A mentally exhausted woman sitting at her desk in front of her laptop. She's holding her head in one hand and her glasses in another. She looks stressed out and tired.

Daniel de la Hoz / Moment via Getty Images

22 Common Signs You May Be Mentally Exhausted—and 7 Expert Tips for Finding Relief

Mental exhaustion can dampen your mood, drain your productivity, and even trigger physical pain. Here, mental health pros share helpful ways to give your brain a boost.

By Michelle KonstantinovskyMay 9, 2024


If you’ve ever related a little too closely with one of those “adulting is hard” memes, you might know a thing or two about mental exhaustion. To be fair, adulting is hard: Between work deadlines, meetings, family commitments, and social obligations (not to mention those elusive self-care routines everyone keeps talking about), everyday life can be overwhelming, to say the least. 

But while some amount of stress is an inherent part of the grown-up experience, there’s a limit to the amount of intense mental gymnastics you can handle before you start seeing signs of trouble. So if you’ve ever felt utterly burnt out to the point of serious psychological strain and debilitating exhaustion, you’ll want to learn more about feeling mentally exhausted, what causes it, and how to overcome it.

What Is Mental Exhaustion? 

Otherwise known as mental fatigue or psychological fatigue, mental exhaustion can look different for each of us, but its defining characteristic is the feeling of complete depletion and inability to think clearly. 

“Mental exhaustion is like extreme fatigue and burnout that is physical, emotional, and psychological,” says San Francisco-based licensed psychotherapist Tessa Gordon. “Energy levels decline, procrastination skyrockets, doing daily tasks—such as making the bed, getting dressed, fixing food—can feel like Herculean efforts.”

She likens the experience of feeling mentally exhausted to the psychological equivalent of a long, tough exercise session. “[It’s] similar to how I feel when my body is physically exhausted after a long hike or intense workout, where my muscles are tired [and] I’m moving slower physically and cognitively,” Gordon says. “Like I can feel the synapses in my brain trying to fire but not quite getting there, or the spark to start the fire just isn’t catching, no matter how many times I strike that match.”

There are a multitude of ways mental exhaustion can present itself and just as many reasons for why it manifests. But generally speaking, the constant influx of information, complex tasks, and responsibilities that we all have to maneuver on a regular basis can take their toll when the mental load of all those demanding cognitive tasks becomes too much.

What Causes Us to Feel Mentally Exhausted?

While the causes of mental exhaustion can vary greatly, the common denominator in all scenarios is typically stress (the culprit for so many chronic health issues). 

“Mental exhaustion often stems from the accumulation of chronic and overwhelming stress, without the time to charge and allow the body to complete the stress response cycle,” Gordon says. This type of stress may be triggered by:

  • Living with a chronic health condition

  • Being a caretaker

  • Compassion fatigue

  • Chronic stress

  • A change in life circumstances

  • Living in uncertain times/circumstances

And those are just a handful of examples. “Work, school, [and] relationship stressors are typically where [mental exhaustion] arises from,” adds Alyssa Mass, a therapist based in La Jolla, California. “It may come from an intense focus on one of these or, what I see often in my practice, is when there are stressors in a few or all of these areas and someone is essentially ping-ponging between them all day long.” 

Other elevated emotional experiences can contribute to feeling mentally exhausted, too, Mass adds. “Intense emotions like anger, sadness, grief, anxiety, and also excitement can cause mental exhaustion,” she says. “Think of a car engine if you just keep your foot pressed on the gas pedal—it’s going to burn out.”

Common Signs of Mental Exhaustion

Just as physical exhaustion can be subjective (think of that one friend who can stack a HIIT & Hills class with a Tabata ride and feel just fine while you’re huffing and puffing), mental exhaustion can also look and feel different from person to person.

“Mental exhaustion can show up in myriad ways, such as irritability, difficulty focusing, lack of motivation, indifference, physical exhaustion, memory lapses, and a sense of impending doom,” Mass says. For some, hitting a wall and reaching mental exhaustion can look and feel like anxiety or stress; for others, it can present as drowsiness, trouble concentrating, decreased alertness, lethargy, reduced productivity, and a tendency to make more errors. 

