Mental fatigue: what it is and how to overcome it

Jelena Mraovic

Last updated on: April 21, 2022

I can…’t do it. Have you found yourself in a situation where your emotional batteries were drained? You’ve had a hard time concentrating even on the simplest tasks? It happens to every single one of us. Being tired doesn’t always signify physical exhaustion. Once in a while, we may feel emotional tiredness or — mental fatigue.

If you:

  • have problems with sleeping and experience sudden body aching,
  • experience a mental block,
  • notice significant changes in your behavior,

…you may be coping with mental fatigue. Our mental energy can also be used up, like any other resource. Still, the good news is that if we recognize the signs of exhaustion and act adequately, it will be a renewable resource.

In this blog post, we will talk about mental fatigue symptoms, causes, and prevention measures that will help you manage it.

Mental fatigue - cover

What is mental fatigue?

Mental fatigue is the feeling of brain exhaustion that people experience after a lengthy cognitive performance. People who experience mental fatigue have a hard time maintaining attention, doing minor tasks, and filtrating relevant information. It’s a so-called modern disease since it is connected to contemporary ways of living.

Mental fatigue and modern lifestyle

In the past, the vast majority of jobs demanded physical effort. Nowadays, prevailing jobs are knowledge-based and demand mental effort. As a result, people have too much on their plate: long working hours, commuting, families, mortgages, and deadlines. When we continually deal with stressful situations, our cortisol levels increase, and mental exhaustion takes its place.

In a survey in 2007, 65.7% of USA workers stated that they experienced mental exhaustion at work. Consequently, it negatively affected their productivity at work. Apart from its influence on work-life, mental fatigue tremendously affects people’s social and private lives. Furthermore, this type of exhaustion is one of the symptoms in serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and many others.

Stress vs. mental fatigue

It’s crucial in this post to make a difference between stress and mental fatigue. Therefore, these two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Keeping a good work-life balance can be quite a demanding task. In the process of maintaining this balance — stress is inevitable. Namely, stress is triggered by an external source. It can be short-term, such as a traffic jam on your way to work, or long-term — chronic illness, divorce, caring for aging parents.

On the other hand, mental fatigue is a severe form of tiredness, and subsequently — a result of long-term stress. It can be acute or chronic. Acute exhaustion is short-term and can happen after a hectic day. If it regularly happens and we do nothing to manage it, then it becomes chronic. Chronic fatigue can result in burnout — the feeling of being physically and mentally depleted. It is usually prevalent among the community workers (social workers, health care workers, military personnel, etc.). For instance, a study on professional burnout found that 54% of psychiatric technicians (out of 151) experienced extreme mental fatigue. What’s more, 38% of them reported feeling detached from themselves.

💡 Everything you need to know about burnout → Carrier burnout and its effect on health

Brain fog vs. mental fatigue

As with stress, we need to make a difference between mental fatigue and brain fog. These two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably either. So, if you’ve asked yourself questions like:

  • Did I turn off the iron?
  • Did I lock the door?
  • Where is my car?

…you’ve experienced brain fog. In fact, we all have.

When we are tired, our minds also get sluggish. We can’t think clearly nor recall even the simplest things. Therefore, this state of mind is called brain fog. It’s a state of cognitive impairment that includes difficulties in concentrating and thinking. Besides that, it is often followed by loss of short-term memory. Brain fog is also one of the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (prolonged physical and mental tiredness) and fibromyalgia. That is to say, brain fog occurs as a symptom of mental fatigue, but prolonged fatigue that is present for more than six months. Causes of brain fog differ from case to case. Only when you identify the cause of it will you be able to cure it accordingly. Here are some most common brain fog triggers:

  • Lack of sleep,
  • Poor diet,
  • Prolonged stress,
  • Various medical conditions,
  • Spending too much time on the computer.

Nevertheless, it’s not all that foggy. What you can do to prevent this from happening is:

  • Get enough sleep,
  • Avoid stress,
  • Take nutrients such as B vitamins, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and ribose (it’s better if you get the nutrients from food, not supplements).

What are the causes of mental fatigue?

We’ve already mentioned that mental fatigue most often occurs as a result of prolonged cognitive activity and long-term stress. However, it’s hard to precisely define the causability of mental exhaustion. Causes of it differentiate between individuals. Nevertheless, some are more prevalent than others. We’ve included a list of the most common mental fatigue causes.

