You probably feel tired and drained after intense physical activity, right? Well, long periods of intense mental activity can wear you out, too.
To put it simply, mental exhaustion can happen when your brain receives too much stimulation or has to maintain an intense level of activity without rest.
You might notice mental exhaustion, sometimes called mental fatigue, if you:
- often work or study for long hours with few or no breaks
- spend a lot of time each day dealing with overwhelming responsibilities
- live with mental health symptoms
- devote a lot of mental energy each day to thinking through problems, worries, or other sources of stress
It’s not uncommon to feel physically fatigued from time to time, and the same holds true for mental fatigue. Still, lingering mental fatigue can affect your ability to think, solve problems, or process and regulate emotions. Eventually, it can even lead to challenges in your daily life and in relationships.
Below, we’ll explore mental exhaustion more in-depth, plus offer tips to help manage and prevent it.
Mental vs. emotional exhaustion
Generally speaking, “mental” tends to refer to cognitive skills, like thinking, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. “Emotional,” on the other hand, has to do with feelings, including your ability to identify, process, and express them.
Both mental and emotional exhaustion can leave you feeling detached, unmotivated, apathetic, and trapped. The challenges you’re facing might seem impossible to overcome, and you might feel too drained to keep trying.
If burnout comes to mind, you’re on the right track — burnout can stem from emotional and mental fatigue.
The signs of mental exhaustion often begin to appear gradually, but you might notice they seem to creep up more quickly during times of extreme stress — when your brain is working harder than usual, in other words.
Mental and emotional signs
One major sign of mental exhaustion? You feel far less alert than usual and find it challenging to focus, even when it comes to everyday or routine tasks.
Other common signs include:
- feelings of depression, including a persistent sad, low, or hopeless mood
- lingering feelings of anxiety
- difficulty caring about anything
- a sense of detachment, cynicism, or pessimism
- anger or irritability
- difficulty processing and managing emotions
- a sense of dread
- a decline in motivation or productivity
- feeling lethargic or slowed down in movements or responses
- difficulty concentrating, remembering information, putting thoughts together, or completing work correctly
Mental exhaustion can extend to your physical health, contributing to symptoms that don’t have a clear cause. You might notice:
- head and body aches
- upset stomach
- sleep issues, including chronic fatigue, drowsiness, and insomnia
- changes in appetite and weight
- frequent illnesses, such as colds and flu
- a general sense of unwellness
Ongoing mental exhaustion can begin to affect your everyday activities and behavior. You might:
- find yourself constantly putting off tasks at school, work, or around the house
- notice a decline in your performance at work or school
- drink alcohol or use other substances to help manage symptoms
- start to avoid people you’d usually enjoy spending time with
- feel irritable or distracted around others and have trouble paying attention during interactions
- have trouble managing responsibilities or keeping personal or work commitments
- find yourself calling out of work or school more often
Nearly everyone experiences stress from time to time — it’s the body’s natural reaction to new, overwhelming, or scary situations.
This biological response results in a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that help you respond to perceived threats and high-pressure situations that require quick thinking.
Once you’ve dealt with or removed the stressor, your body’s hormones should go back to typical levels. But chronic or long-term stress can play a role in mental exhaustion.
When you continue to face a challenge or set of challenges that activate your body’s stress response, your cortisol levels remain high. Eventually, too-high cortisol levels can interfere with normal body processes, such as digestion, sleep, and immune system function. In short, if you don’t feel well and aren’t getting enough rest, your brain doesn’t have the chance it needs to recharge and reset.
You might feel physically exhausted:
- after an intense workout or other physical activity
- when you get several nights of interrupted or inadequate sleep
- if you have a physically demanding job
- during an illness or while recovering from one
Yet physical and mental exhaustion can also play off each other. So if you’re dealing with one, there’s a good chance you might also start to notice the other.
Think back to the last time you felt exhausted after a long day. Your body may have been tired, sure, but your brain probably didn’t feel too sharp, either. Maybe all you felt like doing was a low-key activity you didn’t have to think about.
