2020 was a roller coaster, and we want off this ride. It’s not only that we’re sick of the pandemic and its restrictions on our lives and our children’s lives. It’s also all of the emotions, especially the on-going stress, uncertainty, and feeling like we don’t have any control over things. Add it all up, and no wonder so many of us are feeling irritable, fatigued, and even numb. We’re all mentally exhausted, some of us more than others.
Just as our muscles become fatigued from a hard workout or endurance run, our brain can also reach a point of fatigue, notes board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD. Although what causes someone to hit this wall varies from person to person, common causes include “being in a lot of situations that require us to be responsible, to be present for others, or that bring up a lot of emotions,” explains psychotherapist Joseph Zagame, LCSW-R, clinical director of myTherapyNYC. That sounds a lot like what any parent has faced the past few months as they’ve been trying their best to balance work and childcare. And schooling. And keeping their family safe. And on and on.
If you’re mentally exhausted and try to keep plowing on, you may find that your sleep and mood are significantly disturbed, that you’re less patient with your family, that you’re reaching for alcohol and junk food for comfort, Seide says. In the long run, this prolonged stress could put you at risk for depression and anxiety, she adds. Or it could lead to burnout. “We may no longer be able to handle the demands of day-to-day life, let alone whatever emotionally taxing situation we are also in,” Zagame says.
By knowing the signs of mental exhaustion, you can recognize when you need to recalibrate. Here are nine to look out for.
The Warning Signs of Mental Exhaustion
1. You’re impatient
When we’re mentally exhausted, “smaller and smaller things become intolerable, as we have fewer and fewer emotional reserves,” Zagame says. If you find yourself losing patience in moments where you normally wouldn’t — like your five-year-old taking forever to tie their shoes or your spouse being indecisive about what to order from DoorDash — this may be a red flag.
2. You’re irritable
Mental exhaustion can cause you to be in a low-grade fight-or-flight mode all the time, Seide explains. This causes you to constantly be on edge because your body feels the need to be vigilant of any possible dangers in your environment.
3. Concentration is a challenge
A lot of things may be on your mind right now and going on at once, making it hard to focus on one task at a time. But if you find that it’s hard to speak clearly or concentrate well on anything, this could be a sign that your brain is sapped and some of its most basic functions are compromised, Zagame says.
4. Your bourbon stash is depleted
Or maybe you keep eating all the ice cream sandwiches you bought for the kids. Either way, you’re self-medicating in an effort to comfort yourself. You’re also giving into cravings for sugar, alcohol, and perhaps drugs because you’re less able to make sound, rash decisions since your body is prioritizing what it needs now to survive, Seide says.
5. You have insomnia
“You can be too tired to sleep,” Seide says. This can happen when you are mentally exhausted yet you can’t enter a state of relaxation. “Additionally, since sleep is an active activity, the brain needs to work well in order to effectively sleep,” she adds. But of course the brain isn’t functioning on all cylinders when it’s pooped. And insomnia or poor sleep can in turn perpetuate mental exhaustion.
6. Rest doesn’t help
Even if you don’t have insomnia, sleep and other physical rest may not cause you to feel restored. In that case, you may need to increase your self-care. “Often, making time to process your feelings with your journal, a supportive friend, or a therapist can help to restore what sleep can’t,” says Zagame. “Engaging in self care practices like yoga, meditation, spending time in nature, or taking a hot bath may also be necessary to ease the tension.”
7. Small tasks seem overwhelming
When you’re mentally exhausted, “everything feels hard, even mundane tasks like folding laundry,” Seide says. “It feels like everything has a ton of steps and is too much.” Your brain is simply too drained to do anything that takes even the tiniest effort.
8. You’re numb
While some people cry or are irritated over nothing when mentally exhausted, others “don’t feel much of anything, good or bad,” Seide says. Life has made you so worn out that you can’t even process emotions and simply feel desensitized.
9. You argue more often
Tensions continue to be high, so it’s not unreasonable that you got into it with a coworker over Zoom the other day and that you and your partner may have a few more disagreements than usual. However, take notice if you are getting into significantly more fights or arguments with the people in your life. “This is an indicator that your needs are not being met, and the frustration of that is coming out in your interactions with others,” Zagame explains.
How to Bounce Back From Mental Exhaustion
If any or a few of these signs sound like you lately, you need some self-care. “Think about about what tends to make you feel grounded, calm, and safe, and that restores not only your physical but also emotional energy,” says Zagame. “These may or may not be the same things you do when you are feeling tired, stressed, bored, or lonely.” Go for a walk around your neighborhood. Play with the dog. Meditate for 15 minutes. Whatever the case, incorporate one or some of those into your daily life, even for a few minutes.
It’s also important to emphasize the fundamentals: healthy eating, sleeping well, exercising. Seide recommends that, if you can, truly rest and do nothing for a day (or longer, if you can). Completely unplug from work, your devices, and anything causing you stress. A tough ask, but do it if you’re able.
The other important thing is support. “It can feel incredibly restorative to have someone provide care to you or to empathically listen as you talk about what you’re going through and what you’re feeling,” Zagame says. That someone could be your partner, a family member, or a friend — anyone that you can talk openly with. Or it could be a professional, such as a therapist or psychologist.
“They can help you address what is happening now and begin to develop new skills so that it doesn’t happen again,” Zagame says. After all, that’s the goal.
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