Mental exhaustion, brain fatigue, or burnout is something that many professionals accept as a necessary consequence of having a career. Left unchecked, this state of chronic exhaustion can cause cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness, and lack of accomplishment. Even worse, it can lead to serious health conditions including depression, high blood pressure, and cardiac diseases. Fortunately, if you’re honest with yourself, you can halt exhaustion before it develops into anything more serious.
Early Signals to Spot
The key to avoiding the long-term effects of mental exhaustion is to stop it before it becomes a chronic condition. Watch out for these symptoms:
- Your brain slows down. You may feel like you’re having short-term memory lapses or struggling to follow complex discussions. Maybe you’re unable to multitask or keep track of details with the same level of effectiveness. You may even feel confused and struggle to concentrate as this symptom progresses.
- You can’t get to sleep. At night, you toss and turn, and come daytime, you’re drowsy. Your sleep cycle is off, and sleep deprivation, or even a reduction in the hours of solid sleep you get can lead to many other health issues.
- You’re irritable or sad. Negative emotions are primary and secondary responses to mental exhaustion and the first two symptoms, respectively. If the quality of your working relationships or personal relationships is deteriorating because you are acting out negative emotions, this is a can’t miss signal of mental exhaustion.
- Your eating habits have changed. You’ve either lost your appetite or you’re engaging in stress eating to self-medicate. Stress eaters typically don’t go for celery and peanut butter either; you’re likely reaching for fattening, carb-loaded comfort foods.
- You just can’t seem to get motivated. Now the previous symptoms are snowballing. Your lack of sleep and proper diet are exacerbating your mental acuity and emotional sensitivity issues. Though you can’t seem to find motivation, there’s never been greater urgency for you to do so. You’ve got to reverse this cycle, ASAP.
How to Reverse Course
- Seek out a professional, licensed therapist with experience in mental exhaustion. Fortunately, there are many because the condition is so prevalent.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. Whether you deeply explore the practice of meditation or just take a mindfulness break several times a day, this step is essential. When you finish this article, close your eyes, breathe slowly, and get in touch with the pure sensation of yourself sitting. Think about the position of your feet on the ground and your shoulders against the seat, and just be present with yourself. At home, take this a step further and reduce all sensory inputs, like light and noise. There are some great apps to use for this, including Calm.
- Stop identifying so strongly with “virtues” that kill. We’re among the most productive workers on earth, known for our American Exceptionalism. Some of the virtues that are exalted in this country seep into our individual identities. We think we can do more and more. We can do it all, and we can do it all at once. Slow down. Careers aren’t sprints; they’re marathons, and you can’t win a marathon by collapsing at the 18th mile marker.
- Improve the quality of your life outside of work. Do more of what you enjoy, including things that relax you when it gets close to bedtime, and things that energize your mind and body throughout the day (when you’re not working). Exercise more, and do it with other people so you can enjoy the camaraderie and social benefits at the same time. Make art and music a priority, and plan enriching getaways that will provide happy memories after the fact. Getting to know yourself and enjoying simple pleasures is key to keeping your mental acuity – and your sanity.
Mental exhaustion is an insidious epidemic in the United States and in developed countries around the world. It happens to all of us. You’re more than just a cog in an economic machine; you’re an important person that people value. Take care of yourself.