Do you constantly feel tired? Not just physically tired but a crushing exhaustion that threatens to derail your life? Like you just don’t have the energy to keep going? Your mind is foggy, you’re forgetful, short-tempered, feel overwhelmed, overeating or not eating at all and you don’t sleep well even though you’re desperately tired.
These are classic signs of mental exhaustion, otherwise known as mental fatigue or burnout.
They are warning signs that should not be ignored. Don’t keep telling yourself you’ll bounce back soon or try to hide it from your loved ones. Mental fatigue is far more serious than physical fatigue and the sooner you get help and treat burnout, the better.
Is it possible to reverse mental exhaustion? Yes, it is and here’s what the experts recommend for all wondering how to overcome mental exhaustion.
What is mental fatigue?
Mental fatigue is a feeling of utter exhaustion that is a result of your brain being overactive for too long. It’s usually triggered by prolonged periods of stress and poor sleep as well as grief and emotionally-draining work and personal relationships.
These events send your brain into overdrive and the constant ‘noise and commotion’ in your mind keeps levels of adrenalin and cortisol so high, it eventually drains the energy reserves of your brain. This can hamper your productivity and overall cognitive function. You’re just as dangerous behind the wheel of a car with mental fatigue as you are if you drank too much.
Mental fatigue is also a co-occurring symptom of serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, kidney and liver disease, hypothyroidism and congestive heart failure. Mental fatigue is commonly related to depression and anxiety; although if you have mental fatigue, you aren’t necessarily suffering from depression.
Think of your brain like a sponge. It can only hold so much water before it becomes soaked and can’t absorb anymore liquid. Stressors are like water and your brain can only hold so much before it becomes flooded beyond capacity. When overwhelmed by stressors, your brain’s ability to hold onto new information and function properly is impaired.
It’s common to experience executive burnout with the pressurised work lives we have and your burnout could be short-term. However, if mental fatigue or burnout is left unchecked, it can lead to a whole array of serious health issues.
What are the symptoms of mental fatigue?
Mental fatigue or burnout affects your mind, body and soul. The three are interlinked and when your brain is in mental overdrive, physical and emotional symptoms can hit you all at the same time.
Burnout isn’t a recognised medical term but rather a way of describing the feeling of being utterly mentally, physically and emotionally drained and out of balance.
Emotional symptoms of mental burnout
- feel sad all the time
- feel anxious all the time
- don’t care anymore about things that used to matter
- feel detached from others
- don’t care too much about other people’s feelings
- battle to concentrate or focus on tasks
- feeling of dread or unease
- not motivated to work, exercise or socialise
- overly pessimistic or cynical
- feel like life is hopeless
Physical symptoms of mental burnout
- sore or upset stomach
- body aches and pains
- chronic fatigue
- loss of appetite or overeating
- weight gain or weight loss
- chronic insomnia
- sick more often with common ailments like colds and flu
- irritable or quick-tempered
Behavioural symptoms of mental burnout
- underperforming at work or tasks that you used to be good at
- withdraw or isolate from friends and family
- let colleagues, family or friends down by not keeping to personal and work commitments
- call in sick more often or stop working or studying altogether
- look pale, tired or generally run down
- don’t keep up your personal appearances and let hygiene slip
What causes mental fatigue or burnout?
Stress is perfectly natural and something that our body actually needs. The body responds to stress by releasing a surge of hormones which includes adrenaline and cortisol. We need these hormones to help us react to perceived threats and high-pressure situations where we need to think and act quickly.
When the stressor has been removed, your body should go back to normal. However, when stress goes on and on and your body is continually receiving a surge of stress hormones, your adrenalin and cortisol levels remain high and start causing problems with normal body functions.
A prolonged flood of stress hormones affects everything from your digestive and immune system to your sleeping patterns, concentration, moods and physical fitness.
Why does mental exhaustion make you tired?
Even after having 8 hours of more quality sleep, you’ll probably wake up feeling exhausted and feel tired throughout the day if you are suffering from mental fatigue or burnout. This constant tiredness is tied to the high levels of cortisol in your body that stay high because your brain is overactive.
Cortisol is a hormone that’s released when a body is stressed. It’s secreted by the adrenal glands and increases blood sugar levels and blood pressure. It also suppresses the immune system and aids in metabolism.
High levels of cortisol bought on by constant stress put extra strain on your heart function, digestive system, immunity system and affects your sleep. Your body has to work harder than normal when flooded with the stress hormone to keep your system in balance. All this extra effort leads you to feel totally exhausted even if you’re getting enough sleep.
Do you have depression or burnout?
Depression and burnout tend to go hand-in-hand. Mental exhaustion can lead to depression and it can also be a symptom of depression. However, if you are experiencing burnout, it does not necessarily mean you have depression.
A combination of depression and mental fatigue can impair your concentration, motivation and your ability to do simple everyday tasks. This leads to problems at work, at home and with friends. Whether it’s depression or fatigue, it can lead to you feeling that life is too difficult and even feel suicidal.
One way to tell if you have depression or mental fatigue is how you respond when the stressors are removed. If you cut back your work hours, take a long holiday, stop reading bad news, get off social media, get rid of clutter, go back to gym and start eating and sleeping better but you still feel low, unmotivated and constantly anxious… it’s likely you have depression.
You need to speak to someone and get help as soon as possible before your depression gets much worse. To get rid of stressors in your life, find an exhaustion management programme or book yourself into a wellness centre like White River Manor that treats executive burnout.
5 stages of executive burnout
General burnout affects you personally as well as your friends and family. Executive burnout specifically affects your ability to perform at your best at work; where the passion and interest you once had in your job, career or company has literally burnt out.