Chronic stress

Stress is an everyday thing, and in small doses, we can benefit from it. It can motivate us to accomplish tasks and reach goals. But, repeated and uncontrolled exposure to long-term stress leads to mental fatigue. Chronic stress debilitates you physically and mentally, which can also expose you to serious illnesses.

Stressful occupations

Working as a community worker is a noble job, but the burden of work can take its toll. Community workers give their emotional and physical energy to service recipients, which leads to mental exhaustion and weariness. The COVID pandemic resulted in 60% of 1,209 healthcare workers feeling burned out. Police officers also experience mental exhaustion due to working in rotating shifts and a lack of sleep. As a result, mental fatigue impairs their judgment and ability to respond adequately in extreme situations.

Physical exhaustion

Doing extreme physical activity can lead to mental exhaustion as well. It is very common among elite athletes. They push their limits while producing maximal power, speed, or force for as long as possible. As a consequence, they are prone to chronic stress and pressure to achieve the best results.

Family affairs

Caring for our family members is fulfilling, but it can often come with many stressors. People who take care of terminally ill or elderly family members come across distressing situations. When that stress remains continuous — it leads to chronic exhaustion. Research on mental health effects of family caregiving states that caregivers are frequently persons with low socioeconomic status. The same research says that spouses with shared personal characteristics and habits (poor nutrition and lack of physical exercise) are more likely to develop illnesses, thereby become mutual caregivers. This results in increased depression and mental exhaustion.

Poor lifestyle

People with poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and an inactive lifestyle may experience mental fatigue more often. Later in this post, we will emphasize the importance of physical health to prevent fatigue.

Energy vampires

These are the people who take advantage of you, mentally abuse you, and suck your energy slowly, leaving you drained. Moreover, they are great pretenders who are often very charming at first glance. But, behind that innocent and smiling face hides an insecure and attention-craving abuser. Besides that, they never take responsibility for their actions and always play the victim. Therefore, energy vampires may be the culprits for your mental exhaustion. An energy vampire can be your friend, partner, or even a family member. Bear in mind that these people really exist, and no — it’s not “all in your head.” If you recognize any of these signs, distance yourself from them immediately.

Mental health conditions

People with mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and different psychoses often experience mental fatigue. They may also deal with the flight-or-fight response, which can lead to extreme mental fatigue.

What are the symptoms of mental fatigue?

The state of mental fatigue can manifest itself in different ways. As with causes, symptoms of mental fatigue are very individual too. We’ve talked with different specialists on this topic and added their answers to our list of the most common symptoms for you to recognize. Specifically, we talked with:

We’ve divided the symptoms they’ve listed into three groups: emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.

Emotional symptoms

They refer to our current emotional state, how we feel and react to the environment. Let’s take a look at some of the most common emotional symptoms of mental exhaustion:

  • Feeling anxious and panicky,
  • Depression,
  • Lack of motivation and productivity,
  • Vulnerability,
  • Inability to act or react to a negative or demanding situation,
  • Feelings of impatience and irritability,
  • Constant crankiness or anger.

Physical symptoms

Physical symptoms are in this case caused by our mental state. Mental illnesses affect our brain and the brain affects the rest of the body. That is to say, emotional and physical symptoms come as a package. Here are the most common physical symptoms of mental fatigue:

  • Feeling tired and sluggish,
  • Unidentified body and muscle aches,
  • Sudden weight gain or loss,
  • Sleep disorder.

Behavioral symptoms

When experiencing mental fatigue, our behavior is susceptible to changes too. If you experience any of the behavioral symptoms listed below, you may be dealing with mental fatigue.

  • Lack of social interest,
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy,
  • Procrastinating and missing deadlines at work or school,
  • Self-medicating and substance abuse.

→ Note: This is just an informatory text. Thus, it is crucial to consult with a licensed specialist if you start experiencing any of the above-listed symptoms.

How to overcome mental fatigue?

It’s of the essence to take care of your mental health. Thus, never ignore warning signs that your body is sending you. We are not even aware of the things we do wrong and unintentionally weaken our health. Evidently, an accumulated and prolonged state of distress can impair both your mental and physical health. Here’s what you can do about it, to overcome mental fatigue.

