We are Tired: On Mental fatigue

Her: “It is 7 PM and it feels like midnight.“

Mental fatigue is an all too common feeling these days. Uncertainty, high stress levels, juggling responsibilities, financial hardship, medical problems, and a demanding lifestyle are making our minds feel downright exhausted. In addition to lengthy and tiring days, we have numerous daily hassles that take up hours and hours of time: being on the phone with tech-support after the computer crashed again, the jammed printer, the fraud alert on the credit card, sitting in traffic for hours, standing in line for more hours.

But living in a state of permanent mental fatigue can have consequences on our personal and professional well-being. It is painful and unsustainable.

When your brain feels exhausted and unable to function properly, it leaves you mentally and emotionally drained. This is commonly known as ‘brain fog’ or mental fatigue.

According to neuropsychology research, a tired brain impairs your cognitive abilities. This affects your productivity, decision-making skills, learning, and memory. For example, brain fog makes it hard to concentrate. Even simple household tasks like washing dishes, going to the grocery store, changing kitty litter, or doing the laundry seem cumbersome.

Mental fatigue is a state of tiredness that sets in when your brain’s energy levels are depleted, usually the result of prolonged stressors. Long-term stress can be brought on by a variety of factors, including a challenging life transition, grief/bereavement, a demanding job, feeling unsupported or alone, or executive functioning weaknesses, such as procrastination, poor planning, organizing, or prioritizing.

Long-term mental exhaustion can also affect your professional life. When your symptoms aren’t managed, it can lead to workplace burnout. Symptoms of workplace burnout include a lack of belief in your abilities, decreased job satisfaction, cynicism, and a lack of motivation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned mental fatigue into a widespread global issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes this “pandemic fatigue” as demotivation, alienation, complacency, disconnection, and feelings of hopelessness. Mental fatigue is insidious — its symptoms develop gradually and are not always noticed. The pandemic created an unprecedented time of stress and uncertainty for millions of people around the world. Many people have been in survival mode.

4 emotional symptoms of mental fatigue:
1) Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms of mental fatigue. It develops because prolonged mental fatigue triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This is also known as your fight/flight/freeze mode. This causes you to be in a constant state of panic or worry about the future, which can lead to impulsive behavior, avoidance, and indecisiveness.  Always feeling anxious should act as an alarm bell, telling you something isn’t right. Anxiety is not an enemy, it’s a signal/warning that something is wrong.

2) Languishing
Languishing can be described as a feeling of emptiness and stagnation. This feeling develops when your mind feels depleted of energy. Someone stuck in a state of languishing frequently feels apathy and a disconnection from friends, partners, and work colleagues. It can manifest as zoning out, variable attention and concentration, and not listening. If this feeling persists, it can gradually isolate you from people in your life who start to think that you just don’t care.

3) Low resilience
When you’re mentally fatigued, challenges seem nearly impossible to overcome. You’re going up the hill that everybody expects you to climb, but with a backpack full of rocks. For example, someone with reduced resilience can easily crumble under the pressure of a challenging work assignment or deadline. They may make mistakes, miss deadlines, or procrastinate.

4) Depression
Mental fatigue and depression are interconnected. Fatigue is a symptom of depression and vice-versa. Depression is a mental health disorder that can have multiple causes, including trauma and stressful life events. It’s characterized by a sense of hopelessness, feelings of low self-worth and a lack of energy to engage in daily life. If low resilience is a backpack full of rocks, depression is the boulder.

4 Physical symptoms of mental fatigue:
The characteristics of mental fatigue aren’t just emotional. They can also show up as physical symptoms that impair your health and well-being.
1) Aches, pains, and muscle tension
Your mental health has a direct effect on your physical health. The high level of stress that causes mental fatigue also causes you to feel tired, weary, achy, sore, and lethargic.

2) Sleep issues
People suffering from mental exhaustion often experience trouble sleeping, insomnia, and even hypersomnia. These sleep problems arise due to the emotional side effects of mental fatigue like anxiety or depression. Being in a constant state of hypervigilance and worry makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep.

3) Increase in illness
A weakened mental and physical state can lead to various health problems. Some of these include:

  • Muscle strains
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Weakened immune system

4. Poor eating habits
Unhealthy eating habits are common for someone suffering from mental exhaustion. A number of studies indicate that people are more likely to engage in emotional eating or conversely eat less under mental stress and fatigue. Not getting the proper nutrients and indulging in foods high in sugar can slowly impair cognitive abilities. It also contributes to upticks in anxiety and depression (‘crashes’).

Related, what to do about mental fatigue.

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