Mental exhaustion goes beyond feeling tired. Sure, your eyes are drooping and your body feels heavy. But when you’re mentally spent, it can feel like your brain is moving through sludge. The easiest of tasks become epic challenges and no matter how many cups of coffee you consume you still find it hard to find the motivation to tackle your to-do list, meet with friends, or hit the gym.
In times like these, it can feel like there’s no end in sight, especially if the things causing mental exhaustion — think a stressful project at work, preparing for a medical board, or caring for a sick parent — are ongoing. But, there are changes you can make to help you battle mental exhaustion and prevent it from happening again in the future.
Below, we’ll dive into what mental exhaustion is, the common causes, and how you can overcome it to get more energy.
Heads-up: Mental exhaustion is a real symptom that’s defined in scientific research. But the phrase is often used more generally as a catch-all for any kind of mental slowness, brain fog, fatigue, lack of motivation, or subpar mental performance. So, while we dive into the science of mental exhaustion, we also offer advice on solving all of the symptoms that often come hand in hand with it.
Mental exhaustion, or mental fatigue, is when you feel mentally tired and drained. Just like when your body becomes exhausted if you overwork it without rest, this can happen to your brain, too.
Mental fatigue might hit after periods of stress or mentally taxing work, like when you’ve been working long hours, caring for a sick loved one, making big decisions, or have been in constant fight-or-flight mode during the pandemic.
It doesn’t just leave you feeling tired, though. Your mental performance takes a hit. You might struggle to pay attention to tasks you’re working on, get motivated to do activities you usually enjoy, or be productive at all. You might also feel irritable, overwhelmed, or have trouble sleeping at night — despite the aforementioned tiredness.
And while sleep is a huge part of it, mental fatigue is more than just sleepiness. When you’re sleepy, you get the overwhelming urge to go to sleep. Sleepiness builds up throughout the day (as a chemical called adenosine builds up in your brain) and decreases when you get some shut-eye.
When you’re tired, on the other hand, you feel mentally and physically fatigued. Your performance takes a hit, and this fatigue might not be improved with just one good night’s sleep (although that will help).
Both sleepiness and fatigue can work together to lower your cognitive functioning, leaving you feeling mentally exhausted.
Mental fatigue can become a vicious circle, too. Many of the actions you can take to feel better (think reaching out to loved ones, exercising, or getting more sleep) feel harder to do when your brain has been overworked.
Mental exhaustion is going to feel different for everyone. But here are some of the common symptoms of mental fatigue to look out for.
Mental and emotional symptoms:
Many things can trigger mental exhaustion, including doing mentally demanding tasks or living with long-term stress. You might get this from:
What’s behind this mental exhaustion exactly? A 2022 study suggests that hard mental work can lead to a build-up of the neurotransmitter glutamate in your brain. The high concentration of glutamate then affects your decision-making skills, self-control, and ability to do hard tasks or perform your best mentally. Sleep may therefore be more important than ever as it can help flush out waste materials from the brain. But not all experts agree with this theory, and more research needs to be done.
More 2022 research suggests mentally demanding work can cause changes in your brain metabolism, which can leave you feeling mentally fatigued. And some research states too much cognitive activity and stimulation can leave you feeling mentally exhausted.
Other research suggests mental fatigue is linked to disturbed sleep, high work demands, being female, being older, and being a supervisor. But, interestingly, shift work and long work hours may not be linked to mental fatigue, but disturbed sleep is a key culprit. In this study, disturbed sleep included:
Finally, a 2020 study looked at students and found sleep problems were linked to a close cousin of mental exhaustion, emotional exhaustion. It concluded: “These findings provide evidence that sleep problems are involved in the development of emotional exhaustion over time.”
Now you know what might be causing your mental exhaustion, it’s time to do something about it. Here are 12 science-backed tips to help you tackle mental fatigue.
Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s compared to your sleep need, which is the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night.
When you’ve got sleep debt, you’ll feel physical exhaustion, of course. But your so-called executive functions will also take a hit. This includes mental abilities like goal maintenance, set shifting (being able to move back and forwards between different tasks), and mental flexibility (being able to respond to new and changing events).
It doesn’t take long to show signs of mental fatigue from sleep loss. Research shows cognitive performance declines after just one night without sleep. Self-regulation (how you regulate your emotions and behavior) and self-monitoring (being aware of how your behavior impacts those around you) also take a huge hit when you’re sleep deprived.
You don’t have to miss a whole night of sleep to be affected, though. One study found two consecutive nights of less than six hours sleep was linked to decreases in performance that can last for six days.
