Do you constantly feel overwhelmed? Always trying to find why I am feeling tired? Emotionally and mentally drained most of the time? If so, chances are you might be suffering from mental fatigue.
Mental fatigue is a condition triggered by prolonged cognitive activity. Basically, it sends your brain into overdrive, leaving you exhausted, hampering your productivity and overall cognitive function.
The most common symptoms include mental block, lack of motivation, irritability, stress eating or loss of appetite and insomnia. Mental exhaustion can affect you for both short-term or long-term.
If left unchecked, it can lead to all sorts of serious health problems, including anxiety and burnout. Research suggests that constant mental exhaustion can also impact your physical endurance.
What exactly causes mental fatigue or tiredness?
- Decision-making: Constant decision-making can be taxing as it exhausts your executive function. “This includes what I call ‘decision leeches’ – which is when you ask someone to make a decision and they send you back a list of options rather than making the decision themselves or people who are always asking you to help with their decisions,” says Dr Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.
Science says clutter triggers the production of cortisol (or ‘stress hormone’). So, the more cluttered your physical surroundings and headspace are, the more stressed out you’ll be. And prolonged stress can manifest in brain fatigue.
Meaning, committing to more tasks than you have time to finish. It’s not just mentally draining, but counter-productive as well. Not to mention, the continuous cognitive load might cause a full-blown burnout.
Avoidance and procrastination:
Contrary to popular belief, procrastinating is more taxing for your brain than working on the task you’ve been putting off. “When we procrastinate or avoid, our anxiety about whatever we’re avoiding tends to increase,” says Dr Boyes. This, in turn, depletes your mental energy.
“Like any extreme trait, perfectionism can be a double-edged sword,” says the former psychologist. If you don’t pay attention, it can easily turn into a self-sabotaging habit. “Perfectionists are motivated to make the absolute best choice — even when doing so isn’t strictly necessary. This can lead to decision paralysis,” she explains. They’re also more likely to ruminate and worry excessively.
Lack of sleep:
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep to stay healthy. Getting enough sleep is critical for brain rejuvenation. Sleep deprivation can make your mind foggy from weariness, adversely affecting your mood, focus, alertness and productivity.
Other potential causes include medication, stress and ailments such as depression, fibromyalgia and autoimmune disease. Emotionally challenging experiences like divorce or death of a loved one can also contribute to brain fatigue.
So, how can you beat mental exhaustion?
Adopting the following strategies can help ease mental fatigue:
Both your physical and mental space needs tidying up from time to time. Getting rid of all non-essential stuff is crucial to stay focused, motivated and productive. The best way to keep things organized without feeling overwhelmed is to assign a proper place to everything and clear up the mess right after you’ve finished a task. For instance, do the dishes as soon as you’ve had your meal, organize your desk every day before heading home, make your bed immediately after waking up, etc. Here are some helpful tips to declutter your surroundings and headspace.
Make a list of important tasks you need to accomplish the next day, before going to bed. Keep the to-do list simple and realistic. This will keep you from over-committing, ensuring you’ve enough time to check off all the items on that list. Similarly, set realistic personal and professional goals. Here’s a great article on how to do it.
“Do repetitive tasks in bulk so you don’t have to do them often,” says Dr Boyes. “For example, if you have enough space, buy things like laundry detergent or office supplies only once every few months rather than doing these types of tasks more often than necessary. Or, print out multiple copies of completed forms rather than each time you need one,” she suggests.
Rethink the way you expend your energy.
“Move from being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to working on systems that will help permanently reduce stress and excess decision making,” says Dr Boyes. “Have backups where forgetting would otherwise cause stress. For instance, keep extra charging cords at home and work, keep some money in your car’s glove compartment for emergency purposes, create a master packing list for travel and print multiple copies so you don’t have to keep writing new ones,” suggests the expert.
Learn how to tackle rumination and avoidance.
“People who are heavy worriers tend to believe that worrying helps them make good decisions. However, rather than helping you problem-solve, rumination and worry usually just make it difficult to see the forest for the trees,” Dr Boyes points out. “Rumination can be about minor issues, it can also be more heavy-duty self-criticism,” she says. Recognize when you’re ruminating and try one of these strategies to overcome it. Having an avoidant coping style is equally self-sabotaging. Here are a few practical tips suggested by Dr Boyes to beat procrastination and avoidance.
Other than that, eat healthily, cut back on caffeine, exercise regularly and get enough zzz’s (can’t stress that enough!).
Lastly, here are some surefire strategies to prevent brain fatigue and improve mental clarity:
Take frequent breaks:
Whether it’s a 15-minute break, a weekend getaway or a staycation, taking some time off to unwind can do wonders for your mental health. Take intermittent breaks even at work. “Allow your mind to wander, preferably while being physically active” (like a stroll near the building), suggests Dr Boyes. “Taking breaks helps prevent tunnel vision. You’ll more easily see simple solutions to problems and won’t get caught up in spending excessive time on unimportant things,” she explains.
Spending as little as 20 minutes to practise meditation each day can go a long way. Studies show that meditation not only improves focus and memory but also changes the way your body responds to stress. If meditation isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. Try these science-backed alternatives instead.
Say yes to self-acceptance and self-care:
Start practising self-care, no matter how self-indulgent it sounds. Do at least one thing every day that makes you feel genuinely happy. Check out this handy guide on self-care for beginners.” Another way to free up your cognitive and emotional reserves is to practice acceptance,” notes Dr Boyes.”This could be accepting certain traits of your romantic partner, occasional human error, changes at work, or something as simple as your kid liking a food one day and rejecting it the next,” adds the psychology expert.
Work on your patterns of self-sabotage:
stop sabotaging yourself, you need to figure out your patterns of behaviour and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits,” says Dr Boyes. “For example, people who are prone to anxiety tend to be hypervigilant to signs of threat and detect threats that aren’t really there. This happens to be one of my personal patterns of self-defeating thinking. Knowing my thinking bias, I factor it into my judgments. I explicitly say to myself, ‘my brain is reacting to this as if it’s a threat when most likely it’s actually an opportunity’,” she explains. Here are a few effective ways to stop sabotaging yourself.
And remember “the more you work on systems for reducing stress and excess decision-making, the more mental energy you’ll have.”