Mental Exhaustion: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Avoid It

Mental exhaustion implies a series of physical and psychological symptoms that appear mainly due to stress. Find out how to prevent it!
Mental Exhaustion: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Avoid It
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 15 April, 2023

Mental exhaustion, also called mental fatigue, is a state of the body that appears as a consequence of stress or a specific period of tension. It’s characterized, above all, by a load on the normal stream of thought.

That is, we feel tired physically and mentally. However, its symptoms go further and its appearance can hinder the quality of sleep and lead to muscle problems and headaches.

What other symptoms does mental exhaustion produce? Why does it usually appear? How can we avoid it? We’ll talk about all this, and, at the end of the article, we’ll suggest some key ideas to take care of your body as well as your mind, thus promoting the prevention of this condition. Take note!

Mental exhaustion: What is it?

According to data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE), up to 59% of Spanish employees suffer from stress in their workplace. Beyond this, the reality is that inside and outside of employment, many people suffer from stressors.

This is due to the hectic pace of life we lead, especially in cities, the large number of responsibilities we assume, and the difficulties we face managing time and disconnecting. Mental exhaustion has a lot to do with this and it becomes a sign of alarm.

So, how do we define mental exhaustion? It consists of an overload in the normal flow of thought that causes us stress and even anxiety, as well as unbearable fatigue. Mental fatigue from work occurs, fundamentally, in people who have an excess of intellectual employment. That is, they’re required to understand, reason, solve problems, be focused, and memorize almost constantly.

A review article by Pedraz-Petrozzi (2018) explains that fatigue is a clinical manifestation that is correlated with different diseases and locations of the central nervous system. It affects different parts of the body, as we’ll see throughout the article.

Prevalence and comorbid disorders

At the same time, according to a study by Smartt et al. (2016), mental exhaustion affects 10-33% of the world population, although other studies (Loge et al., 1998 and Steen et al., 2017) speak of a more specific prevalence, suggesting that this phenomenon is present. by 10.5% of individuals.

Mental exhaustion often occurs with another disorder or secondary illness. In other words, there are often various comorbidities between fatigue and medical illnesses and it’s rarely an isolated phenomenon, as suggested by a study by Hockey et al. (2013).

Woman with mental exhaustion on a balcony.
Mental exhaustion leads to listlessness and can be confused with a depressive disorder.

The symptoms of mental exhaustion

Mental exhaustion implies a series of symptoms associated with stress or anxiety that we above mentioned. Although each person presents their own symptoms, some of the most typical are difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep (insomnia), problems maintaining attention and concentration, palpitations while at rest, digestive disturbances, headaches, or migraines.

But mental exhaustion doesn’t affect physical health alone. In the non-verbal communication of someone who presents mental exhaustion, we also find symptoms, as the body accompanies the suffering. Among them, we find gestures of pain (referring to the head or neck), signs of tension (at the facial level), motor restlessness, and aggressiveness.

Regarding the way of speaking, the person may do it in an accelerated and nervous way, or the opposite; those who were already nervous can begin to speak in a very linear way, with a greater tendency to respond and move slowly.

The causes of mental exhaustion

The fundamental cause of mental exhaustion is daily stress or chronic stress that many people suffer in their day to day, especially if it originates from the high level of mental activation required in a job. This stress can turn into anxiety and lead to symptoms of exhaustion.

On the other hand, specific situations of intense tension can also trigger it. For example, if a person suffers a breakup added to work problems and the illness of a family member; all these events could come together.

Type of job

Very mental jobs, that is, those that require great mental and cognitive activation on the part of the subject could also be prone to cause mental fatigue. In addition, they’re usually jobs that require little physical involvement (in other words, they’re very sedentary).

At the same time, the factors of the organization in which one works can also favor the appearance of this picture. In this way, the climate and business culture, colleagues, or the leadership styles of superiors also cause mental fatigue.

Personal factors

The resources available to each person at a psychological level also influence the appearance of this picture. Therefore, there are those who tolerate stressful situations better than others and this benefits them when it comes to preventing mental exhaustion.

On the other hand, there are those who show a certain tendency to create unnecessary worries, to have ruminative thoughts (in a loop), and to suffer a lot from the uncertainty of the future or from what they can’t control.

These people may be more prone to suffer from mental exhaustion, as well as those who don’t know how to delegate their work or who take on burdens that don’t belong to them. That is, mental exhaustion can appear from a series of real events in life, but also from imagined things.

Not to be confused with depression

It’s important not to confuse mental exhaustion with depression or other types of mental disorders. Therefore, in depression, issues such as self-concept or self-esteem are affected and feelings of guilt, disgust, or self-contempt usually appear with deep sadness.

Furthermore, the lack of energy that appears in depression isn’t caused by real fatigue, but by a lack of motivation (apathy, anhedonia). In the case of mental exhaustion, the frustration turns not so much toward oneself, but rather toward others and toward society in general.

How to avoid mental exhaustion?

How can we avoid or prevent mental exhaustion? What key ideas can help us? We’ve grouped them by theme.

Control your mind

To begin with, it’ll be important to learn to control thoughts, as well as manage emotions. In this regard, we must avoid thinking excessively about those things that we can’t control or about the future in general.

Instead, we can choose to focus on the present moment, on the famous here and now. This can help us reduce those anxious symptoms that appear with mental fatigue. Stopping thinking about things will also help us.

Stress headache in a woman.
Physical symptoms appear when there’s mental fatigue. For example, headaches.

Promote self-care

At the same time, practicing a little meditation or mindfulness before going to sleep or upon waking up, exercising regularly, respecting the hours of sleep and schedules in general, and sleeping and eating well can help us improve our quality of life and prevent mental fatigue. Self-care will be a tool that will play in our favor.

Disconnect and manage your time against mental fatigue

As we said, carrying out activities that allow us to disconnect will be a key factor in taking care of the mind. That’s what mental hygiene is about: Doing activities that we like and that require playful concentration, such as watching movies, listening to music, dancing, and drawing. This will help us reset our stress levels.

Managing time, organizing ourselves well, and establishing priorities in our day-to-day lives can also benefit us when it comes to preventing mental exhaustion. Don’t forget that taking care of physical health also implies taking care of mental health (and vice versa).

“Take care of your body; it’s the only place you have to live.”

-Jim Rohn-

  • Delgado, F. (2006). Saber cuidarse para cuidar, PPC: Madrid.
  • Grün, A. (1997). Cómo estar en armonía consigo mismo, Verbo Divin.
  • Hockey R. The psychology of fatigue : work, effort and control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2013.
  • Loge JH, Ekeberg Ø, Kaasa S. Fatigue in the general Norwegian population: Normative data and associations. J Psychosom Res. 1998;45(1):53-65.
  • Pedraz-Petrozzi, B. (2018). Fatiga: historia, neuroanatomía y características psicopatológicas. Una revisión de la Literatura. Rev Neuropsiquiatr, 8(13): 174-182.
  • Smartt C, Medhin G, Alem A, Patel V, Dewey M, Prince M, et al. Fatigue as a manifestation of psychosocial distress in a low-income country: A population-based panel study. Trop Med Int Heal. 2016;21(3):365–72.
  • Steen R, Dahl AA, Hess SL, Kiserud CE. A study of chronic fatigue in Norwegian cervical cancer survivors. Gynecol Oncol. 2017; 146(3): 630–5.

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