It’s not like physical tiredness, because it’s your mind and not your muscles. It is common at menopause where it is seen as ‘brain fog’, but can be experienced whenever you on alert or stressed out.
So many things can lead to it, and lockdown and Covid have certainly seen it increase, and these are some of the ways you can recognise it.
1 Your menopause symptoms get worse
Unfortunately stress impacts every single bodily function, and your hormones are no exception. Think of how flushes can increase if you are worried or anxious, and because progesterone is a natural relaxant you may be using up more than usual to help your stress.
2 You are more angry or Impatient
Mental fatigue can put you in a bad mood. You may be short-tempered or irritated, snapping at people more often. It’s harder to control your emotions when you have no mental reserves.
3 You can’t get work done
We all have a natural rhythm for getting things done and of course our productivity goes up and down at times.
However, mental exhaustion can make it really hard to concentrate and saps your motivation. You might get distracted easily or start to miss deadlines.
Even small tasks may seem overwhelming.
4 You zone out
This can look like mind wandering or drowsiness. It makes it hard to pay close attention to what you’re doing, and you may not react to things very quickly.
That can be dangerous in certain situations, such as driving and mental fatigue is linked to car accidents.
5 Your sleep pattern changes
You might think it’d be easier to sleep when your brain is tired, but that’s not always the case. Research shows people who have jobs with a high “cognitive workload” report more symptoms of insomnia than those who don’t have mentally exhausting work.
A lack of good sleep can make mental fatigue worse so don’t put up with it but look for help from your doctor or alternative treatments.
6 You do unhealthy things
You may start to drink or use drugs more than normal. Mental fatigue can take an even harder toll on those who already have a substance use disorder.
Experts think that’s because drug addiction changes parts of the brain that help you manage stress and control impulsive behavior.
7 You’re depressed
You may not have any energy or feel like you’re moving in slow motion. Some people say they feel numb.
That can make it hard to finish things at work or do your usual daily activities. If you have really low feelings or a sense of hopelessness for longer than 2 weeks that is a sign you need to take action.
That can be a sign your depression is more serious and there are many sources of help available from your doctor, or a help line.
8 You worry more
Mental fatigue triggers your sympathetic nervous system – your “fight or flight” mode. Anxiety is an alarm that tells you something is wrong.
If you’re always mentally exhausted, you might start to feel panicked or worried all the time. That often happens alongside symptoms of depression.
9 Exercise feels harder
Experts aren’t sure why mental fatigue affects physical activity. Some think your tolerance for exercise might go down.
So it may seem like you’re putting in more effort than you really are and feel more physically exhausted as well.
10 Your eating habits change
Mental fatigue can affect your appetite in different ways. You may snack more than normal and not pay attention to what you eat.
Stress can also make you crave sugary, salty, or fatty foods. Or you may not be hungry at all.
11 You make more mistakes
It’s impossible for your work – or your daily life – to be perfect all the time. But mental fatigue lessens your ability to catch and fix your mistakes quickly or at all.
That can cause serious problems if you are using machinery – even something simple like preparing food – or when driving.
12 You feel more pain
Everyone is different, which makes it hard to say how mental fatigue will affect your body. But you might get headaches, sore muscles, back pain, or stomach problems.
If you have an ongoing illness, such as fibromyalgia, you may hurt a little bit more than usual.
How to help yourself
You will need to experiment to see what works best for you, but these are some of the tried and true methods that are effective.
You might feel less drained if you take short breaks during long stretches of mental work. There isn’t an exact amount of rest time that works best for everyone.
But you may want to recharge for a few minutes every 1-2 hours and particularly if you are working a lot on a computer.
If you are struggling to complete tasks, or get something done at all, some people like to use something called the Pomodoro Technique.
Here’s how it works:
Set a timer for 25 minutes.
Focus on one task the whole time.
Take a 5-minute break when the timer goes off.
After the fourth 25-minute block, take a break for 15-30 minutes.
Repeat until your task is done
There’s plenty of evidence that you may feel even more energised if you exercise during your breaks. Try some stretches for a few minutes, each or go for a 10-15 minute brisk walk, or dance round the kitchen – whatever works for you.
Find ways to relax
It’s hard to avoid mental exhaustion completely. But you can learn to switch on your body’s natural relaxation response.
You can get use music, meditation, yoga or a massage. Or you can try something as simple as watching a good film or relaxing TV programme.
Connection is important too so reach out to friends, family, or try a counsellor or other professional if you need more support.
There are so many ways to try to stay more focused and alert, and if your hormones are also playing help, that’s an additional stressor you don’t need.
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