And on the flip side, mental exhaustion can affect physical performance, making exercise and other tasks that require endurance feel considerably more physically taxing and demanding.
Mental exhaustion can happen when you often engage in tasks that require a lot of cognitive and emotional effort — especially when you don’t build time for rest and self-care into your day.
Triggers and causes of mental exhaustion vary from person to person, but some common ones include:
- having a demanding or high-pressure job
- working long hours without taking time off to rest
- experiencing financial stress
- job dissatisfaction
- providing care for a loved one who’s ill or has special needs
- living with a chronic illness or mental health condition
- losing a loved one
- having a baby
- lack of work-life balance or emotional support
Once you recognize the signs of mental fatigue, you might wonder, “What next?”
There are a number of things you can do to help ease mental exhaustion.
Making some lifestyle changes can help you address it at the source, while coping strategies can help you take steps to feel more rested and renewed when facing challenges that cause significant life stress.
Remove the stressor
You may not always find it possible to eliminate the triggers of stress and fatigue, but this typically does offer one of the best ways to relieve stress in your life.
Feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities at work? Consider asking your supervisor or co-workers for help with tasks or try delegating some of your responsibilities to others.
Have difficulty keeping up with household responsibilities or caregiving? If you can’t afford to pay for professional cleaning or other support, it may be worth asking friends and family members for help.
Take a break
Time to rest and recharge can go a long way toward easing feelings of mental exhaustion.
A break might mean any of the following:
- clearing your schedule of nonessential tasks for a few days
- taking an extended vacation
- booking an hour of time for yourself each day
- leaving your office during lunch and taking a full hour for a leisurely meal, walk, or other nonwork activity
- setting aside an evening or 2 each week to have dinner or watch a movie with friends
Examples of other relaxation techniques include:
Try to get more sleep
Quality sleep doesn’t just promote good physical health. It’s essential for overall health, which includes your mental and emotional well-being.
Aiming to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night can help relieve both mental and physical exhaustion.
One way to make sure you get a better night’s sleep? Avoid spending too much time in bed throughout the day, which you might feel more inclined to do during periods of mental exhaustion.
A new bedtime routine can help you find relaxing ways to wind down, which can also improve your rest.
A few ideas:
- Take a hot bath an hour or so before bedtime.
- Try some yoga or gentle stretching before bed.
- Swap your phone or computer for a book, coloring book, or soothing music.
- Dim or turn off unnecessary lighting as you’re getting ready for bed.
Keep a gratitude journal
When you’re already feeling drained and low, negative or distressing thoughts can seem even more overwhelming.
To challenge unwanted emotions and thoughts and refocus on the things you enjoy in life, try keeping a journal where you note a few things you’re thankful for every day. Alternately, think of or say one thing you’re grateful for every day.
- greater overall well-being
- fewer symptoms of physical illness
- reduced stress
- greater happiness
- more relationship satisfaction
- better physical health
Mustering up the motivation to exercise might be tougher than usual when you already don’t feel your best. All the same, regular physical activity can have a positive impact on your mood, energy levels, and brain function, not to mention overall physical well-being.
You don’t need to engage in a complex or high intensity activity to reap the benefits, either. If you’re able to, moderate exercise, like a brisk half-hour walk, can still make a difference in your mood and help you feel calmer and more relaxed.
A 2010 study of 533 Swiss police and emergency response service corps found evidence to suggest moderate exercise wasn’t just associated with enhanced health. It also appeared to help protect against stress-related health concerns and make chronic stress easier to address.
Additionally, a small study from 2021 looked at the effect of both high intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate intensity training on individuals dealing with coronavirus lockdown in 2019. Both types of exercise not only reduced stress, but they also reduced anxiety and depression, as well as increased resilience.
Check in with basic needs
Sometimes, rest can prove elusive no matter how exhausted you feel.
