The phrase “May you live in interesting times” has been called an ancient Chinese curse, but it’s neither ancient nor Chinese. It is, however, something of a curse meant ironically — to live in interesting times is to be beset with turbulence, uncertainty and anxiety. And it’s hard to remember a time that was more interesting than right now.
These interesting and unsettling times are bringing with them a rise in mental health worries. Everyone has had their lives upended, by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic fallout from that, the current political and social climate and the daily onslaught of disturbing news that has us all longing for far less interesting times.
After months of this mayhem, many of us are feeling mentally exhausted. And with no end in sight, it is critically important that we all learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental exhaustion, take steps to recharge ourselves and prevent it from evolving into a more serious mental health condition.
What Is Mental Exhaustion?
Mental exhaustion is not a clinical diagnosis as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the medical bible of psychiatry worldwide. It’s a colloquial term for a condition that can be called any number of things:
— Stressed out.
— Mental fatigue.
— Emotionally drained.
“Our definition is long-term stress, feeling overwhelmed, feeling mixed emotions, feeling like problems are impossible to overcome,” says Betsy Schwartz, vice president for public education and strategic initiatives for the National Council for Behavioral Health. “In times like now, it is almost the norm for us to feel all of the above.”
Debra Kissen, CEO of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center in Chicago, says it’s like hitting a mental wall. “Your mind is not operating effectively. It’s similar to a computer with 30 windows open — it gets frozen in place.”
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Feeling any of the above descriptions can be a sign you are mentally exhausted. Kissen says that some of her patients use other terms as well:
— Panic attacks.
— Intrusive thoughts.
— Feeling numb.
— Feeling depressed or hopeless.
— Unable to make decisions.
— Not living the life they want to live.
“The brain is like any other muscle that is overworked. It feels sore from trying to manage so many different questions — about the economy, my job, how to parent, civil unrest. There is an endless potential for computing, a numbness to it,” Kissen says.
Some physical symptoms may be present when feeling mentally exhausted:
— Stomach distress.
— Sleep changes.
— Increased anger or impatience.
— Withdrawal from social connections.
— Overuse of alcohol or drugs.
Tips for Dealing with Mental Exhaustion
Schwartz and Kissen offer the following suggestions to combat these feelings of mental exhaustion.
Simplify tasks. If you are feeling overwhelmed, break tasks into smaller pieces, and acknowledge each accomplishment. Whether it’s caring for your home, your kids, your work duties, schooling your kids while working, try to segment each into more manageable pieces.
Recognize and limit your stressors. If the news becomes too much to bear, limit your media exposure. Watch TV or go on social media just 30 minutes a day, then turn it off. If certain friends or family members trigger you, limit exposure to them as well.
Ask for help. If you feel like your plate is too full, don’t be afraid to ask your kids and your spouse or partner to pitch in with household chores or a co-worker to lend a hand with a work project.
Build in breaks. When working from home, it’s easy to find yourself working all the time. Build in frequent breaks and do something relaxing, whether it’s a walk around the block, a short stint on a hobby or just sitting with your eyes closed for 15 minutes. Eat lunch in the kitchen, not at your desk.
Create boundaries. If you haven’t already, create a separate space for a work office, and establish boundaries so that you have separate time and space for specific things like work, home, family and yourself.
Care for you. Find ways to exercise, relax and improve your sleep. Learn to say no when asked to do too much. Assign yourself at least a half-hour every day to spend on one life-affirming thing for you: reading, walking in nature, cooking, playing with your dog, watching a comedy on Netflix, whatever it is that reminds you that life is good.
Acknowledge what you can control and what you cannot. You can’t affect the overall COVID-19 situation in your city, but you can reduce your personal risk. Learn to accept that you don’t know what the future holds — and that’s OK, because you do know how to manage yourself.
Learn mindfulness techniques. When your mind is racing, stop and make note of it. That, in essence, is mindfulness. “Become an observer of your mind,” Kissen says. “The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Practice directing your mind to a certain branch and anchor it there. It’s like playing a game with a child — you can redirect your mind to anything of value in our life. Then you are not always problem-solving and spinning your wheels. It may take 18 million tries in two minutes, but that is working the mind muscle and getting restoration.”
Remember that abnormal is the new normal. “We are all in this together,” Schwartz says. “We all need to set new standards for what we think is normal. Mental exhaustion comes from feeling overwhelmed. Focusing on the present moment and the joy in a given day is more important than ever.”
If necessary, seek professional help. “If you are really depressed or your anxiety is more than you can cope with, ask for professional help,” Schwartz says. Ask your primary care physician for a referral. There are also many free mental health help lines and online resources, and telemedicine often works for mental health therapy, she says. Kissen adds that a couple of sessions with a CBT therapist can give you more tips and tools to help you through. “It doesn’t have to be lifelong therapy,” she says. “It’s like meeting with a trainer and starting a new exercise routine.”
More from U.S. News