Rethink your priorities

Hard work is not the same as overwork. We can remain hard-working yet find the right balance to prevent mental exhaustion from happening. According to a study, 53% of Americans say they leave their vacation days unused by the end of the year. The main reason for that is too much work and feeling guilty for taking vacation days off. You should not feel guilty for going on a vacation that you are entitled to by law. It exists for a reason — to relax and charge batteries to get back to work.

💡 If you consider yourself a “workaholic” who avoids vacations, this is what you should know → Workaholism facts

Time manage your activities

If you are swamped with work, you can consider defining your work scope within a certain time frame. This way, you will avoid burnout and stay productive. Without a doubt, simple time tracking can help you define your work scope and never miss your well-deserved vacation again. What’s more, don’t forget to take regular breaks between tasks. We suggest you try the Pomodoro technique to break the work into intervals and take short breaks in between.

Take care of your physical and mental health

In order to look after your mental health, you need to get rid of the bad habits. Instead of eating processed sugars and fast food, you should maintain a healthy diet. It’s crucial to drink water — avoid soda and commercial juices. Exercising is of the utmost importance! Also, don’t ignore the signals that your body is sending you — reach out to a friend, or seek help from a specialist. There’s no shame in that.

Create a work-life balance

Maintain a healthy work-life balance by going on a well-deserved vacation and clearly defining your work scope. This way, you will save yourself from burnout. In addition, buy things in bulk so that you don’t have to run to the store every time you need something. In other words, stick to a routine and strategically plan your activities. Even the slightest changes in our lifestyle can make things better.

We’ve prepared a summarized list of the things you should and shouldn’t do to help you overcome mental fatigue, which you can read below.

overcome mental fatigue

Listen to advice from specialists

According to Karen M. Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H. of the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, the best medicine for mental fatigue is — exercise. And not just any type of exercise. She prescribes aerobic (walking, swimming, cycling) and anaerobic (sprinting, weight lifting, high-intensity interval training) activities. People with mental fatigue should do these activities at least ten minutes a day, three to five days a week in order to see results.

She further explains:

I absolutely think exercise is the most important thing that we can offer a patient in terms of supportive care.

The psychologist Claire Grayson also emphasizes the importance of physical exercise. But, in addition, she says:

I cannot stress enough the importance of sticking to a schedule, which includes frequent breaks and outdoor activities. Some of my clients that were working from home were experiencing anxiety episodes. What helped them was to start working outside of their home (in cafes, libraries, at their friends’ places, etc.) at least one day a week.

The life coach, Kate Chapman, has an interesting technique for overcoming mental exhaustion to share:

A wonderful technique to overcome mental fatigue is to “Play Pretend”. Both words in the title are important to address:

Play. The first goal is to look for ways to be playful. Even mental play is advantageous. Close your eyes. Think of kittens or puppies playing. Visualize how that looks.

Pretend. The second goal is to pretend that you are one of those playful puppies in your mind. Mentally leap like a kitten and pounce!

Now, this may seem like a silly little exercise, but we’ve now given your left brain a little break. Pretending to be canine or feline or anything else allows our right brain to engage, which helps the mind re-energize itself. Spending even a few minutes Playing Pretend can clear away a whole heap of mental fatigue easily, economically, and joyfully.

Wrapping up

We can conclude that both physical and emotional health are equally important. And, that mental exhaustion has negative effects on your overall well-being. It affects your work, social and personal life. So, if you ever notice any of the symptoms that we mentioned in this post, we advise you to act adequately and never ignore the signs.

To overcome mental fatigue, you need to enhance your lifestyle, avoid bad habits, and stay away from toxic people. The most important thing is to identify the stressor and get rid of it. Moreover, if you find that you need to, ask for help — reach out to a friend you trust or seek help from a specialist to discuss the issue.

✉️ Have you ever experienced mental fatigue before? How did you overcome it? Write to us at to give us more insight into this menacing state of mind, and we may include your answer in this or future articles.

Author: JelenaMraovic

Jelena Mraovic is a time management and productivity author and researcher, constantly in search of new time distribution and productivity hacks. Since being a time management and productivity writer helped her improve her own self-discipline and reduce stress — helping others do the same has become her aspiration.

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