Healthy Mind

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

Erin Bunch

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Lately, I’ve been worried I may have contracted COVID-19 simply because I’m so fatigued and can barely get out of bed, let alone accomplish any of the myriad things on my daily to-do list. But it’s (likely) not the virus I’m experiencing. According to Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, my physical fatigue is more likely an offshoot of a phenomenon known as mental fatigue. “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].”

Mental fatigue is defined as a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity. 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; if you overtax your kidney through your diet, for example, you’ll experience initial symptoms such as fluid retention/swelling, shortness of breath, etc. This is the same idea.

In studies, mental fatigue is typically induced via rigorous tests or games that require strict focus, but all kinds of typical behaviors can lead to mental fatigue. Some common examples include constant decision making, overcommitting, 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, protesting and engaging in 24/7 activism, or hyper-vigilance due to the coronavirus.

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. If you’re mentally fatigued from all that is 2020 and then you go marching, for example, you might find the march more physically demanding than you normally would and that your mental fatigue symptoms are exacerbated by the exertion. Of course, your regular exercise routine might be similarly affected and effecting.

So if you’re wondering why that hill is extra hard to climb lately, whether it’s under your feet or in your mind, mental fatigue could be to blame. And while you may feel like going to bed *forever* as a result, Dr. Maidenberg advises against it unless you’re actually under-slept. “When we start getting tired, it feels like getting more sleep can actually improve our mood, but it ends up being the opposite,” he says. “An excessive amount of time in bed or sleeping, in fact, tends to increase tiredness.” Since the amount of sleep required is highly individual, you should base the amount of sleep you’re allowing yourself on what’s normal for you—so if you usually sleep seven hours per night, it might be counterproductive to your fatigue issues to start suddenly sleeping 10.

Below, Dr. Maidenberg offers a few *actually* effective strategies for mitigating mental fatigue so you can return to top form in all arenas (or, you know, just make it through the day).

3 ways to combat mental fatigue (and the physical fatigue that results from it)

1. Meditate and practice mindfulness

If you haven’t yet adopted a meditation practice, right now is absolutely the moment to motivate. “Being aware of your own psychological state is helpful, and this is something that can be done through a process of learning some form of very basic meditation or mindfulness meditation,” says Dr. Maidenberg.

By becoming cognizant of the thoughts you’re having in this way, Dr. Maidenberg explains, you can better evaluate whether or not there’s anything you can do to manage them. ”

For example, if you find yourself thinking 2020 is the worst year ever and that you can’t take another minute of it, you can note those thoughts and challenge them, e.g. by reframing 2020 as an extraordinary year that is making you stronger, more compassionate, and more resilient. The app Happy Not Perfect offers short exercises you can do each day to restore equilibrium to your mind, too, including gratitude exercises that help with reframing.

2. 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 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.

3. Keep moving, even when it feels like too much

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.

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