If you’re finding it difficult to recover from prolonged mental or physical fatigue, a good next step might involve exploring whether you’re meeting other important needs:
- Nutrition. Aim to eat a balanced diet and drink water throughout the day.
- Physical activity. Even if you don’t feel up to a workout, try yoga, gardening, or a walk through your neighborhood.
- Sunlight and fresh air. Spending some time in natural light each day, especially if you aren’t able to exercise, can also offer health benefits.
- Social support. Sharing your experience with loved ones can help you get the emotional support you need and perhaps even more tangible help from friends and family in a position to offer assistance.
Another important part of self-care? Reaching out for help when you need it. Trusted loved ones can listen and offer emotional support, certainly, but a trained mental health professional can offer guidance with actionable ways to cope with stress and relieve mental fatigue.
Remember, you don’t need to have a specific mental health diagnosis to seek (or benefit from) therapy. Therapists can offer support with navigating any of life’s challenges and stressors.
Reconsider your working conditions
If your job consistently demands more time and mental energy than you can realistically put in, it may not be a sustainable long-term career option.
Of course, you may not necessarily have the option of giving notice and taking time to search for another job. Also, coming home from work and spending the small amount of free time you do have on job hunting might only exhaust you more.
However, it can help to consider the options you do have open to you. For example, you might:
- set firmer boundaries around working hours so you can rest and relax each day
- ask your supervisor about potential workplace changes that could ease some of the burden
- set aside a few hours each week to search for a new job
- take 20 minutes each day to network and explore job opportunities
Unrelenting stress doesn’t just factor into mental exhaustion, it can also contribute to a range of other physical and mental health consequences. Eventually, stress can lead to burnout, where you can feel hopeless about anything ever changing and helpless to take action that might help.
Mental exhaustion can have serious consequences — and not just for your physical and emotional health. Ongoing fatigue can slow your reaction time and contribute to traffic accidents and dangerous errors at high risk jobs.
That’s one reason why getting professional help for mental exhaustion sooner rather than later is so important.
If you’ve noticed any of the signs and symptoms, consider connecting with a therapist. Mental health professionals can offer support with:
- identifying causes and triggers
- exploring treatment options
- learning helpful ways to cope with stress and demanding responsibilities
A doctor or other healthcare professional might also be able to offer support, especially if you’ve noticed physical fatigue and other health symptoms.
Keep in mind that it never hurts to build a team of caring professionals who can help you address all of the symptoms you experience. Some people find that a combined approach involving medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and other coping strategies makes the most difference in their symptoms.
Mental exhaustion can happen to anyone, and it can’t always be avoided. That said, taking a few preemptive steps can help lower your chances of experiencing ongoing mental fatigue.
- Take regular time off. Taking a short vacation, or even a single mental health day, can help you head off mental exhaustion when you start to feel depleted.
- Make time for self-care. Building time into your weekly (or daily, if possible) routine for rest, exercise, and enjoyable activities can help you feel more prepared to handle the tougher challenges life throws your way.
- Rest when you’re sick. Whether you’re dealing with mental or physical symptoms, allow yourself time to rest and regain your strength. Trying to power through without any downtime will generally only leave you feeling worse.
- Stay connected to loved ones. Maybe you already know your loved ones can’t do anything to change your situation. Still, don’t forget the power of a compassionate listener. Simply talking through what’s on your mind can often help. It might even lead you to a solution of your own.
- Know when to say no. Taking on more responsibilities when you’re already overwhelmed can offer a nonstop route to mental exhaustion. If you dislike the abruptness of “No,” you might try, “I can’t, maybe next time, or “I’m not available to help at the moment.”
Untreated, mental exhaustion can have a major impact on mind and body wellness, and eventually, it can negatively affect your relationships with others and overall quality of life.
Prioritizing sleep, getting enough exercise, and employing relaxation techniques can all provide some relief. Professional support can also make a big difference in your symptoms.
A therapist can offer more guidance on treatments for mental fatigue and resources to cope with stress, along with strategies to help prevent mental exhaustion in the future.