Just like our bodies, our brains can become exhausted.
Constantly feeling tired, overwhelmed, or unable to focus are signs of mental fatigue — a condition that affects many of us at some point in life.
“We all have limited cognitive resources,” explained Dr. Maneet Bhatia, a clinical psychologist. “ can happen when we take on more than we can handle.”
What are some causes of mental fatigue?
Overcommitting to things, whether it’s social events or projects at work, is bad for your brain. When you have too many tasks at any one given time, you end up being pulled in different directions, which can impact productivity and cause cognitive overload.
“For some people, ‘I have to do it all,'” Bhatia said. “They put a lot of pressure on themselves, and this can go across any domain; it doesn’t have to be just at work.”
Professionally speaking, working more than you should can also lead to burnout — a psychological response to chronic stress. Staying late at the office once in a while is OK, but it shouldn’t be a daily habit.
Perfectionism and having unrealistically high standards for yourself also contribute to mental fatigue. It puts unnecessary stress on yourself and can cause you to exert more energy than needed when carrying out tasks.
What are the symptoms of mental fatigue?
Difficulty concentrating, irritability, mental block, loss of interest in certain activities and change in appetite are all symptoms of mental exhaustion.
Sleep problems also indicate brain fatigue. Quality sleep is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to suffer from exhaustion, but when you’re stressed or mentally wiped, your sleep patterns tend to suffer.
Your mental health can also be affected. “You may start to experience anxiety, or even depression symptoms, like low mood, feeling down and increased negative thoughts,” Bhatia said.
“It can also impact your outlook. You start to feel more cynical, pessimistic and detached from things … You might start to feel you’d rather not be around other people, and stay on your own.”
Bhatia said this symptom can affect your performance at work, as you might start pulling away from your responsibilities because you’re so drained. “You see that at work when people start calling in sick often or stop returning emails, or coming in late,” he explained.
How can you deal with mental fatigue?
If you’re experiencing symptoms of mental fatigue, Bhatia said it’s important to get back to basics and check in with yourself to see if you’re getting enough sleep and eating properly. Quality sleep and a balanced diet may sound obvious, but they’re super important to mental health.
Regular exercise, Bhatia said, also helps manage stress and reduce anxiety.
Plus, it’s important to understand what drains you and what doesn’t, and being aware of how certain things will affect your functioning. Knowing what mentally depletes you will help you prepare coping strategies.
“If you know you’re not good with paperwork, for example, and your taxes are coming up and you have to spend a whole day doing taxes, going to a party afterwards may not be the best idea,” Bhatia said. “Chances are you’re going to be drained and exhausted.”
Learning to say “no” is also important. “When your calendar gets filled up and a friend calls … and they want to add thing to your list, it’s about learning how to say no,” Bhatia said.
“It’s OK to say no and not take on more than we can handle.”
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