What Is Cognitive Fatigue? Exhaustion Isn’t Just A Physical Issue, Psychologists Say

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So you’ve made it through January, it’s actually light outside when you leave for work, and your New Year’s resolution to get a bit more sleep has actually sort of stuck — but you’re still feeling sluggish, foggy-headed, and completely unable to concentrate. According to an illuminating new article in Metro, the cause could be cognitive fatigue, or mental exhaustion. So what is cognitive fatigue? It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you’re completely worn out, but it’s your mind that needs a break, not your body.

According to Metro, indicators of cognitive fatigue include feeling overwhelmed or unable to complete typically simple tasks, an inability to concentrate, feeling irritable or “disconnected from the world,” forgetting things more than usual, and experiencing physical stress symptoms like headaches. In short: everything feels as though it’s entirely too much for you to handle.

Cognitive fatigue is different from physical tiredness, clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Huckle told Metro, explaining, “What we do know is that cognitive fatigue is a distinct phenomenon from sleepiness — in fact, research shows that as cognitive fatigue increases sleepiness is not affected.”

It comes about, Psychology Today explains, thanks to “an accumulation of too much: Too many decisions. Too much work (in not enough time). Too many interruptions, demands, and shifts in attention. Too many things going on without time to pause and restore.” Health issues including depression, chronic illness, heart disease, and autoimmune disease can also contribute.

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It’s not just work demands that contribute to cognitive fatigue, according to Metro. Daily “life admin” — making appointments, replying to messages, cleaning the house — can quickly build up, and those with extra responsibilities like caring for others might feel especially overwhelmed.

Cognitive fatigue needn’t be an inevitability of a busy lifestyle, however. Firstly, if you suspect your exhaustion might be the result of an illness, as Psychology Todaynotes as a possibility, your first stop should be a doctor. Treating your depression, for instance, might relieve your sense of overload.

There’s other adjustments you can make to your daily life to tackle your fatigue, too. Psychology Today highlights the importance of regular breaks, whether that’s ensuring you take your full lunch break every day, switching off your work phone after hours, or taking some time off to fully relax. Exercise can also help, according to the magazine; as little as twenty minutes could improve your ability to concentrate.

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Forbes suggests staying organised to avoid becoming overwhelmed, both by planning your daily life and keeping your space at home tidy and free of clutter. Avoid planning too many activities or tasks, however, and be honest with yourself about what you really need to do.

And crucially, prioritise looking after yourself: ensure you’re sleeping enough, allocate time for stress-busting activities like meditation, and try to recognise when you’re pushing yourself too hard or punishing yourself unnecessarily (a therapist might help with this). As Metro points out, you’re far from a failure for finding things a bit too much. What’s key is allowing yourself the time to relax and recover.