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The Difference Between Mental and Physical Fatigue

There are distinct differences between mental and physical fatigue. Having the energy to run around the block is very different from having the ability to stay alert and concentrate on a task. You must identify which form of fatigue you're dealing with to tackle the problem correctly.

Here are three ways to help you distinguish between the two.

1. Length of Fatigue

A. Physical fatigue tends to be of short-term duration. When you finish a workout, you might be tired, but after some rest, your body will recuperate.

B. Mental fatigue tends to be long-lasting and chronic. It remains for days, weeks, months or longer.

2. Time of Day

A. Physical fatigue is usually worse at night: After a long day at work, doing chores, or physically exerting yourself.

B. Mental fatigue is usually worse in the morning. Rest doesn't change your feelings, and sleep may make you feel worse.

3. Progression

A. Physical fatigue continues getting worse as long as you keep moving. You will be more tired after a one-hour workout than one lasting only 30 minutes.

B. Mental fatigue doesn't have a set progression and tends to fluctuate. You might have trouble maintaining attention, lack motivation, fail at handling small tasks or have difficulty filtering information. Other symptoms include feeling anxious, depressed, impatient, irritable, cranky or angry. However, for some people, it can become less noticeable when you're physically busy because you're distracted and less likely to focus on it.

Then there's brain fog. That isn't the same as mental fatigue. If you walk out of the house and wonder if you turned the stove off, that's an example of brain fog. Other common examples are forgetting where you parked your car or why you walked into a room.

Don't worry; everyone experiences brain fog at some point. When you get physically or mentally tired, your mind doesn't work as quickly or think as clearly. You should talk to your doctor if you're experiencing it more frequently or if it's taking longer to figure out what you were doing.

Once you identify the type of fatigue you're dealing with, the next step is how to treat it.

With physical fatigue and brain fog, the suggestions to improve it are the typical things you do to live a healthier life.

  • Ensure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Avoid alcohol, sugary drinks and high-fat foods.
  • Do weight training exercises at least twice a week and cardio at least twice.

If you're already doing all those things, get a checkup from your doctor. You want to rule out health conditions like allergies, illness or infection that could be the culprit.

The underlying problem for many people with mental fatigue is stress. Stress is an emotion triggered by an external source, and there are two common types. It can be short-term, such as running out of something or getting stuck in traffic. This is known as acute stress. Long-term or chronic stress includes going through a divorce or dealing with illness.

Here are some ways to handle acute stress. If traffic is always messing with your commute to work, look for alternate routes and different forms of transportation. Consider leaving at other times to avoid the situation. If you're rushed getting out of the house, prep breakfast the night before. Lay out the clothes you're going to wear and set the alarm to go to bed earlier.

Handling chronic stress is more complicated. Stress is part of the job description if you have a job like nurse, construction worker, therapist or paramedic. Fortunately, the same steps that fight physical fatigue can help combat mental fatigue—sleep, diet and exercise.

It's also essential to meet with a doctor to rule out any physical issues that may be causing problems.

Then, evaluate your activities. If possible, focus more on balancing work and recreation. Take more breaks, vacations and set boundaries at your job. Now that's not possible with many jobs, so you should also meet with a mental health professional. They can help you develop strategies to deal with your specific situations.

Check out MentalHealth.gov for resources from the federal government. Click on How to Get Help for hotlines and referrals to local groups or organizations providing assistance.

Reference Links:

The Effects of Mental Fatigue on Physical Performance: A Systematic Review

Jeroen Van Cutsem, Samuele Marcora, Kevin De Pauw, Stephen Bailey, Romain Meeusen, Bart Roelands
Sports Medicine, 2017 Aug;47(8):1569-1588. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0672-0.

Click Here for the Study


Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity

Kei Mizuno, Masaaki Tanaka, Kouzi Yamaguti, Osami Kajimoto, Hirohiko Kuratsune, and Yasuyoshi Watanabe
Behavioral and Brain Functions, Published online 2011 May 23. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-17

Click Here for the Study

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