The other important aspect of mental exhaustion to keep in mind is that the symptoms may not show up overnight; in some cases, they may develop gradually. “There are numerous symptoms associated with mental exhaustion,” Gordon says. “Some of these develop over time, others develop quickly. Individuals can dismiss or ignore some of these as ‘tiredness’ or assign them another cause or dismiss them altogether.”

According to Gordon, symptoms of mental exhaustion can generally be categorized into three groups: emotional, behavioral, and physical. Some hallmark signs and symptoms in each category include:

Emotional Symptoms of Mental Exhaustion

  • Increased feelings of anger, irritability, frustration, and/or impatience

  • Increased worry, anxiety, and/or depressive symptoms

  • Feelings of hopelessness and low mood and/or energy and motivation

  • Feeling detached from those around you 

  • Feelings of overwhelm, powerlessness, and/or apathy

  • Increased self-doubt

  • Difficulty focusing and poor concentration

  • Suicidal ideations

Behavioral Symptoms of Mental Exhaustion

  • Increase in carelessness, sleep disturbances, and difficulty making decisions

  • Difficulty paying attention and focusing (i.e. zoning out) 

  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies

  • Lack of energy to accomplish daily tasks (such as making dinner)

  • Decrease in productivity

  • Change in eating habits

  • Memory difficulties, aka “brain fog”

  • Substance use

  • Increased conflict with friends, family, and/or loved ones

Physical Symptoms of Mental Exhaustion

  • Movement and physical activity feel harder

  • Headaches and/or other physical pain like headaches/gastrointestinal distress

  • Changes in appetite

  • A feeling of “heaviness” in the body and/or extreme fatigue 

Clearly, the effects of being mentally exhausted aren’t positive—and they’re also not something to take lightly. “Overall, mental exhaustion can contribute to depressive symptoms, increased anxiety, and poor motivation,” Gordon says.

A mentally exhausted woman sitting on the couch looking stressed. She is holding her head in her hand.

Ekaterina Goncharova / Moment via Getty Images

How Is Mental Exhaustion Different from Physical Exhaustion?

Unlike physical fatigue, which is often the cause of repeated muscle movements, mental exhaustion is defined as “a psychobiological state of tiredness caused by prolonged periods of performing demanding, cognitive-load-inducing activities,” in turn reducing cognitive efficiency. However, the two are not mutually exclusive and can feed off one another.

“Exhaustion can be cyclical, so if we’re mentally exhausted we may feel it physically, and if we’re physically exhausted we may feel it mentally,” Mass says. “Our body systems work together and play off one another, so when one system is out of whack, it’s going to affect the other.”

That being said, under ideal circumstances (and in the absence of the kind of intense cognitive load that leads to mental exhaustion), going hard in a workout isn’t likely to cause psychological fatigue by itself, as long as you give your body plenty of time to recover. “Mental and physical energy are like two separate worlds inside our bodies,” Gordon says. “For example, if you’ve been going hard at the gym, you might feel wiped out, but your brain’s still ticking along fine … so long as you are able to provide your body the physical rest it requires.”

But as Gordon goes on to explain, the addition of insidious cognitive strain on top of intense workouts can lead to both mental and physical exhaustion. “When your mind’s not in the game, your body starts feeling it too,” she says. “Like, if you’re stressed or exhausted, your performance can tank, even if your muscles are technically still good to go.”

Gordon explains that while physical exhaustion typically dissipates after a reasonable period of rest, mental exhaustion impacts day-to-day functioning and cognitive abilities. “Mental fatigue can hit you hard,” she says. “It’s like your brain’s on strike. In general, these symptoms influence mental capacities more so than physical exhaustion. However, overextending the body without proper rest, nutrition, and relaxation can undoubtedly result in mental burnout.”

7 Tips for Coping with Mental Exhaustion

Just as there are many reasons why mental exhaustion can occur, there are several ways to cope with it. Here are some expert-approved tips for dealing with the symptoms and getting to the root of the issue:

1. Identify What’s Causing You to Feel Mentally Exhausted 

“Learning what is causing the mental exhaustion can lead to increased self-awareness and allow you to focus the strategies and tools specifically for the stressors that are causing the overwhelm,” Gordon says. Journaling can be a great place to start unraveling some of your thoughts and behaviors.  

