are new, exciting, or scary.
This biological response results in a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This boost of hormones helps us react quickly to perceived threats and high-pressure situations that require quick thinking. Once the stressor has been removed, your body should go back to normal.
Mental exhaustion is usually the result of long-term stress. When you’re continually dealing with things that activate your body’s stress response, your cortisol levels remain high. Eventually, this begins to interfere with normal body functions, such as digestion, sleep, and your immune system.
Physical exhaustion, which is an extreme state of unrelenting fatigue that leaves you physically drained, is a side effect that can be brought on by mental exhaustion. A 2017 review of 11 studies noted that mental exhaustion impairs physical performance and can make even simple tasks or exercise feel considerably more physically taxing and demanding.
The terms mental exhaustion and burnout are often used to refer to being overworked or related to stress in the workplace, but mental exhaustion can be caused by a long period of persistent stress in any area of your life.
While the triggers of mental exhaustion aren’t the same for everyone, some are more common than others.
Common causes of mental exhaustion include:
- high-pressure occupations, such as emergency responders and teachers
- working long hours
- financial stress and poverty
- job dissatisfaction
- being a caregiver for an ill or aging loved one
- living with a chronic illness
- death of a loved one
- having a baby
- poor work-life balance
- lack of social support
There are lifestyle changes and techniques you can use at home to help you cope with stress and alleviate the symptoms of mental exhaustion.
Remove the stressor
It’s not always possible to eliminate the source of your stress, but it is the best way to treat stress.
If you’re overwhelmed by your responsibilities at home or work, consider asking for help with tasks or delegating some of your responsibilities to others.
Enlisting the help of professional services is another way to help lighten your load, such as respite care or a personal support worker if you’re a caregiver for a loved one. Babysitting, cleaning, and running errands are other responsibilities you can outsource.
Take a break
Time to rest and recharge is an important part of treating mental exhaustion. This can mean taking an extended vacation, clearing your schedule for a couple of days, or even just taking a bit of time for yourself each day.
Taking a walk on your lunch break or taking in a movie with a friend once a week can do wonders for your stress levels.
It’s not easy to find the motivation to exercise even on a good day, but exercise has many proven benefits for your physical and emotional health. You don’t need to engage in a complex or high-intensity activity to reap the benefits. Moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, is enough.
A 2010 cross-sectional study of 533 Swiss police and emergency response service corps found that exercise was associated with enhanced health and protected against stress-related health problems.
The participants of the study also felt better prepared to cope with chronic stress. Based on results, moderate exercise was better suited to reduce stress than vigorous exercise.
Other proven benefits of exercise include:
- lowered stress levels
- reduced anxiety
- improved mood
- a stronger immune system
Relaxation techniques are scientifically recognized to lower stress and anxiety. A 2013 study involving 30 medical students in Bangkok showed that mediation lowers cortisol levels in the blood, which may lower the risk of diseases associated with stress.
Examples of other relaxation techniques include:
Get more sleep
Sleep is necessary for your emotional well-being. Aim to get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night.
One of the best ways to ensure a good night’s sleep is to avoid spending too much time in bed throughout the day — something to which mental exhaustion may contribute.
Develop a bedtime routine and stick to it, such as doing some light reading for a few minutes before turning in at the same time every night.
Keep a gratitude journal
Negative thoughts and feelings can consume you when you’re mentally exhausted. Keeping a journal to write down things that you’re thankful for every day can help you focus on the good in your life.
A set of three studies published in 2017 showed that people who practice gratitude and gratitude exercises enjoy:
- higher well-being
- fewer symptoms of physical illness
- reduced stress
- higher relationship satisfaction
- improved sleep
- better physical health
Seeking professional help for mental exhaustion is important. A mental health professional, such as a therapist, can provide you with the tools you need to cope with stress and work through this difficult period.
Speak to a doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor may suggest medications to help manage your symptoms as you work through your mental exhaustion with other techniques and therapy.
Mental exhaustion is treatable. There are a variety of resources available to help ease your symptoms and cope with stress. Talk to a mental health doctor about ways to manage your stress and get you feeling like yourself again.