Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/19/2022
Most people are familiar with the feeling of physically working so long or hard that we’re completely wiped out when we’re done. Our muscles are incredibly tired, perhaps even to the point where we feel like we can’t use them anymore.
You can experience this same feeling in your brain instead of your muscles. When your mind works hard for long periods with few breaks, you could become mentally exhausted.
But what exactly causes mental exhaustion? Further, what are the signs of mental exhaustion, and how can you treat it?
Ahead, answers to these questions and a comprehensive look at mental exhaustion.
Mental exhaustion (or mental fatigue) happens when your brain maintains an intense level of activity without periods of rest. Although it’s not a medical condition per se, it can still impact your overall well-being and quality of life.
Mental fatigue affects cognitive skills like memory, decision-making, problem-solving, emotion regulation and, of course, thinking.
You may also experience a kind of “brain drain” if you suffer from chronic stress. Also known as long-term stress, chronic stress can lead to emotional exhaustion, the feeling of being emotionally, physically and mentally tired.
Emotional exhaustion, as the name implies, deals with the ability to identify, process and express emotions. It may come up if you’re navigating difficult feelings like grief, anger or sadness.
Mental exhaustion isn’t the same as stress, though. Stress can lead to panic, frustration and even anxiety. It’s a temporary reaction to an external factor that resolves once the stressor goes away.
That said, prolonged stress can make a person feel mentally exhausted, which commonly happens with job burnout.
Physical exhaustion is also different from mental exhaustion. A physically exhausted person may feel tired from physical activity but still mentally alert. However, it’s possible for physical exhaustion to lead to mental exhaustion, as seen in athletes with rigorous training schedules.
Keep reading for more causes of mental exhaustion, along with a rundown of the signs of mental exhaustion.
Mental exhaustion can happen for a few reasons. For instance, physical exhaustion and chronic stress can make you feel mentally exhausted.
If you often engage in cognitive tasks or find yourself in challenging situations that require a lot of emotional energy, it could lead to mental exhaustion.
Other causes of mental fatigue include:
Having a demanding or high-pressure job (also known as job burnout)
Working long hours, especially with few or no breaks
Dealing with overwhelming daily responsibilities
Living with chronic illness
A mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety
Using substantial mental energy worrying or thinking about stressors
Lacking work-life balance
Having no emotional support system
Dealing with grief or other painful, heavy emotions
If you’re facing any of the above situations, you may be experiencing mental exhaustion symptoms.
Signs of mental exhaustion can present in different ways. The condition may show up in the form of physical, emotional or behavioral symptoms.
One tell-tale sign is feeling less alert than usual or finding it difficult to focus. Emotional symptoms of mental exhaustion might also appear as:
Depression or depressive symptoms like a persistently low or sad mood
Loss of motivation
A cynical or negative outlook
Mental exhaustion can affect your physical health too. The physical symptoms of mental exhaustion can include:
Unexplained aches like headaches or muscle pain
Sleep issues, such as sleep disturbances or not getting enough sleep
Constant mental exhaustion can even affect everyday activities, leading to behavioral symptoms like:
Memory issues or brain fog
Avoiding people you normally spend time with
Arguing more with loved ones
Using alcohol or other substances to cope
Procrastinating important tasks
Mental or emotional exhaustion can also lead to burnout symptoms. Burnout, while also not technically a medical condition, is physical, emotional or mental exhaustion with similar symptoms to mental exhaustion.
Burnout can look different for everyone, but common symptoms include feeling apathetic or dissatisfied toward work, fatigue and changes to sleep patterns.
Whether you’re dealing with burnout or mental exhaustion, there are ways to treat the condition and prevent future mental fatigue.
One way to recover from or prevent future mental exhaustion is to remove whatever is causing mental fatigue (aka the stressor). Of course, eliminating stress triggers altogether may not always be possible, but it might help if you can do away with at least a few.
If work is stressful, consider asking your manager or co-workers for help with tasks. You can also try delegating some of your responsibilities to others.
If household duties or caregiving responsibilities are causing stress, consider hiring a professional cleaner, organizer or caregiver. Alternatively, look toward other support systems like friends and family members.
When signs of mental exhaustion start popping up, you could be on the road to burnout. Practice self-care by taking time to rest and recharge.
You could try clearing non-essential tasks from your schedule for a few days or taking an extended vacation. Blocking off your calendar for just an hour each day can give you enough time to relax.
Relaxation techniques can help ease stress, alleviate tension and promote calmness. Mindfulness practices may also help a person become more aware of their emotions as well as manage burnout or mental fatigue.
Meditation, breathing techniques or guided imagery are all ways to practice mindfulness. If you’re new to this, our guide will teach you how to practice mindfulness.
Quality sleep is not only good for physical health but mental health as well — especially considering sleep deprivation is one of the most common mental exhaustion symptoms.
Aim to get the recommended seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night to relieve both physical and mental exhaustion.
If you’ve been struggling with sleep, establishing healthy habits might help you get a better night’s rest. Try limiting screen time during the hour before bed, doing some relaxing stretches or a quick yoga flow and going to bed around the same time each night.
Finding the motivation to exercise might be tough, especially when you’re mentally fatigued. But physical activity is a top-notch way to reduce stress, improve your mood and maintain good health.
And you don’t have to do super long or intense workouts to reap the benefits. Even a simple 10-minute walk can provide a mental health boost.
Seeking support from a mental health professional can help you better deal with stress and emotional exhaustion. A therapist can also suggest positive lifestyle changes that may reduce the impact of stress.
If your mental exhaustion is the result of depression or anxiety, your healthcare provider might recommend medication. Some may prescribe antidepressants like sertraline (Zoloft®) or escitalopram (Lexapro®) to help deal with stress, anxiousness or depressive symptoms.
If you’re feeling drained, dealing with brain fog or are more fatigued than normal, you might be dealing with mental exhaustion. Whether it’s a result of long-term stress, an existing mental health condition or simply too much work, it can affect your emotional and physical well-being and impact your ability to perform everyday activities.
No matter the cause of your mental exhaustion, help is available. If you’re interested in starting therapy to talk about mental fatigue or burnout, you can connect with a therapist through our online therapy services or explore our mental health resources.