Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 21, 2022
What Is Mental Exhaustion?

What Is Mental Exhaustion?


It’s kind of like physical tiredness, except it’s your mind instead of your muscles. It tends to show up when you focus on a mentally tough task for a while. You might also feel this kind of brain drain if you’re always on alert or stressed out. Your job, caring for children or aging parents, and other things can lead to mental exhaustion.

You’re Angry or Impatient

You’re Angry or Impatient


Mental fatigue can put you in a bad mood. You may be short-tempered or irritated, snapping at people more often. It’s harder to control your emotions when you’re mentally tapped out.

You Can’t Get Work Done

You Can’t Get Work Done


Everyone’s productivity goes up and down. But mental exhaustion can make it really hard to concentrate. It also saps your motivation. You might get distracted easily or start to miss deadlines. Even small tasks may seem overwhelming.

You Zone Out

You Zone Out


This can look like mind wandering or drowsiness. It makes it hard to pay close attention to what you’re doing, and you may not react to things very fast. That can be dangerous in certain situations, such as driving. Mental fatigue is linked to car wrecks.

You Don’t Sleep Well

You Don’t Sleep Well


You might think it’d be easier to snooze when your brain is tired. But that’s not always the case. Research shows people who have jobs with a high “cognitive workload” report more symptoms of insomnia than those who don’t have mentally exhausting work. A lack of shut-eye can make mental fatigue worse. Tell your doctor if you can’t sleep or get really tired during the day. Treatment can help.

You Do Unhealthy Things

You Do Unhealthy Things


You may start to drink or use drugs more than normal. Mental fatigue can take an even harder toll on those who already have a substance use disorder. Experts think that’s because drug addiction changes parts of the brain that help you manage stress and control impulsive behavior.

You’re Depressed

You’re Depressed


You may not have any energy or feel like you’re moving in slow motion. Some people say they feel numb. That can make it hard to finish things at work or do daily activities. Tell your doctor if you have really low feelings or a sense of hopelessness for longer than 2 weeks. That can be a sign your depression is more serious.

You Worry a Lot

You Worry a Lot


Mental fatigue triggers your sympathetic nervous system. That’s your “fight or flight” mode. Anxiety is an alarm that tells you something is wrong. If you’re always mentally exhausted, you might start to feel panicked or worried all the time. That often happens alongside symptoms of depression.

Exercise Feels Harder

Exercise Feels Harder


Experts aren’t sure why mental fatigue affects physical activity. Some think your tolerance for exercise might go down. So it may seem like you’re putting in more effort than you really are.

Your Eating Habits Change

Your Eating Habits Change


Mental fatigue can affect your appetite in different ways. You may snack more than normal and not pay attention to what you eat. Stress can also make you crave sugary, salty, or fatty foods. Or you may not be hungry at all.

You Make More Mistakes

You Make More Mistakes


It’s impossible for your work to be perfect all the time. But mental fatigue lessens your ability to catch and fix your mistakes quickly or at all. That can cause serious problems in certain jobs, such as ones where you use machines, drive a vehicle, or fly a plane.

You Feel More Pain

You Feel More Pain


Everyone is different, which makes it hard to say how mental fatigue will affect your body. But you might get headaches, sore muscles, back pain, or stomach problems. If you have an ongoing illness, such as fibromyalgia, you may hurt a little bit more than usual.

Take Breaks

Take Breaks


You might feel less drained if you take short breaks during long stretches of mental work. There isn’t an exact amount of rest time that works best for everyone. But you may want to recharge for a few minutes every 1-2 hours.

Some people like to use something called the Pomodoro Technique. Here’s how it works:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  2. Focus on one task the whole time.
  3. Take a 5-minute break when the timer goes off.
  4. After the fourth 25-minute block, take a break for 15-30 minutes.

Repeat until your task is done (or your workday is over).

Get Active

Get Active


There’s evidence that you may feel even more energized if you exercise during your breaks. Try some jumping jacks and stretches for a few minutes each. Or go for a 10-15 minute brisk walk.

Find Ways to Relax

Find Ways to Relax


It’s hard to avoid mental exhaustion completely. But you can learn to switch on your body’s natural relaxation response. You can get a massage. Or you can try meditating, yoga, or something as simple as watching a funny movie.  Reach out to friends, family, or a mental health professional if you need more support.

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BMC Neuroscience: “The impact of mental fatigue on brain activity: a comparative study both in resting state and task state using EEG.”

Frontiers in Neurology: “How Physical Activities Affect Mental Fatigue Based on EEG Energy, Connectivity, and Complexity.”

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BMC Psychology: “Evaluation of the effect of fatigue on the coping behavior of international truck drivers.”

Behavioral Sleep Medicine: “Work-Related Mental Fatigue, Physical Activity and Risk of Insomnia Symptoms: Longitudinal Data from the Norwegian HUNT Study.”

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Cleveland Clinic: “How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All,” “Are You Experiencing Coronavirus Fatigue?” 

Arthritis Care & Research: “The impact of mental fatigue on brain activity: a comparative study both in resting state and task state using EEG,” “Cognitive and Physical Fatigue Tasks Enhance Pain, Cognitive Fatigue and Physical Fatigue in People with Fibromyalgia.”

Behavioral and Brain Functions: “Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity.”

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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH): “The Pomodoro Technique: An Effective Time Management Tool.”

Stress and Health: “Comparison of rest-break interventions during a mentally demanding task.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Relaxation Techniques for Health.”