Sleep deprivation is also linked to lower EQ (emotional intelligence), sense of independence, empathy, positive thinking, and stress management skills. And research shows sleep problems are linked to an increased risk of burnout, but a study on firefighters shows sleeping during overnight shifts can improve this.
Research also suggests some of us are more vulnerable to a loss of executive function after sleep loss, but it’s going to affect us all.
However, more research needs to be done in this area. One study suggests non-executive functions take a hit, while executive functions may not.
We recommend keeping your sleep debt below five hours to perform at your best. If you find you’ve got high sleep debt, you can pay it down by:
Sleep hygiene is the name for the set of daily habits you can do to help you fall and stay asleep at night, and get the most restful healthy sleep possible. Good sleep hygiene can help when battling mental exhaustion in a few ways.
Firstly, good sleep hygiene will help you fall and stay asleep, making it easier to lower your sleep debt and keep it low.
Next, it’ll help you get the most restful night’s sleep possible. Research suggests that the worse you think your sleep quality is, the more fatigue you’re going to feel.
Finally, good sleep hygiene will help you fall asleep quickly and wake up less often. This can improve your sleep continuity, which includes both falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night. Better sleep continuity is linked to better mental performance.
One study found higher sleep continuity was linked to better cognitive performance across all age groups. For younger people, higher sleep continuity was linked to better working memory and inhibitory control (your ability to control your attention and behavior). For older people, higher sleep continuity was linked to better inhibitory control, memory recall, and verbal fluency.
Here’s how to improve your sleep hygiene:
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s roughly 24-hour internal biological clock. It dictates your sleep-wake cycle, body temperature fluctuations, and hormone production, amongst other things.
When you’re out of sync with it, you might find it harder to fall asleep at bedtime, have lower energy levels, and have an increased risk of physical and mental health conditions. Plus, being out of sync can negatively impact your sustained attention, information processing, and visual-motor performance, such as hand-eye coordination.
Here’s how to get in sync:
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.
As part of your circadian rhythm, you’ll have predictable peaks and dips in your energy levels throughout the day. You’ll get a peak in energy in the morning and one in the late afternoon or early evening. And you’ll get a dip in energy in the early afternoon (yes, that dreaded afternoon slump) and then a dip as bedtime approaches.
The lower your sleep debt, the better the peaks and dips are going to feel. But you can also use them to your advantage when overcoming mental exhaustion.
Schedule your most demanding or important tasks for your peaks in energy, and save easier tasks for your dips in energy.
Taking breaks during your energy dips (these are the perfect time for a nap) can also help prevent extended brain activity and job burnout from creeping up as you get some time for rest and self-care in your day.
You can learn more about when you’re most productive here.
We all know exercise is good for our physical health, but it may help combat mental fatigue, too.
Research suggests not doing exercise and having a high body mass index (BMI) can both contribute to mental fatigue. And one study found overall high levels of physical activity can help offset some of the negative impacts of sleep loss on executive function.
A 2021 study found even a single bout of exercise can help. In the study, participants spent an hour doing a cognitively demanding task. Then, one group did 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise on a bike, another group did 30 minutes of lower body stretching, and a third group watched a sitcom.
The results showed the aerobic exercise group showed better recovery for cognitive flexibility, mood, motivation, and self-perceived cognitive capacity.
When you’re exercising, just be sure not to do tough workouts too close to bedtime as this can keep you up, which may make your mental fatigue worse.
We’ve covered more on the best time to work out here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late workouts reminder.
Stressful situations can leave you mentally drained, especially if you’re feeling stressed for long periods of time. While it’s easier said than done, and you can’t always control it, aim to keep stress levels as low as possible.
This has the added benefit of improving your sleep as it’s much harder to drift off when anxious thoughts are keeping you awake.
Here’s what to do:
You can learn more about how to sleep with anxiety here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Brain Dump Habit notification
Sometimes, you need a short-term fix for mental exhaustion to see you through the day. Coffee can not only tackle physical fatigue, but it might also help when you’ve got a hard task coming up.
A 2022 systematic review found consuming caffeine before doing a mentally demanding task can help with mental fatigue.
Just be sure not to rely on caffeine too much. It can linger in your system for up to 12 hours and keep you awake at night — which can add to mental exhaustion the next day.
We’ve covered more on when you should stop drinking coffee here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their limit caffeine reminder.
While you need to focus on the big things that impact mental exhaustion (like sleep debt), there are some quick fixes that can perk you up when you need to perform. Listening to music is one hack to try.
The same 2022 research above found listening to music is a promising treatment for mental fatigue.
