Dr. Caroline Leaf – Have you ever experienced that feeling of utter mental exhaustion, where your brain feels so tired but your just mind won’t stop? And, even though you have slept for the recommended number of hours, you just feel like you are dragging yourself around through the day?
You may have even heard of the terms like “pandemic fatigue” or “election fatigue”—really, the word fatigue can be added to any major event and I am sure at least one person will understand what that feels like. I personally have experienced this, and so many people have asked me about how to manage this, which is exactly what I am going to talk about in this podcast (episode #304) and blog: how to manage mental fatigue and exhaustion.
According to experts like Dr. Suzy Russell, mental fatigue happens when we experience prolonged periods of demanding, conscious cognitive activity. This kind of activity will be different for everyone because of what is uniquely happening in their environment, but it’s more pervasive than just having an “off day”. Mental fatigue is a normal response to an accumulation of challenging events and circumstances that affect the mind, brain and body.
The mind has three parts. The conscious mind is awake when we are awake and gets tired. The nonconscious mind works 24/7 and never tires. The subconscious mind, which is the bridge between the conscious and nonconscious, also never tires.
The brain and body have limited energy and need to be regenerated, which is why we need to sleep. When we sleep, the conscious mind, brain and body are regenerated in preparation for the next day. The nonconscious mind never stops, but the conscious mind does because it gets tired, as does the physical brain and body.
We have a limited amount of energy in the day, which means we need to be wise in how we use it. So, for example, if you ruminate on something you can’t change, get stuck in a “would have, could have, should have” mindset, or try to understand why someone did something to you when you really can’t see into their heads, you will drain your battery dry very quickly, which is where mental fatigue can set in and make us feel flat, depressed, anxious and upset.
Mental effort and mental fatigue are closely related, especially when we look at the neural or brain response. Each time we pay attention to something, we process it with our minds and build it as memories onto a thought tree in the brain. This requires sustained attention, and emotions are activated during the process, which can be quite tiring. As a result, we may be having a great creative run at work and then suddenly feel mentally and physically tired. This is quite normal and needs to be recognized as a signal that we need to recharge. This can be a few seconds to a couple of minutes of what I call a “thinker moment”, where we just close our eyes, daydream, and let our thoughts wander.
If we don’t regularly take these little breaks, we can upset the balance in the brain and start draining its energy, similar to when we have too many apps open on our phones and the battery starts going fast. Add to this the many uncertainties and challenges of life (such as the pandemic and family issues), and we can experience a cumulative effect, which will elevate our levels of mental fatigue. Managing the demands on our cognitive abilities and resources is therefore an essential skill; we cannot just keep going and going and going without a break.
I have experienced this in my own life. I love what I do and can spend hours in a creative mode, researching, writing and doing back-to-back interviews. These activities demand a high level of cognitive activity, which I also need when I swing back into family mode after work, sorting issues, doing lots of talking, and then rushing off to exercise and take care of my own body and mind. After all this, I tend to feel a bit down, kind of like my brain is sore and sad. I really feel my perspective shift to the negative, and my creativity and clarity tend to drop. I even start getting a bit irritable, while my body even feels sick and my nose blocks up. I can describe these with such clarity because I found this happening a lot, and I have realized that these are warning signals telling me that I need to reevaluate my thinking and behavior. Instead of priding myself of being an “energizer bunny” all the time, I need to get better at recognizing and managing my mental fatigue and giving myself permission to rest.
Mental fatigue can be insidious. It tends to creep up when you least expect it, and, wham!, you realize that you are in a pretty bad place. It is no surprise that mental fatigue shows up in brain scanswith reduced blood flow in the brain, which, over time, can reduce our decision-making ability, increase our impulsivity, and reduce our cognitive flexibility. When we are mentally tired, we also observe an increase in theta and delta activity in the brain, which has been associated with decreased intellectual performance and suppressed toxic memories. Mental fatigue can also result in high levels of anxiety, depression and even outbursts of aggression, all of which are warning signals that we need to pay attention to what is going on in our minds and bodies.
To this end, I recommend doing a Neurocycle to help you recognize and manage mental fatigue, which is the 5-step mind-management system I have developed over the past 38 years and is based on my research and practice. (I discuss this in detail in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, my app Neurocycle and in my recent clinical trials.) The 5 steps are:
1. Gather Awareness
Gather awareness of the warning signals of your mental fatigue:
- What are your emotional warning signals? Frustration? Depression? Anxiety? Irritability?
- What are the physical warning signals in your brain and body? Does your brain feel tired, but your mind doesn’t want to stop? Are you feeling flu-like symptoms? Do you feel congested? Are you battling with GI issues like bloating?
- What are your behavioral warning signals? Are you experiencing bursts of aggression? Are you more irritable than normal? Are you battling to concentrate for long periods of time? Do you keep feeling like you need to sleep, but don’t ever seem to feel rested? flu
Now, go through each of these warning signals and ask yourself “why?”. Dig deep and be honest with yourself:
- Why these emotional warning signals? For example, ask yourself questions like “Why am I frustrated? I’m frustrated because…”
- Why these physical warning signals in your brain and body? An example could be: “I know that my mind doesn’t want to stop even when I am at a workout class; I keep running through the problem over and over again and then I feel sick…”
- Why these behavioral warning signals? You can ask yourself questions like, “Do I get irritable about little things and perseverate on them?”.
- What are your mindset/perspective/attitude warning signals? Do you, for example, say things like “everything is awful” and “I don’t like what I’m doing!”? Why?
Write this all down to help organize your thinking and get more insight into what is going on in your life.
Take each of the warning signals you have gathered, reflected on, and written down above, and see them for what they are: signals that you are in mental fatigue! Then, work out an “antidote” (new thought pattern/behavior) for each one.
Here are some examples:
- Emotional warning signal = frustration; the antidote = I need to change my work routine so I have time to do my creative work uninterrupted.
- Physical warning signal = feeling congestion; the antidote = I need to relook at my rest times. How much mental rest am I having a day? How can I improve this?
5. Active reach
Create a summary statement that combines your warning signals into an “all-systems-alert mental fatigue warning”, and set it to pop up every day on your reminders or write it on a card and leave on your desk so you can’t miss it! This will remind you to practice using the antidotes you came up with above. Mine for example says the following: “When I feel frustrated, fluey, irritable and am perseverating on something, then I know I am mentally fatigued and need to rest by doing something I love, like reading a novel…”.