You probably need more sleep, but there may be something else going on, too.
Especially if you’ve noticed a drop in your motivation to write, or if you find that writing doesn’t come as easily as it once did.
We writers place a high “cognitive load” on our brains. Not only do most of us do everything that everyone else does—go to work every day, raise families, run errands, respond to emergencies—but we create poems, articles, and stories from scratch. Again and again.
It’s easy to forget how hard we’re working. Even when we begin to experience symptoms of mental exhaustion, we don’t put two and two together.
The hard work your brain is doing could be hurting both your physical and mental health. Below are the signs of mental exhaustion, along with several tips to help you boost brain energy and take better care of yourself.
We can usually tell when we’re burned out, but prior to that, we often miss the signs that our brains need rest.
Those signs are often subtle, especially in the beginning. They gradually get worse over time, but we tend to connect them to lack of sleep or stress or anything other than the mental work we’re doing.
It can be confusing because usually lack of sleep and stress do factor into it, but it’s often the brain’s exhaustion that’s at the core of the issue.
Ask yourself: Do any of the following symptoms sound familiar right now?
If you’re mentally exhausted, you:
If any of these sound familiar, you may be suffering from mental exhaustion, or be on your way to full-blown burnout.
You may wonder about the physical symptoms, but research shows that brain overload can cause bodily suffering. In a 2009 study, for instance, scientists had participants exercise when mentally rested and mentally fatigued. Results showed that the mentally fatigued participants stopped exercising 15 percent earlier, on average, than the mentally rested participants, even though both groups had gotten the same amount of sleep beforehand.
The scientists concluded that the brain was responsible for the difference. Because it was already fatigued, it had less willpower to keep going and tended to cause the participants to quit before they usually would.
Mental fatigue can also deplete dopamine levels. Since dopamine is a neurotransmitter that encourages motivation and effort, it makes sense that lower levels would cause someone to give up early.
The more we use the brain, the more glucose the body burns up. (Glucose is the body’s preferred form of fuel.) As it does so, it causes adenosine levels to rise. Adenosine is a natural chemical involved in sleep and relaxation, so as adenosine levels increase, you feel less like getting busy and more like chilling out in front of the television.
There are a number of factors involved in creating mental exhaustion, but they all have to do with one thing—overloading your brain.
In a 2011 study, scientists reported that “prolonged cognitive load”—which is any activity that requires extended periods of focus, concentration, thinking, and/or problem-solving (sound familiar?)—could lead to mental fatigue.
That means that the simple practice of writing day after day can easily lead to mental exhaustion, particularly if you’re also working a full-time job, and especially if you’re not taking steps to protect yourself.
In addition, all of the following factors can increase your risk of mental burnout:
The best way to rest a tired brain is to do just that—rest. Take some time off, catch up on your sleep, get out in nature, and let your imagination play.
That’s not always possible, though, particularly if you’re in the middle of a book launch, you’re driving toward the end of your novel, or you’re dealing with a major stressful life event that you can’t control.
Below are steps you can take during these times that will help your brain recover more quickly. You may also find that some of these suggestions are helpful at any time because let’s face it—we writers expect a lot from our brains on a pretty much consistent basis!
Exercise boosts both physical and mental energy, so it’s critical that you get some into your schedule somewhere. Even 15 minutes of a high-intensity workout can boost blood circulation to the brain and help you feel more awake and alert.
There’s something about music that our human brains respond to. Studies have shown that it can boost dopamine levels, which in turn, boost your motivation. Pick out those tunes that help you feel energized and motivated.
Do whatever you can to limit the number of decisions you have to make each day. Plan out your meals a week in advance, lay out your clothes the night before, and decide what your three priorities are before you start each week.
As a writer, you absolutely must have some sort of stress-relieving activity that you do every day. That could be your exercise time, a daily walk (with your dog is even better), meditation, yoga, journaling, crafting, or whatever helps you unwind and relax.
Supplements that help support brain function are called “nootropics.” Most are made with natural ingredients, like vitamins and herbs, and are considered safe. Always check with your doctor first, then consider one or more of the following to help your brain get through a stressful time:
Have you suffered from mental exhaustion lately?
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