Like most things in life, mental health has its own schedule. Whether it is recurring in a cycle and fatigue just happens to come on every Tuesday, or there is a cycle of emotions that precede it, mental fatigue may have a calendar with your name on it whether you realize it or not. One of the biggest issues when working with your mental health is that fatigue is great at creating a cycle that ends up strengthening itself in the end. For example, depression is well-known for this tactic. Depression leads to low energy, decreased activity, and increased guilt, and then boom, your depression is worse. This similar cycling course can be applied to most types of mental illness as well. Once you start the cycle, it then changes to look something like this:
This is where you begin. This is where you place yourself if you do not have any stressful events going on, and it has no direct description of your mental health. That is because healthy is not a state, but a process of continuous acknowledgement that your mental health is dynamic. For those who often find themselves with mental fatigue, your steady state could be progressively decreasing if effective self care habits are missing. Unfortunately, this cycle feeds on itself, so your steady state will get worse each iteration, leaving you unprepared for the next stressor that comes your way.
This is the event that tosses your brain and feelings into turmoil. Sometimes this can be a person, a place, or an idea. Examples are: school & work problems, non-related health complications, or home/environment issues. The first step is recognition of what the stressor actually is. At first, you may think it is a specific scenario, but looking back critically, you may realize that it might be a specific part of the environment or your job or even the way someone approaches you. Now this is your first chance at disrupting the cycle, depending on the stressor. If you can remove the stressor from recurring, whether you talk to someone about your feelings or altogether stop the stressor from occurring, you will have effectively broken the cycle. This is not always possible, but if it is, make sure you recognize that your mental wellbeing may be worth the sacrifice. If not, then take care with your next steps to increase your likelihood of breaking the cycle.
It is at this point where despite the many paths that can be taken, too often they still lead you to the exhaustion phase. Depending on how you personally deal with your stress, there are many courses of action to be taken that are unknowingly harmful. An example of this can be when you overwork yourself as a result of the stressor. So your reaction to the stressor is an integral part to the continuation of this negative cycle.
To begin, you first need to reflect on your emotions and reactions to the stressor. This does not need to be an in-depth session, but it can just take 4-5 minutes. Some questions you want to think about are what feelings you have, what behaviors result from those feelings, how effective at dealing with the stressor are your behaviors, and lastly, determine how your behaviors make you feel afterwards. These questions can allow you to determine whether your actions are healthy or harmful to you, and they can help you realize your actions may be effective or not. Obviously, if you have harmful habits, this will lead you to the exhaustion phase, but also, if your conduct is not effective in managing your stress, you will find yourself in the exhaustion phase as well. Additionally, sometimes your reaction to a stressor may not necessarily be harmful; it could be effective or overall the best choice for you to take, but in the end it may still lead you to be exhausted. There may not always be a better answer, but recognizing the downfalls of each behavior can give you the edge you need to break out of the cycle of mental fatigue.
Whether you are at this phase because of the prolonged exposure to the stressor, or you are there because of your reaction to the stressor, many people find themselves in the exhaustion phase. There are two types of people at this stage who continue on in this cycle and are unable to break out. The first are those who do not, or will not recognize that they are in fact exhausted. These are people that will pretend that they have “recovered” mentally from the event or stressor, but in reality, they have not. This is highly detrimental to your health, even if the stressor may not be physical, stress and mental fatigue can have physical effects on your body. As a result, this can lead you to keep going through this negative cycle which compounds itself over time. This is what depression and anxiety do. They get you to this point of exhaustion, but make you feel like you do not need to take the time for yourself to recover. As a result, you are on this continuous cycle of mental fatigue while symptoms worsen and start to break you down mentally. You need to realize that whether you did not react to the stressor, or if you overworked yourself because of the stressor, that feeling exhausted afterwards is a valid feeling to both. You need to use self-compassion, recognize your feelings, and then move onto the actual recovery phase that will break you out of this cycle of mental mental fatigue.
For the second group of people, they will recognize that they are exhausted and take the steps they need to recover, but they may not be using effective strategies or push themselves too quickly through this phase. Some examples of healthy behaviors for recovery include sleeping the right amount (not too much or too little), working out, talking to a friend, meditation, mindfulness, or doing a hobby can give you the needed boost to recover. Make sure to realize that if you are physically exhausted as well that maybe exercise or doing a hobby may not be the best fit for you, or on the other hand, if you are mentally exhausted, these activities may give your brain a break from thinking. Besides this, the most beneficial task you can do is to tell yourself outloud to relax. It may seem silly, but for a lot of people, their version of “relaxing” is doing nothing physically, but still being worried and hating themselves for not doing anything. This is counterproductive because even though you think you are relaxing, you are not. To recover fully and to break the cycle, you need to let yourself completely relax, free from worries. If you don’t, you will believe that you have “recovered” but in reality, you’re far from it.. As such, you continue on your way still in the negative cycle unknowingly. If this is you, the best way to work on this is to practice your mindfulness. It may be tough at first, but taking a little extra time to make sure you have fully recovered can be the greatest asset to your mental health.
After the end of this phase, if you were not successful with breaking out of the cycle of mental fatigue, you will find yourself back at steady-state, but your actual state of mental health will still be in question. Do not let this stress you out though. Sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what works best for each person, and other times the best thing you can do is manage if you can not break. No matter how it goes, you are still as valid as you were before, and in the process, you may find improvements to other areas of your mental health, intentional or not. So ensure that you give yourself the best tools to be your healthiest, and do not burden yourself with the goal of perfection.
A short guide on each phase of the cycle:
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