And a 2015 study asked participants to perform a mentally exhausting task while either listening to relaxing music or no music at all. The group who listened to music had significantly less mental fatigue than those who didn’t.
The study concluded: “These results combined to suggest that listening to relaxing music alleviated the mental fatigue associated with performing an enduring cognitive-motor task.”
We cover other sounds that may improve sleep and daily fatigue here.
The idea of a simple smell being able to help when you’re mentally exhausted sounds impossible, but there is some science behind aromatherapy.
The 2022 review we mentioned above found smelling odors during a mentally demanding task can help combat mental fatigue.
And research from 2013 looked at whether a mixture of peppermint, basil, and helichrysum essential oils could help mental exhaustion. Participants used a personal inhaler with either the essential oil concoction or a placebo of rose water for a week. Those who used the essential oils reported less mental exhaustion.
Aromatherapy can also help you feel more alert. Try:
Ylang ylang and lavender can cause drowsiness, but they can also make you feel more relaxed, which may be useful before bed.
More research needs to be done in this field, but it is a relatively cheap and easy treatment option to add to others on this list.
When you’re feeling mentally drained, the lure of a solo evening in front of the TV is strong. You may even feel like you want to isolate yourself from loved ones, or find yourself feeling irritable (and therefore not being the best company). But spending time with others can help in your journey to overcoming mental exhaustion.
When you socialize, dopamine and oxytocin are released, helping to boost your mood, lower cortisol levels, and reduce stress. Having a good social support network can help you through stressful times, and even just having a conversation can even help to perk you up when you're feeling sleepy.
If you have a partner, investing in your relationship can also help you sleep. Research shows better relationships are linked with better sleep quality — although there’s no set definition for sleep quality.
Bonus points if you pair your socializing with exercise, doing a relaxing hobby, or getting outside for some natural sunlight during the day.
It can be easy to turn to self-medicating to get you through periods of mental exhaustion. But many of these behaviors will not only not help, but they can also make things worse as they negatively impact your sleep.
Avoid alcohol before bed, too. It may make you feel sleepy, but it can fragment your sleep, waking you up in the night.
We’ve covered how long before bed you should stop drinking alcohol here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late alcohol reminder.
Sometimes you need a helping hand to get you through mental fatigue. Speak to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you need professional help, or reach out to a friend or family member for support.
Consider making changes to increase your quality of life. This could include hiring more childcare or help if you’re a caregiver, or speaking to your boss about working conditions and taking steps to cut down on work responsibilities or hours to get more work-life balance.
We’ve covered how to recover from burnout here.
Once you’re back to feeling yourself, it’s time to make sure mental exhaustion doesn’t creep up on you again. This is easier said than done, of course. But you can prevent mental exhaustion by doing many of the activities that can help you overcome it.
Keep these in mind:
Keep an eye out for the signs of mental exhaustion and remember these interventions when it starts creeping up.
Can good sleep really help prevent mental fatigue? We turned to our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, to get a sleep doctor’s opinion.
“We know sleep loss can make us feel physically exhausted, but it can contribute to mental exhaustion, too. Focus on getting enough sleep each night to keep your mind working at its best.” Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu
Mental fatigue can feel hard to fix, especially when it makes many of the activities you can do to overcome it harder, like exercising, socializing, or getting more sleep.
But, by focusing on your sleep, you’ll get more energy, an improved mood, and better focus. Quick hacks — like drinking coffee or aromatherapy — can help in the moment, but lowering your sleep debt should be your focus when trying to overcome mental exhaustion.
The RISE app can help by working out how much sleep debt you have and keeping track of it as you pay it back. RISE can also predict your circadian rhythm, so you can sync up with it, and guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits, to make getting a good night’s sleep easier.
The good news is these behaviors can help you deal with mental exhaustion when it strikes, and help keep your overall health and well-being in tip-top shape to prevent it from happening again.
The symptoms of mental exhaustion include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, losing interest in work and hobbies, irritability, low mood, struggling to sleep, digestive issues, anxiety, and depression.
Mental fatigue can be caused by prolonged stress, working on demanding tasks without a break, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, or going through tough times like taking care of a sick relative.
Fix mental exhaustion by getting enough sleep, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, exercising, reducing stress, socializing, and taking breaks. Coffee and aromatherapy can be a short-term fix.
How long mental exhaustion lasts all depends on what’s causing it. For example, if sleep deprivation is contributing to chronic fatigue, this may improve when you start getting enough sleep. Other times, stressful situations (like demanding work projects or having a baby) will cause mental fatigue until you get help or make lifestyle changes. But getting enough sleep and syncing up with your circadian rhythm can reduce how much mental fatigue you feel.
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential