If You’re Feeling Physically Exhausted Right Now, It Might Actually Be Time to Give Your Brain a Rest

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If you’ve ever wondered why working from home, doing things on your phone, or anxiety can leave you feeling spent despite not moving from one spot—there’s a reason. According to Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, physical fatigue can be an offshoot of mental fatigue and it’s called burnout. "We typically think we feel tired as the outcome or result of some unusually taxing physical activity, but that's quite unlikely in general life circumstances," he says. "We are more likely to feel tired as a symptom of psychological, emotional, or mental states [aka mental fatigue]."

Burn out is a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity, stress, emotional burden and lack of rest. In other words, it's a feeling of exhaustion that results from overworking your brain and manifests as lowered productivity, irritability, brain fog, etc. If you remember that your brain is an organ just like any other, you might be able to more easily picture how this works.

Experts In This Article
  • Emanuel Maidenberg, Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.
  • Ling Lam, Ling Lam, PhD, MFT, professor in counseling psychology, a licensed therapist, and author of the TedX talk "The Power of Feeling Safe,"

What Causes Burnout

Burnout, just like many other illnesses or barriers in society, often disproportionately affects people of marginalized experiences— i.e. working class individuals, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and more, says Ling Lam, PhD, MFT, professor in counseling psychology, a licensed therapist, and author of the TedX talk "The Power of Feeling Safe." . Family status, meaning the role you take on (and the subsequent responsibility also play a huge role in burn out). The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the nature of burnout for essential workers and people on the frontlines that couldn’t stay home or rest.

“When the body perceives danger/threat, it activates the stress response. Stress hormones start flowing and the heart starts pumping faster, the muscles tense up, saliva secretion gets suppressed (because you don’t want to waste energy digesting food when you are about to be eaten by a tiger!) and our body gets ready to fight or flight,” says Dr. Lam. This is a hardwired cycle for survival purposes, Dr. Lam explains, but this response can come from a fight with a family member, dealing with your kids school, or a toxic managerial relationship.

The body can only sustain an elevated state of activation for so long - evolutionarily speaking, the stress response is meant to be turned on for a short period of time. Today’s society has a lot of reasons to go into fight or flight mode and as a result—burnout is common.

The instinct for this prepares you to run or fight a predator, but nowadays perceived "danger" can be created by the pandemic, an abusive relationship, a stressful job, being behind on a mortgage, an inner voice of perfectionism, Dr. Lam says. When we have all of these stressors, stress response never gets a chance to deactivate and rest.

When this goes on for a long period of time, Dr. Lam says the system no longer works effectively and we may experience a sense of numbness or dissociation or depletion. “We are exhausted and foggy and want to do everything to avoid thinking about what would activate the stress response again.

When worry/stress response is going on for too long without an end in sight, the body resorts to numbing, exhaustion, depletion, fatigue, dissociation and executive dysfunction as a results. Even this is a mechanism to try and protect ourselves, however it can be really hard to navigate and overcome.

How can you treat burn out

Dr. Lam explained that there are ways to heal burn out and a few of them can be started slowly and incorporated into a busy schedule.

1. Take preventative measures

One of the most important things about solving burn out is making sure you protect yourself from it, Dr. Lam says. This is because it is way harder to treat and improve, than it is to prevent. This will look different for everyone but typically it means that you have the ability to communicate with people around you to share workloads, domestic responsibilities, and room to support each other emotionally. It also means that you set boundaries with work or school to make sure that you are set up for success and protected from potentially stressful patterns.

2.  Nourishing relationships

Our brains are hardwired for relational connection, Dr. Lam says. Making sure that you have relationships or even just one relationship that makes you feel fulfilled is really important for supporting your stress and emotional management. This can be fostered through intentional quality time and open communication.

Another reason this is important, according to Dr. Lam, is because people are often sometimes the last to know that they are burnt out or depressed. Sometimes its the people around you that are the first to observe patterns of depression or burnout. This is why its important to have these relationships, too. You can protect each other from feeling completely spent and burnt out by pointing out patterns that typically begin when you’re reaching this point.

