Signs of Mental Exhaustion and How to Boost Brain Energy

Signs of Mental Exhaustion and How to Boost Brain Energy
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Have you been feeling tired lately?

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.

Signs You May be a Mentally Exhausted Writer

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:

  • Are often physically fatigued
  • Experience increased irritability and mood swings
  • Suffer from headaches, muscle aches, and joint pain
  • Struggle to get a good night’s sleep
  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation to get things done
  • Struggle with your writing—you may experience writer’s block
  • Feel trapped or stuck
  • Make more mistakes than usual
  • Suffer from mental blocks—have more difficulty coming up with good ideas
  • Eat too much or too little—struggle to maintain a healthy diet

If any of these sound familiar, you may be suffering from mental exhaustion, or be on your way to full-blown burnout.

Mental Exhaustion Can Create Physical Symptoms

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.

What Causes Mental Exhaustion in Writers?

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:

  • Decision-making: Anytime you make a decision—even about something as insignificant as what to wear to work—you use a muscle in the brain. With each subsequent decision, you tire that muscle. If you’re having to make too many decisions every day, you risk mental exhaustion.
  • Stress: Big, stressful events in our lives as well as lower-level, chronic stress overloads the brain, particularly if you don’t take enough time for rest and relaxation.
  • Overwork: Working too many hours per week—at the job and at your writing career—can contribute to mental exhaustion.
  • Overcommitting: If you’re having trouble keeping up with all your responsibilities, you’ve probably said “yes” once too often.
  • Procrastination: Yes, you put that task off, but your brain continues to think about it and worry about it, causing excessive brain stress.
  • Attention shifts: Every time you’re interrupted, your brain has to shift attention from one thing to another, then shift it back to your original project. All that shifting requires energy.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionism not only demands your best on every single project, it is exhausting. It can also lead to decision paralysis, and indecision is particularly tiring.
  • Health problems: Diseases and health issues can cause mental exhaustion, particularly if they require extensive medical treatment, increase stress, or interfere with sleep.
  • Lack of sleep: The brain needs sleep for optimal health.

5 Ways Writers Can Boost Brain Energy

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!

1. Exercise

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.

2. Turn on the Snappy Tunes

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.

3. Make Fewer Decisions

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.

4. Practice Regular Stress Relief

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.

5. Try Brain-Boosting Supplements

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:

  • Rhodiola rosea: The root of this perennial plant contains compounds that help increase the brain’s resistance to stress. In a 2017 study, researchers discovered that 400 mg daily helped burned-out participants improve their symptoms.
  • L-theanine: This natural amino acid helps ease anxiety and stress and boosts levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that improve mood and motivation, increase attention, and promote cognitive function. You can get it from green and black tea, and from supplements.
  • L-Tyrosine: This is another amino acid that is necessary for the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—all brain messengers that help boost cognitive function. Stress can deplete your supply of these, so if you’ve been stressed out lately, this may be the supplement for you. Studies have shown it to help improve working memory and to boost brain function after a poor night’s sleep. You’ll find tyrosine in foods like turkey, chicken, fish, and dairy products, or in supplements.
  • Phosphatidylserine (PS): This phospholipid (fatty molecule) occurs naturally in the body, with particularly high concentrations in the brain. It helps keep cells healthy while enhancing the way the brain uses glucose for energy, and may even help improve symptoms of dementia. The evidence behind this one is so strong that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now allows supplement companies to make claims on their products and in advertisements stating that the supplement can help improve age-related cognitive decline.
  • Creatine: Another amino acid, creatine helps produce cellular energy, making the brain more efficient. In one 2018 review of six studies, researchers found that creatine supplements helped improve short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning in both healthy and aging individuals. Creatine comes from animal foods, so if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may need more of this amino acid, and supplements can help.

Have you suffered from mental exhaustion lately?

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Colzato, L. S., Jongkees, B. J., Sellaro, R., & Hommel, B. (2013). Working Memory Reloaded: Tyrosine Repletes Updating in the N-Back Task. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00200

Foxe, J. J., Morie, K. P., Laud, P. J., Rowson, M. J., De Bruin, E. A., & Kelly, S. P. (2012). Assessing the effects of caffeine and theanine on the maintenance of vigilance during a sustained attention task. Neuropharmacology, 62(7), 2320-2327. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.01.020

Kasper, S., & Dienel, A. (2017). Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Volume 13, 889-898. doi:10.2147/ndt.s120113

Marcora, S. M., Staiano, W., & Manning, V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 106(3), 857-864. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.91324.2008

Martin, K., Meeusen, R., Thompson, K. G., Keegan, R., & Rattray, B. (2018). Mental Fatigue Impairs Endurance Performance: A Physiological Explanation. Sports Medicine, 48(9), 2041-2051. doi:10.1007/s40279-018-0946-9

Mizuno, K., Tanaka, M., Yamaguti, K., Kajimoto, O., Kuratsune, H., & Watanabe, Y. (2011). Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 7(1), 17. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-7-17

Neri, D. F. (1995). The effects of tyrosine on cognitive performance during extended wakefulness. Aviat Space Environ Med., 66(4), 313-9. Retrieved from

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