Let’s look at the 5 stages of executive burnout so that you can see how the condition progresses and just how serious it can be in the long-term.
You start a new job, project or business venture and it’s all excitement and enthusiasm in the beginning. It’s a stressful phase but you can handle whatever comes your way because you love what you do, you’ve got loads of energy, can cope with the responsibilities and you feel a great deal of job satisfaction.
You become aware that the stress is more than you can handle at the same time your enthusiasm for your job or business starts waning. You’re starting to feel less physically, mentally or emotionally invigorated than you felt in the beginning.
You may experience the following symptoms:
- general tiredness or exhaustion
- high blood pressure and heart palpitations
- loss of appetite or overeating
- lack of motivation and reduced productivity
- poor concentration or loss of memory
- headaches or neck tension
- reduce or stop exercising
Stress becomes chronic
At this stage, you’ll experience a marked change in your stress levels. It goes from manageable stress to overwhelming stress and the symptoms above become intense.
You may require medication for heart problems, depression or headaches. You may start to drink alcohol more heavily or start using recreational drugs to relax or ease the tension.
Chronic stress starts to affect your job performance and your relationships with friends and family.
- miss work deadlines
- absent from work or call in sick more often
- avoid seeing family and friends
- stop doing things you love like hobbies and exercise
- drastic weight loss or weight gain
- unhealthy rage, depression or anxiety
- extremely pessimistic, cynical or negative
- have panic attacks
- have suicidal thoughts
The symptoms are critical by the time you enter stage four of burnout. It’s no longer possible to continue as things are and pretend everything is normal. By this stage, you might have lost your job, your company, your marriage, family or friends.
It’s time to ask for help!
See a medical professional for a proper diagnosis of executive burnout and preferably book yourself into a rehabilitation centre like White River Manor that treats executive burnout. Up to this stage, it is possible to reverse executive burnout.
Permanent or habitual burnout means the symptoms of burnout are so embedded that it defines you. Basically, the physical and emotional turmoil you’ve experience fundamentally changes who you are and you are unlikely to go back to being your old, happy self.
Habitual burnout leads to serious physical and mental illness which can only be treated by medical experts or a psychiatrist. At this stage, alcohol and drug addiction may be a bigger problem.
Symptoms in stage 5 include:
- chronic depression
- chronic anxiety
- burnout syndrome
- chronic mental fatigue
- chronic physical fatigue
- life-threatening illnesses like cancer, hypertension, diabetes and heart, kidney or liver failure
- alcohol and/or drug addiction
How do you reverse burnout?
With the right help and care, it’s possible to reverse mental exhaustion up to stage four. Maybe it’s even possible in stage five with some serious intervention.
There is much you can do yourself to help cope with stress and reduce the symptoms of mental exhaustion but if what you try doesn’t help, you really must consider seeking professional help for exhaustion management. This best thing you could do is book yourself into a rehabilitation centre like White River Manor who takes a holistic approach to treating chronic burnout.
The top 5 expert tips for reversing burnout are:
Remove or reduce the stressor
Relentless and prolonged stress keeps adrenalin and cortisol at a level in your body that’s too high to sustain. If you can’t remove the stressor completely, you need to reduce it as much as possible.
- ask for extra help
- delegate some of your responsibilities
- hire someone with the expertise you need
- hire people for babysitting, cleaning, running errands or caring for a family member
Get away from the stress
This seems obvious but the goal is to completely remove yourself from stressors.
- clear your schedule; let people know that you will be out of comms for a week or more
- go away to a place that has no wi-fi, turn off your cell phone and completely detox from technology
- go away on your own if there is conflict with family or friends
- book into a wellness centre that specialises in treating executive burnout
- set a holiday schedule that includes light exercise so you’re busy and don’t ‘mope’
Choose low-intensity exercise to get moving again. Even if you can’t find the energy, get off the couch and get moving. Enjoy the fresh air, scenery and switch off your mind. Leave your phone at home.
- find a buddy or trainer that will motivate you to exercise and keep you motivated
- choose exercise that is enjoyable and you look forward to doing; try something new like swimming, mountain biking or paddling
- exercise in a natural setting rather than a gym; let the fresh air breathe new life into you
- avoid busy gyms as these can be intimidating and another stressor in your life
Adopt relaxation techniques
It’s been scientifically proven that relaxation techniques reduce stress and anxiety by lowering cortisol levels in the blood. High cortisol levels increase your risk of serious illnesses like cancer, hypertension and heart disease.
Popular relaxation techniques to try include:
- tai chi
- deep breathing
Sleep more and better
Quality sleep is essential for you emotional and physical well-being. The average person needs at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night.
- set a bedtime routine and stick to it; set an alarm for when you need to go to your bedroom and when to turn off your light
- avoid sleeping for long hours during the day so you aren’t wide awake at night
- do some light reading a few minutes before going to sleep at the same time every night
- put your phone away at least an hour before you go to sleep; the blue light from your screen mimics daylight and messes with your sleep pattern
- cut out caffeine and other stimulants that affect how well you sleep; in particular, don’t drink coffee or eat sweets and chocolates before your bedtime
Mental exhaustion is a serious issue and can be life-threatening if it progresses to chronic burnout.
Seek professional help if you recognised any of the symptoms highlighted in this article. Medication may be necessary for chronic individuals but in most cases, natural relaxation techniques and forming new habits will help remove stressors and eliminate the buildup of adrenalin and cortisol in your system.
White River Manor tackles executive burnout through an holistic approach with a team of skilled medical practitioners and therapists as well as a combination of therapies. It forms part of a comprehensive exhaustion management programme that helps reverse the crippling symptoms of mental exhaustion.