What Are the Causes and Consequences of Mental Exhaustion?

When we live with high levels of stress for a long time, mental exhaustion is inevitable, along with its many associated consequences. We'll tell you more about it here.
What Are the Causes and Consequences of Mental Exhaustion?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 16 September, 2022

It’s not only the body that gets tired. The mind, if subjected to too many demands over a long period of time, also becomes saturated. When this happens, we stop performing adequately, our moods and relationships suffer, and we lose our quality of life. This form of mental exhaustion is present in a large part of the population, so it’s imperative to learn to recognize it and deal with it properly.

This state of stress, overflow, and exhaustion is so common that it’s even become normalized. How can we not feel tired and irascible with the pace of life we lead? However, the health consequences of staying in this dynamic can be devastating. In fact, they range from obesity, headaches, and heart problems to a wide variety of diseases related to a weakened immune system.

If you suspect that you’re reaching the limit of your mental and emotional possibilities and that your body is asking for calm, we invite you to read on.

What is mental exhaustion?

A child with mental exhaustion
Children can also suffer from mental exhaustion.

Mental exhaustion is a state of psychological exhaustion that a person reaches after having been subjected to high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time. Let’s keep in mind that stress appears when we assess that environmental demands exceed our resources to cope with them. Thus, mental exhaustion arises when we feel that we’ve been dragging our overexertion around with us for so long that we can no longer give any more of ourselves.

As we said, identifying that we’re psychologically exhausted isn’t easy because we as a society have normalized this type of state. Even so, these are some of the symptoms that appear and to which we should pay attention:

  • Difficulty in concentrating and paying attention. The mind is scattered, and frequent forgetfulness and distractions may occur.
  • Alterations in sleep and appetite. Insomnia may occur or, on the contrary, an excessive need to rest. Similarly, the person may feel that his or her stomach is closed or, on the contrary, eat much more than necessary.
  • The person’s mood tends to be irritable, impatient, and even aggressive at times. Any small difficulty overwhelms us and takes us out of our center because we’re already at our limit.
  • Apathy, listlessness, and demotivation appear. We no longer enjoy everyday things or devote moments to the pleasures and interests we used to have.
  • Physical symptoms such as migraines, muscle contractions, palpitations, or digestive problems are common.
  • If the situation is prolonged, the risk of anxiety and mood disorders increases.

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Why does mental exhaustion occur?

mental exhaustion at work
Work is one of the main causes of mental exhaustion, along with personal or family situations.

Mental exhaustion has various causes, and, in most cases, several of them converge. If it occurs in children and young people, academic demands may play a role.

A heavy homework and study load, a difficulty in understanding and progressing at the expected pace, or an excessive focus on grades can take their toll. Likewise, if their daily routine is full of activities (academics, extracurricular activities, workshops…), the mind can become saturated.

In adults, work is one of the main sources of stress. Excessively long working hours, high demands on the job, taking on too many tasks and responsibilities, and not disconnecting at the end are some of the most important points.

To all this, we must add a possible economic instability that also takes its toll on emotional health. If we’re not sure we can keep our job or the salary isn’t enough to cover our needs, the mental load of worries is continuous.

On the other hand, personal relationships can also contribute to this situation. If we live in tense environments, with constant conflicts with family members or our partner, this overloads us emotionally. This mental exhaustion can be aggravated even more if we have a sick relative in our care. The well-studied “caregiver syndrome” generates burnout, which is devastating.

Like this article? You may also like to read: 6 Ways to Fight Mental Exhaustion Naturally

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not always the actual events that overwhelm us, but our own way of handling them. There are people who live extremely anchored in the past or constantly anxious about the future, who have made worry an inseparable companion. It’s important that we know how to take care of and regulate our thoughts and emotions because, otherwise, we will be significantly increasing our mental load.

How to overcome mental exhaustion

As you have seen so far in this article, sooner or later, mental exhaustion takes its toll on physical and emotional health. So, if you’ve identified yourself in the above situations, we propose some steps you can take to start taking care of yourself:

  • Reduce your daily workload and obligations as much as possible. Some aspects are unavoidable, but in other cases, learning to delegate, ask for help and rely on others can be very liberating.
  • Set aside time for leisure and enjoyment each day. Prioritize this space as much as you do your obligations. Spend this time taking care of yourself, pursuing that hobby you love, chatting with friends, or simply taking a relaxing bath or reading a good book. Rest, fun, and silence are just as necessary as work.
  • Find a practice that helps you to calm down, to disconnect from the outside, and reconnect with yourself. This could be through meditation, breathing exercises, a sport, or a dance class. If this chosen activity is part of your routine, it will help reduce your stress levels.
  • Learn to occupy yourself instead of worrying. Avoid falling into mental rumination and, on the contrary, take the actions that are in your power to improve a situation.
  • Take care of your lifestyle habits. Although it may not seem so, a healthy diet is essential for the body to obtain all the necessary nutrients and to be able to function properly at a physical, cognitive, and emotional level. Likewise, avoid a sedentary lifestyle and try to move more. And finally, take care of your sleep and rest every day for the necessary hours. Again, don’t think of this as an option or luxury, but as a commitment you have to make to yourself.

Finally, if the above guidelines aren’t enough, or if you’re not able to carry them out by yourself, contact a professional. If we don’t make adjustments, stress and mental exhaustion only increase, and their detrimental effects accumulate. Seek help to learn how to manage your time and thoughts in a better way.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Gruen, R. J., & DeLongis, A. (1986). Appraisal, coping, health status, and psychological symptoms. Journal of personality and social psychology50(3), 571.
  • Martínez Pizarro, S. (2020). Síndrome del cuidador quemado. Revista clínica de medicina de familia13(1), 97-100.
  • McEwen, B. S. (2008). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European journal of pharmacology583(2-3), 174-185.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.