2. Slow Down and Eliminate Any Added Stressors That You Can

“Take your foot off the gas pedal,” Mass says. “Find a way to give your brain a break and a balance between connection and disconnection.” Whether that’s having a hard stop time for work or shifting your schedule’s priorities to better serve you, try to nix the stressors you can control and make space for yourself wherever possible. 

3. Be Mindful of the Content You Consume

The hours a day that many of us spend doomscrolling on social media or watching the news can heighten our mental fatigue. “Even when we use those devices as a ‘break,’ it’s not a true rest for our brain,” Mass explains.

One simple way to eliminate that extraneous and often detrimental stimulation? “Take a break from scrolling,” Mass says. “Disconnect from the source of exhaustion and connect to something entirely different.” 

Gordon agrees. “Take inventory of your social media feed, the apps on your phone, the amount of notifications and alerts you receive,” she adds. “Truly examine your relationship with your tech and all the ways it shows up in your life, and explore what role it may have in your experience of mental exhaustion.” 

4. Set Your Own Boundaries and Stick to Them

“Look at everything—your schedule, life, resources, finances—and figure out what your real limits are,” Gordon says. “Not what you hope to be able to do, or what you think you should be able to do, or what you know others want you to be able to do, but what do you know is one thing you can do that won’t feel overwhelming? That will feel different and perhaps a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but keeping up with that will be a movement out of mental exhaustion.” 

For instance, maybe your child’s school is looking for volunteers to chaperone a field trip. Even if that’s something you wouldn’t mind doing, try to feel confident saying no when your mental load is at capacity rather than begrudgingly saying yes and adding it onto your already crowded plate. 

5. Prioritize Sleep

You’re probably already familiar with the physical importance of high-quality rest, but remember that proper sleep is crucial for your mental health, too. 

“It’s amazing how important sleep is, and how much poor sleep negatively affects our entire system,” Gordon says. She says that practicing good sleep hygiene and aiming for as consistent a sleep schedule as possible are great places to start. 

6. Engage Your Sensory Systems

When you’re mentally exhausted, lean on sensory activities that help your body and brain feel rested and refueled, Mass says. “Go for even a brief walk, listen to music, light a candle, or use a scent stick. Use your hands—do a puzzle, cook, garden, play an instrument, color, paint,” she suggests. “This is not about the outcome; it’s about the process and engaging other parts of your brain.”

7. Move Your Body

Another great way to engage your sensory system is to treat your body to any type of exercise that truly brings you joy. “Moving your body is a great way to clear the brain fog and improve mood and cognitive abilities,” Gordon says. 

Tapping into a variety of fitness modalities can also help manage the symptoms of mental exhaustion on any given day, depending on how energetic or depleted you may be. “Peloton is a great resource for ways to manage mental exhaustion,” Mass says. “They have so many different offerings which allow for experimenting and discovering what works for you. One day it might be yoga, another day it might be meditation. Options are key for treating mental exhaustion and Peloton offers so many!”

When to Speak with a Healthcare Provider About Mental Exhaustion

While the tips above can certainly go a long way in helping to mitigate the external factors that contribute to feeling mentally exhausted, it’s important to know that sometimes, professional guidance is the best option for long-term success. 

“When that feeling of overwhelm is too much, or you just want someone else to talk to that isn’t a friend or family member, a therapist is a great place to start,” Gordon says. “You aren’t feeling this way because you did anything wrong. Sometimes, life is hard and things get overwhelming. Feeling mentally and physically exhausted can impact every aspect of your life. Therapy is a great place to help you get the support you need.” 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) both offer helpful guidance and information that can help you find a mental health professional.

The Takeaway

While some amount of stress and tiredness are just inevitable parts of daily adult life, there’s no reason to ever feel so overwhelmed with cognitive tasks that you’re pushed to the brink and unable to function. Mental exhaustion is a real phenomenon that can occur from simply taking on too much (or being forced to take on too much), and it can cause everything from emotional instability and behavioral problems to full-on physical pain. 

Luckily, by implementing a few simple strategies (including regular movement!), you can not only help prevent the effects of being mentally exhausted, but also actively decrease the repercussions if you’re already in the throes of it. And if the symptoms of mental exhaustion are too much to bear and are negatively impacting your day-to-day life, it’s time to talk to a healthcare professional. With the right expert guidance, you can not only get to the root of the problem, but you can learn to cultivate new habits and tools for dealing with the symptoms so you can get back to living life to the fullest.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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