Mental Fatigue: What It Is and Five Tips to Fighting It Off

Don’t let mental exhaustion get in your way of living your best life.

Mentally exhausted man sleeping on computer keyboard.

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as prioritizing your physical health. It is easy to dismiss being tired, burnt out, stressed, and overworked as outcomes of rough days (or even weeks). However, dismissing it and not treating it can cause prolonged mental fatigue and additional health concerns. It can also be a sign of an undiagnosed medical condition.

Mental fatigue can be described as extreme tiredness and can be exhibited, for example, when you aren’t able to think correctly, find yourself easily forgetting things, and are not able to recall details. Again, it can be easy to dismiss as a lack of sleep, but if you are experiencing mental tiredness day in and day out, it may be more than just exhaustion.

Mental fatigue (or mental exhaustion) can show up in a variety of ways:

  • Irritability
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Sleep issues
  • Eating more or less
  • Procrastination
  • Inability to focus

If you experience these and other symptoms for several weeks or months, you may have a long-term illness called chronic fatigue syndrome (or myalgic encephalomyelitis). It is a condition triggered by prolonged cognitive activity.

It can be caused by undergoing excessive mental stress from circumstances like decision-making, overcommitting to responsibilities or events, neglecting self-care, perfectionistic tendencies, not getting enough sleep, indulging in too much junk food, and engaging in big life events or changes that take up a lot of mental energy and planning.

But thankfully, even if your current circumstances aren’t changing, there are some steps you can take to overcome this mental state and start feeling and performing at your best again.

Here are five helpful tips to try if you aren’t feeling like yourself.

Use meditation as medication

Meditation allows your brain to rest. Engaging in this calming activity for a few minutes has been proven to boost cognitive function, fight depression, improve memory, and help both mental and physical fatigue. Sometimes the best remedy for mental fatigue is to take a few deep breaths and do "nothing."

If you are new to meditation, a mental health specialist can help you get familiar with the basics, and this beginner’s guide to meditation provides the fundamentals to giving meditation a try.

Related: Reasons Why You Should Meditate

Switch up your schedule

When you have a busy schedule, it can seem impossible to set aside more time for yourself, but making small changes in your work-life balance or your sleep habits can help improve your mental health.

You could try removing your email app from your phone, setting strict boundaries on how much time you spend at work, allowing yourself to say “no” at times when you have too much on your plate, or unplugging from all digital devices a couple of hours before bedtime. It might seem counterproductive, but the evidence shows that improving overall balance in your life can help you boost your creativity and mood in the long run, so you can perform even better.

Hold on to healthy habits

Getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and eating a nutritious diet can have major effects on your mental health. In fact, a study recently showed that high amounts of sugar in one’s diet can have negative effects on cognitive function and increase addictive behaviors and mood issues.

Another finding explained how dehydration is linked to depression and other mental health issues, and people should be drinking about half of their body weight in oz of water each day. And of course, most adults should be allowing themselves at least seven hours of sleep per night according to the Center for Disease Control.

Work to maintain the healthy habits you’ve established, even if you are extremely tired. While mental exhaustion can make it even harder to maintain healthy habits, giving in to the temptation to make negative changes to your lifestyle often makes the problem worse.

Move your body

Only 30 minutes of moderate exercise like running, biking, or brisk walking has been proven to reduce stress and improve mood, along with many of the symptoms of mental exhaustion, according to a recent study. Before you say you don’t have enough time, make time.

Set aside a few minutes on your lunch break for a brisk walk. Hit the stationary bikes or treadmills in the office gym. Exercise should be part of your regular self-care routine if you want to keep your mind and your body operating to their full potential.

Talk to your healthcare provider

Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic mental fatigue, but it can be managed with your provider’s help. To diagnose you with this syndrome, your provider will complete a physical exam, review your symptoms and medical history, and order several lab tests. This gives them an overview of your overall health, so they can better recommend treatments and services to help you.

Overall, chronic mental fatigue doesn’t have to stay chronic if you become aware of the signs. Small changes, prioritizing your mental and physical health needs, and visiting with your provider can help you make a plan to get your mental energy back.

Related: 5 Ways to Rest and Refresh Your Brain

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