Comparing your pre-pandemic self to your current self is a slippery slope. While you might have once been a creative, enthusiastic professional who eagerly took on new projects and opportunities for growth, these days, putting on pants can feel like a feat. Especially for those who traditionally classify themselves as type-A overachievers, going through a low-energy period may be frustrating and, at times, scary since it’s so out of character.
Before you start to doubt your abilities, remember that nearly everyone is suffering from mental fatigue right now. That’s when we find it difficult to focus or keep our attention on a task because we are emotionally maxed out, says psychologist Yvonne Thomas.
Many people are feeling this way—and for a good reason. The pandemic presents the difficult challenge of accepting how little control we have over our day-to-day lives—or knowing when life will return to a more relaxed state. Plus, says Thomas, because of the ongoing threat of potentially contracting COVID-19, many of us may experience mental fatigue because we’re on high alert everywhere we go.
Last but not least: You might be lonely. Even if you are quarantining with your family, partner, or roommates, not being able to do all of the things that bring us joy and release, such as attending concerts, sporting events, or dining at your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, can leave you feeling depleted.
Here, we spoke to experts about the key signs of mental fatigue and, more importantly, how to cope:
Signs you’re mentally exhausted:
1. You’re inefficient
Sure, we all have days when finishing a slide in a presentation would take us half an hour, max. And others when it’s a two-hour ordeal—and requires at least a few cups of coffee. Everyone goes through productivity ebbs and flows, but if everything takes you far more time than usual lately, Thomas says you could be suffering from mental exhaustion. This might look like logging into your work computer at 9 a.m., surfing the web, checking TikTok, dialing in to meetings but not being engaged, and then finally getting around to your deliverables around noon. Occasionally, we all operate this way. But if this is your new normal, you could be mentally overtaxed.
2. You don’t feel compassion for others
You used to have empathy for the colleague who always arrived late to Zooms because they were juggling a toddler and school-aged kid while working. Or, you may have gone easy on the recent hire who needed everything explained to them not once, not twice, but three times. But now that you’re eight months (and counting) into a state of lockdown, your emotional tolerance could be waning. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Laura Rhodes-Levin, this is a key signifier of mental fatigue, since meeting the needs of others requires forethought, energy, and consideration.
When you don’t have enough motivation to do routine tasks, giving extra to those around you is all but impossible. “Compassion fatigue is the sense that you just don’t care enough to make this much-needed exchange,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like you are zoned out completely and feel numb and disconnected.” This doesn’t make you a bad person. It just signals that perhaps you need more self-care periods within your week.
3. You’re procrastinating more than ever
Some people thrive by putting everything off until the very last minute. (In fact, one of the most-watched TED Talks featuring Tim Urban covers this personality characteristic.) However, if this isn’t your style and suddenly you’re procrastinating every part of your day, you could be overloaded. “When a person continuously has high emotions or stress, it is hard to simultaneously feel energetic, motivated, or invested in tackling tasks,” Thomas explains. “Instead, a person can feel unfocused, exhausted, and/or pessimistic.”
4. You’re struggling with sleep and appetite
In addition to feeling easily irritated with our friends, family members, and coworkers, we may also lose the will to care for ourselves when we are experiencing mental fatigue. We may observe shifts in our sleep routine and our eating habits, according to Rhodes-Levin. Usually, it’s demonstrated in extremes: excessive overeating or no appetite at all. Sometimes, it’s insomnia since you can’t get your mind to stop running, and other times, all you want to do is stay in bed all day, every day.
How to cope
1. Create “countdown” strategies
Part of the cause of mental fatigue is having way too much information to process. In addition to topics you usually have to think about—such as going to work, going grocery shopping, planning holidays, strategizing your work calendar, etc.—there’s a whole new level of data. For instance, grabbing a mask before you head out the door. You may not realize how taxing this is on our mental processing system. To solve this, you should write every task down and then create a “countdown” strategy for checking it off, suggests learning specialist Rebecca Mannis.
She recommends using an old-fashioned planner or an app such as Evernote to file away your thoughts. “Put hard deadlines in red and soft ones in yellow so that there is a visual cue to reinforce the goals,” she says. Then, break down all of your items into digestible sections so that you can have mini-wins throughout the process. By doing this, Mannis says you strengthen your mental muscle, and you’ll feel less stress.
An example might be an end-of-week deadline for sending a proposal to a client. In pre-pandemic times, it would have taken you three hours to complete. Now, make that number five hours. This means spending one hour Monday through Friday dedicated to the proposal. Every time you finish those 60 minutes, reward yourself with a walk or a quick break to chat with a friend.
2. Exercise at least 30 minutes a day
There’s no replacement for the happy endorphins produced by physical activity. It can feel overwhelming to get started, but once you do, Thomas says you’ll see a breakthrough in your mental fatigue since it will kickstart the good hormones and energy levels. “Try to do some cardio for at least thirty minutes around the time when you feel the most mentally exhausted to help reinvigorate your mind and body,” she says. “This de-escalates the build-up of stress or upsetting emotions.”
3. Engage with nature and your senses.
When we are feeling mentally exhausted, it’s often because we are trapped in a cycle of fretting, worrying, and entertaining anxious thoughts and ideas. Most of this is caused by wondering about the future or catastrophizing about what could happen—for instance, “What if we are in lockdown for five years?!” To relieve this pressure, you need to bring yourself back to the right-here and the right-now, says Rhodes-Levin.
You can do this by focusing on your five senses: What do you feel, hear, see, taste, and smell? “Look at the sky, run some water on your face, take a break and listen to some music, exchange a few jokes with a friend. Reconnect to the world around you,” she recommends. “There is a lot more to the world than our worries, if we take the time to find it.” This is a grounding technique that can help you get back into the zone and feel more at ease.
4. Try 5-5-5 balanced breathing
Like checking in with your senses, it can also help to practice breathing techniques designed to lower our heart rate, clear our mind, and release tension. Meditation and mindfulness coach Christine Argo recommends the 5-5-5 method that forces us to count rather than to entertain anxious mental queries.
“The process of focusing equally on the length of inhalation and exhalation helps regulate the nervous system. Just as our nerves can impact our breathing, our breathing can impact our nerves,” she says. How do you try it? You simply breathe in for five seconds, hold for five seconds, and exhale for five seconds. Then, repeat as often as you need.