Most of us tend to feel tired so frequently. Intense physical and mental fatigue is almost an accepted part of daily life. We meet friends and trade stories of how tired we are and why–usually some combination of work-related and personal stress. And yet, there is a kind of shame attached to feeling tired, as well: if you can’t tough it out at the end of a long, disastrous work day and go to the gym, you are considered undisciplined. So our current M.O. is, if you’re tired, just suck it up and do more, be better.
I used to suffer from intense *and* chronic fatigue when I used to work in a high-stress corporate setting. Now that I manage and create my own schedule (#selfboss), I feel much less tired overall. But I still do get exhausted on a near daily basis–why? Is it because I just like to complain a lot? Or am I an incorrigible wimp? I found some solace in the fact that fatigue is simply a natural sensation intended to compel you to take a rest, just like hunger signals you to eat. So on one level, our mental compulsion to “just get over” the fatigue and perform like a warrior is about as nourishing as withholding food or drink when you’re really hungry and thirsty.
Furthermore, fatigue isn’t just induced by bodily exertion. According to a study by researchers at Texas A&M University, when you exert mental energies, you add to your physical fatigue more than if you just do physical activity. Your brain is as much a muscle as the rest of your body, so it makes sense that prolonged, intense (!) cognition exhausts you as much as a spin class. If you’ve ever spent an entire day working in front of your computer and felt too tired to go for a run, please feel vindicated, now. It’s not because you’re not hardcore–you are a hardcore thinker! 😊
For those of us who don’t have obvious physical causes of fatigue (such as training for a marathon, or lack of sleep), much of our overall fatigue comes from mental and emotional causes. Most of us don’t work on a farm or do physical labor as our day jobs–rather, our jobs require us to sit and think all day. But it’s not just thinking in general that exhausts you (no one becomes tired after daydreaming about a new love interest for several hours a day). Few different mental processes are especially draining: 1) decision-making and 2) resisting desires.
Decision-making: The more you have to make choices, from the quotidian to the life-changing, the more tired you become–and the less able to make good, rational choices. In one study by a Princeton economist, poor villagers in India were given the option of buying a soap at a discounted price. And whether or not they ultimately bought it, people who were confronted with the choice were left with less power–literally, as measured by the length of time they were able to squeeze a hand grip.
Resisting desires: Another study by German scientists analyzed self-reported momentary desires of more than 200 people for a week. It turns out that most of us are resisting some sort of desire for much of the day–adding up to an astonishing 3-4 hours a day. The most common desires are: to eat, sleep, take a rest, have sexual contact, be distracted (such as using Facebook). Needless to say, the more you resist, the more drained you feel.
If you are generally in good health and yet feel exhausted by the mid-afternoon, instead of reaching for a coffee, try these tips to reduce mental and physical fatigue from accumulating.
1. Limit choices for yourself: Instead of wondering what you’ll do for breakfast or lunch, or which yoga class to take (morning or evening? Tuesday or Wednesday?), whether to answer that email right away, etc, make a fast decision and stick with it. Automate some of the more routine decisions: for instance, I tend to eat a lot of the same meals week after week. I also always go to the same cafe to work, and while I work I always order the same drink and never any food. After you make a choice, don’t think twice about it.
2. Delay certain emotional decisions: A lot of mental exertion comes from processing a situation and deciding your emotional response. Know that in most situations, it’s okay to decide how upset / angry / stressed you want to be, later on. This can greatly reduce your mental fatigue (that ‘I can’t think or do anything else‘ feeling) in the moment, and also later, hopefully in a more relaxed and safe environment. This also saves you from making bad decisions (such as saying things you might regret) at a particularly vulnerable time.
3. Pay attention to your needs: Be honest about your needs and try to meet them as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Most of us don’t have a super need for negative things, whether that’s binge drinking or unhealthy eating habits–those desires tend to dissipate when we really listen to ourselves. Do you feel hungry in the middle of the day? Bring more healthy snacks to work. Are you not sleeping enough? Go to bed earlier. Or do you feel like you can’t speak up honestly at work? (A little trickier, but try to talk to a confidante rather than bottle it in.)
4. Restore your energy levels with physical activity: yes, I know I said to respect your fatigue. But if you’re suffering from mentally-induced exhaustion, it may be a good idea to get in some exercise. Studies show that all physical activity actually reduces fatigue and boosts energy. Choose a low-to-moderate level activity, which relieves fatigue better than something intense. It’s best if you can choose something that allows your mind to relax.
5. Actually take a break: there is nothing wrong with having to take a rest. Rest helps us avoid burnout, stay happy and satisfied, and be more productive in the long run. Don’t wait for a red light to come on: do take time for yourself every day to do pure leisure activities.
6. Nourish yourself: If you’re eating an overall healthy, balanced diet, your fatigue is likely not caused by serious nutritional deficiencies. But it’s always a good idea to stock yourself up on beneficial foods for energy and stable mood. Try these foods to stabilize blood sugar, and stress-busting foods for calm, happy mind set.
At what time do you usually get that “I’m so beat” feeling? For me, it’s usually at 6 p.m.–which is why I often go for a “mindless” run at this time. 🙂
Related: 7 Ways to Boost Energy and Avoid Burnout
Why It’s Okay to Feel Burned Out – and 5 Ways to Recover
6 Natural Ways to Restore Your Energy
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