2. Try to practice mindfulness

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear about it again because it works, mindfulness is so important. Having time to calm your mind can help you get used to moving out of a stressed, cortisol heavy state. This is good for your body and mind. Practices like tai chi, meditation, yoga, and more can offer some healing when you’re burnt out.

3. Artistic expressions or other embodied activities

“Painting, dancing, massage, playing music, sculpting—anything that involve working with your hands and using your body,” says Dr. Lam. “Embodiment is the practice of paying attention to your sensations. By paying attention to the body sensations we can gently wake up the body from numbness back into aliveness.”

4. Build yourself some structure

Speaking of schedules, Dr. Maidenberg says that creating a routine, generally, is a good strategy for fighting mental fatigue. "It's really helpful during times like these, when we find ourselves outside of old structures, to develop a new way of doing things that is predictable and includes activities of different kinds, and then stay with that schedule," he says. (You can even fake your commute if it helps.)

This new routine shouldn't just involve obligatory to-dos, either. Dr. Maidenberg says it's important to incorporate pleasurable activities into your schedule to whatever extent you can.

Routines also help protect us from that aforementioned decision fatigue—the phenomenon by which the more decisions you make in a day, the harder each one is on your brain—which is both a result of and can contribute to mental fatigue. To this end, Dr. Maidenberg recommends making a core or stable set of pandemic-related decisions so that when various circumstances arise, you're not having to make them on the fly. Whether or not you're going to an in-person shop is one example, as is when you're going to wear a mask (if it's optional where you live), whether or not you'll visit with a friend from a safe distance or stay completely isolated at home, and so on. If you're protesting, you might want to take a look at your options first thing each day—IRL and virtual—and decide what to participate in, so you aren't plagued by taxing indecision all day long.

5. Exercise or light movement can help

Somewhat counterintuitively, Dr. Maidenberg also recommends engaging in physical exercise, even though you're likely to feel as though moving your body is the last thing you want to do. To reap the benefits, exertion needs to be moderate and at least 30 minutes in duration. To his earlier point, Dr. Maidenberg also recommends incorporating it into a schedule and making sure to repeat it day after day. "If we leave these unwanted activities to happen when we 'get to them,' we typically do not get to them," he says.

When trying to push through, it might be helpful to remember that exercise feels harder because your mind is perceiving it that way and not because it's actually any more physically challenging than normal—just maybe avoid practices that require a lot of hand-eye coordination or are heavy on complex motor skills. You can also enlist a buddy, says Dr. Maidenberg, to get you through. And if all else fails when it comes to getting physical, return to suggested mental fatigue-busting tactic of mindfulness (aka tip number one above) to deal with the root cause of the difficulty.

What to remember

It's important to remember that it isn't your fault that you're burnt out. There are a lot reasons that someone could be burnt out that they have no control over. Some common examples include constant systemic racism, hyper-vigilance in the face of violence, poverty, culture shock and more. Other examples include decision making, over-committing, procrastination, and lack of sleep; however, in this unique moment in time, you might be experiencing mental fatigue due to incessant social media or news exposure, COVID-19 long haul symptoms, or hyper-vigilance.

Whatever the reason, just remember that these experts believe that healing is possible and hope is an essential ingredient for filling your cup back up. You deserve to rest and heal—despite the pressures that society repeatedly places on people.

While mental fatigue can make brain-based activities more difficult, studies show it also complicates physical activity. Specifically, mental fatigue can negatively impact endurance due to a shift in your perception of exertion; because you're mentally exhausted, the physical task at hand appears more difficult to you, which reduces your ability to perform it. It's also been shown to reduce motor control, and that same study found that physical exertion enhances mental fatigue, leading to a vicious cycle.

So if you're wondering why that hill is extra hard to climb lately, whether it's under your feet or in your mind, burn out could be to blame.

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