Imagine a stretch of hectic days when work moved at a snail’s pace and pressure built up enormously. And then it is Friday evening and that time to unwind and head out for fun and food with friends.
But there is a strange reluctance to do so. The couch in front of the television seems to be a more enticing proposition than the outing.
Many of us who can relate to this would brush it aside attribute it to plain `adulting’. But it could also be a sign that the brain wants to have a time out and is signalling that it is time to unwind – physically and mentally.
The neurological link
An August 2022 study examining cognitive fatigue explains that this phenomenon occurs due to the build-up of a neurotransmitter called glutamate in the front part of the cerebral cortex of the brain. This in turn brings down one’s cognitive control of the body, making one irritable and lethargic.
A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries signals from one nerve cell to another cell or gland.
In 2015, another study showed how long term psychosocial (relating to social situations and individual behaviour) stress can lead to physical exhaustion in a pathway similar to the previous study quoted. In this case the prefrontal cortex is overused and oxygen levels in that area fall. And the person becomes tired much sooner than usual.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of mental exhaustion can be emotional, physical and behavioural.
1. Emotional symptoms
Individuals who are mentally exhausted tend to move into a shell and want to cut themselves off from friends and family at least for some time. They show stress, anxiety, irritability and low emotional resilience.
“I was constantly feeling overwhelmed. Even ordinary tasks were like an uphill journey. I could not motivate myself to even make myself some coffee in the morning,” says Anees Rahman, a Bengaluru resident who works for long hours in shifts.
“People who experience emotional exhaustion often feel they have no control over what happens in their life. They may feel trapped in their situations,” explains Rijul Ballal, clinical psychologist at Heart it Out, Bengaluru.
Other signs of emotional exhaustion can be absentmindedness, apathy, headaches and changes in appetite, he adds.
At the workplace, employers may want to observe staff for any of these signs of emotional exhaustion. Such workers constantly miss deadlines of their tasks; often absent themselves from work; and suddenly show a decreased commitment to the organisation.
2. Physical symptoms
Mental exhaustion can directly lead to physical symptoms, mostly fatigue.
“Some of the common physical symptoms are sleep issues, where the person sleeps too much or too little. The body can also have unexplained muscle pain and headaches,” says Dr Gururaj G P, Professor of Psychiatry at East Point College of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Bengaluru.
“When my work gets hectic, I do have a slight nagging headache that refuses to go away. I usually take a painkiller and continue to work,” says Rahman.
A June 2021 paper says that headaches are closely linked to mood, cognitive change, and chronic fatigue. Another recent study in February 2022 shows how musculoskeletal pain and psychological distress are associated with mental fatigue across clinical conditions and in the general population.
3. Behavioural symptoms
“The initial phase of the lockdown really increased work pressure, and without my knowledge I was consuming alcohol much too regularly for my liking,” says Laxmi N, a client services professional with a Bengaluru-based marketing agency.
Many individuals have reported resorting to substances, alcohol, smoking or even overeating as a coping mechanism for their mental exhaustion. A 2011 study done on Daily Stress and Alcohol Consumption showed that alcohol becomes a coping mechanism during periods of high stress and mental exhaustion.
Apart from misusing substances, other behavioural signs of mental exhaustion are frequent arguments with loved ones, a constant sense of distraction, or snapping at family members or others.
“There is ample research that shows a connection between mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation and increased anger and aggression. This can be countered by increasing sleep, but the underlying cause of mental exhaustion needs to be addressed,” says Dr Gururaj.
Procrastination and memory problems are also signs to look out for.
While mental fatigue is a common phenomenon these days owing to high stress levels and demanding lifestyles, there are consequences of living in a state of permanent mental fatigue in terms of our personal and professional well-being.
[In Part 2 of this article, we explore the ways in which we can alleviate mental exhaustion.]