Have you noticed that mental fatigue can bring out an entirely different personality? It’s like that Snicker’s commercial with the tagline, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Just as our physical energy is limited, so too do we have a limited amount of mental stamina. Most people think about managing their time to some degree, but they think less about the even scarcer resource that we possess: our mental energy.
We all have a finite amount of energy each day, and the brain uses a whopping 20% of that in order to function.
Imagine that your mind was a battery pack. When your mind is full of energy and vitality, the battery pack is full. But when you notice that you are tired, incapable of focusing, and quick to react instinctively, your battery needs a charge.
In this article, I will cover the signs of mental fatigue and what you can do to fight against it.
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Signs of Mental Fatigue
The first two signs of mental fatigue are more obvious: feeling sleepy or unfocused naturally alert us to the fact that we are mentally fatigued.
But the third, and perhaps more consequential issue, often goes unnoticed as a key sign of drained mental fortitude.
When your brain gets low on energy, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) essentially goes offline. The PFC is the more recently evolved, rational part of the brain that is responsible for overriding your emotional instincts where necessary. So if you’ve noticed that you easily give into cravings, snap at a friend or loved one, or honk in traffic, it is quite possible that your PFC isn’t functioning properly.
Mental fatigue, in a sense, causes a self-induced lobotomy.
5 Remedies for Mental Fatigue
We all have a limited amount of “happiness chemicals,” neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that make us feel mentally vibrant. That’s why the drug addict can’t stay high all the time, eventually draining dopamine stores and coming down hard. Drugs are forms of synthetic energy creation that can create bursts of vitality followed by a crash.
You might’ve experienced the sugar high, caffeine rush, or alcohol buzz that at some point subsides into a depleted mental state. Caffeine, for example, blocks your adenosine (a chemical that builds up throughout the day, telling you when you’re tired) receptors in the brain, essentially masking your fatigue until it wears off and you feel even more tired.
So if drugs clearly aren’t the answer, then we are left with more organic means of achieving mental vitality:
This one is pretty obvious, as everyone knows that sleep is critical for an energetic mind. But few people realize just how important sleep really is.
By getting proper quantity and quality of sleep, you’re allowing your brain to remove harmful toxins that build up throughout the day as a byproduct of its activity. Furthermore, the brain is consolidating memories and processing emotions in ways that help you operate at your best during waking hours.
To maximize your sleep, it helps to keep a regular schedule, rest in a dark and cool room, eliminate external sounds, and avoid screens before bed. I’ve written more on tips for getting a good night’s sleep here: 5 Sleep Therapy Techniques for Better Overall Health And Wellness
It might seem counter-intuitive that you would want to expend energy through movement in order to have more of it. But exercise is net energy positive, as it trains your body to be ready for more energetic output.
Your brain loves rewarding you for exercise, sending bursts of adrenaline, endorphins, and other “happiness chemicals” when you run, lift, jump and dance. Furthermore, it increases what’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for growing and maintaining neurons.
Physical activity is vital for our happiness as a species, and yet about 1 in 4 American adults don’t exercise at all.
Our problems can be explained by an evolutionary mismatch between physiology and environment. Energy was a scarce resource, and we were designed by evolution to conserve it. While the struggle for survival used to keep us fit, the modern world makes it easy to avoid expending energy; we are ironically burdened with forcing ourselves to go to the gym.
Like exercise, diet is often thought about in the context of weight loss or physical health. Its effect on your mental health is less immediately obvious.
You may have heard that your second brain lives in your gut. This “brain,” or rather the enteric nervous system, evolved half a billion years ago in the first vertebrates and perhaps even gave rise to the brain itself.
The gut is heavily integrated with the rest of your cerebral functions and contains 500 million neurons that connect to your brain via the microbiome-gut-brain axis. It also produces a shocking 95% of your serotonin and 50% of your dopamine.
About a quarter of the energy you eat will be diverted toward keeping that big, expensive brain running at optimal capacity. The inputs you choose can help determine your emotions and thoughts in each moment (thinking back to the diagram linking physiology-thoughts-emotions, food changes your chemical makeup on a physiological level, which influences your mind).
I don’t have all the answers for you here (and in many cases the research is still inconclusive), but here are 3 guiding principles for optimizing your neuronutrition:
- Diet is highly personal, so find what makes you feel most energetic.
- Refined sugars and processed foods likely impair brain functioning.
- Your brain loves healthy fats, like Omega 3s.
Sitting still and training your mind with meditation can increase natural energy levels. Meditation puts your brain into a restful theta state (slower brainwaves) and takes you out of “fight or flight” mode.
In a society characterized by constant schedules and stimulation, meditation allows your mind to heal and become focused.
If you’ve never meditated before, here’re some resources to help you get started:
- The Guided Morning Meditation for Beginners (That Will Change Your Day)
- 17 Types of Meditation (Techniques and Basics) to Practice Mindfulness
- Feeling Overwhelmed? Best 5 Meditation Apps to Destress During the Day
It’s not just how we use our energy that matters, but also how we are interacting with the world. Your environment includes the community you spend time with, your living situation, and essentially anything you spend time interacting with throughout the day.
You may have heard the refrain: “Where attention goes, energy flows and life grows.” Wherever you place, your attention not only shapes your mind (neuroplasticity) but also determines where you expend energy.
Sadly, we live in a world in which most people’s energy gets diverted into a wide variety of short-term gratifications, including targeted ads, video games, pornography, social media, and YouTube videos of kids opening up presents. That’s the information that’s populating their brains and shaping their desires, and that’s where they’re spending their energy.
Furthermore, if you’re spending time with people and doing things that you don’t like, it’s very likely that they are sucking up precious energy. Conversely, spending time around cheerful and positive people can be a net energy gain, as their enthusiasm for life rubs off on you.
You might also look at your interactions with nature. Do you spend time getting a healthy amount of fresh air and sunlight? Do you expose yourself to novel landscapes, or remain fixed in the same room or office?
Small differences in setting can have a big impact on your mental energy.
Upgrading Your Battery
By addressing the above 5 areas of your life, you’ll keep your mental fatigue to a minimum. You might even feel a “natural high” that results from ideal living conditions.
Not only will your personal mental battery last longer, but it will get metaphorically upgrade from AA batteries to a full on 80-volt battery pack.
In addition to adding something that might be missing from your mental wellness plan, you might also consider eliminating or minimizing anything that is draining your energy battery. By plugging the holes in your battery pack where energy is seeping out, you’ll find that mental fatigue takes longer to set in.
Some examples of wasted energy might include toxic relationships, drug addictions, unhealthy foods, overly-stressful work, negative thoughts, and parking tickets. Rather than ruminating on the negative parts of your life, start focusing your attention (and therefore energy) on the joys, no matter how small.
Energy is limited, like money. Hopefully I’ve provided some helpful strategies for reducing mental fatigue and getting your mental energy headed in the right direction.
More About Mental Fatigue
- What Mentally Tired Means (And 11 Ways to Combat Brain Exhaustion)
- How Clutter Drains Your Brain (and How to Declutter)
- How to Stop Information Overload
- 6 Mental Exercises For Busy People To Calm the Hectic Mind
Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com