It seems our workaholic society is full of over-caffeinated and under-rested people. It can be hard to get the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night when there are many competing demands. For some adults, this demanding reality doesn’t inhibit daily functioning with jobs, children, and to-do lists. But for others, this tiredness reaches a debilitating level where feeling exhausted decreases quality of life and overall happiness.
To cope with his heart health problems, my 82-year-old grandfather sleeps much of his days away, as would be expected for someone his age and in his condition. But as a young professional in my prime of life, why is it that I sleep as much, if not more than him? As a result of living with two mental illnesses and battling their symptoms daily, I deal with chronic fatigue. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been exhausted since 2016.
No matter how much sleep I get, I am always tired. Not just tired but exhausted. Sleep helps, don’t get me wrong, but I am exhausted regardless. And getting only 7 hours of sleep won’t cut it, I’m a walking zombie. My roommates have gotten used to my 12-hour sleeping habits, but trust me, no one in my life thinks it’s normal (especially my mental health providers). Because of depression, when I wake up my body feels like dead weight and getting out of bed in the morning is the hardest part of my day. I’ve also gone through phases of insomnia that lead to chronic fatigue. This level of fatigue is not normal for most adults, especially when experienced for extended periods.
Lack of sleep is a reality for many people, so how do you know when feeling tired becomes feeling exhausted? And what can you do to decrease or relieve chronic fatigue?
What Constitutes Being Exhausted?
Sleep is deeply connected to optimum physical and mental functioning. When our health is suffering, our sleep is impacted. If tiredness impacts your ability to get through the day, this could be a sign of actually being exhausted. Feeling exhausted cannot be cured with a good night’s rest, rather it is a state of constant long-term fatigue. This chronic fatigue is persistent and impacts normal daily functioning.
Exhaustion is all-encompassing, impacting how we interact with others in all parts of life and how we feel while doing so. Talkspace therapist Dr. Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, says being exhausted makes us “more irritable, frustrated, not as open to accepting responsibility for our contribution, defensive, critical,” and “our physical bodies take a hit.” It feels like a weight on your shoulders that you must carry while completing daily tasks; it’s something hard for anyone no matter their previous level of functioning.
Are You Tired or Exhausted?
Tiredness is typical for many adults living a busy lifestyle. CDC research finds as many as 35% of adults do not get the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night. However, tiredness passes into feeling exhausted when it comes with more severe symptoms and a deeper cause, rather than just typical sleepiness from a poor night of rest.
When hardships occur in your life, it’s easy to become exhausted. Dr. Rice says “tiredness is certainly something that we all experience, but for me, exhaustion is what takes over when I’m not being mindful of hardships occurring in more than one category [of my life].” She adds that no amount of sleep cures this kind of fatigue because it is rooted in deeper issues that must be addressed.
There are tell-tale signs that you might not just be tired, but are exhausted. When you’re experiencing more than tiredness with additional physical and mental symptoms, it may be time to consult a doctor. If you have many of the following symptoms frequently, you likely are exhausted.
Signs of being exhausted include:
- Waking up still feeling tired
- Small tasks are draining
- Emotional dysregulation
- Constant feelings of stress
- Trouble focusing
- Eating too much or too little
- Dry skin and lips, acne
- Difficulty falling asleep and/or getting quality rest
- Catching a cold or illness often
Causes of Feeling Exhausted
Being exhausted is associated with many different mental and physical illnesses. This means the causes of fatigue vary from person to person. Exhaustion commonly occurs because of mental stress from overworking or burnout. Often this is related to stress from the workplace, but it can be stress of any kind and can be a combination of stress from multiple areas of life.
In particular, for many people, mental illness is closely tied to feeling exhausted. Anyone with a mental illness can tell you that living with their condition is exhausting. Being exhausted is especially common among those dealing with major depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorders. Dealing with any mental problem is exhausting, thus, for many people it’s a symptom of poor mental health.
Naturally, many physical illnesses are also associated with feeling exhausted. When you’re fighting off an ailment, the body is devoting its energy to survival. This means there is less energy left for normal functioning, so our bodies become easily exhausted. Being exhausted is also commonly connected to high blood pressure, heart disease, anemia, hypothyroidism, and fibromyalgia, according to Mayo Clinic. There are also sleep-related illnesses that cause exhaustion, such as sleep apnea and chronic fatigue syndrome.
When exhausted we often think, “if I could just sleep longer and harder, the exhaustion would go away,” Dr. Rice says. “But while that’s the easier route, it’s not actually all that effective. Just like with weeds, we have to get to the root in order for the weed not to grow back, we have to get to the root of the exhaustion if we want to feel like we have a full cup.” Consulting a medical professional is the best way to understand why you’re exhausted and how to address it.
Ways to Manage Feeling Exhausted
Different people will require different strategies to manage feeling exhausted, so explore what helps you feel better when seeking help from a professional. One way to address feeling exhausted is to prioritize getting quality sleep to help with any fatigue directly resulting from lack of rest.
Here are key tips for better sleep from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Tips for better sleep:
- Aim to get quality sleep for at least 7 hours each night.
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time daily. Schedule it into your day if needed.
- Develop a relaxing sleep routine before bedtime. This could include habits like taking a shower, lighting candles, dimming the lights, and reading a book before shuteye.
- Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol before bedtime.
- Only use your bed for sleeping and sex.
- Put down electronic devices 30 minutes before bed, the light can impact your ability to fall asleep.
While sleep can help with managing feeling exhausted, it’s not a panacea. Many of us still have responsibilities, which are harder to complete when exhausted.
Here are some tips for managing your day while exhausted.
Ways to cope with being exhausted during the day:
- Eat balanced, energizing foods throughout the day. Incorporate foods with sustaining energy, such as nuts, whole grains, and leafy vegetables. And don’t forget your 6-8 glasses of water!
- Practice techniques for reducing stress, such as meditation, getting outside, and deep breathing exercises.
- Prioritize the most important tasks for the day. Make sure the amount of work is feasible for your level of energy.
- Take the day one step at a time and listen to how you’re feeling. Don’t push yourself to do more tasks than you’re able because that will only further deplete you.
- Incorporate breaks throughout the day so you don’t get drained as quickly.
- Find hobbies that relax you and incorporate them into your routing, not just on the weekends, to create more balance and additional recharging time. This could be as simple as watching a comfort show, listening to music, or playing with a pet.
- Be gentle with yourself because it is hard to function at full capacity when you’re exhausted. It can be helpful to leave reminders to take a break or to practice positive affirmations.
The most important step you can take to help when you’re exhausted is to seek out expert medical advice and treatment. This is the best way to address why you’re exhausted. From there, you can understand what is causing your chronic fatigue and work towards solving the issues.
Mental health professionals continue to help me work through the deeper issues connected to why I’m exhausted. Thankfully I’ve found ways to incorporate more rest and ways to re-energize myself into my lifestyle to meet my needs. And a morning dose of cold brew to compliment my antidepressants never hurt anyone. Prioritizing meaningful work that I am passionate about also gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and push through the fatigue.
Seeing an expert mental health professional can help you unpack the underlying issues making you exhausted and learn strategies to cope with it. Speaking with a Talkspace therapist is a great place to start. Talkspace offers affordable, convenient online therapy so you can start your journey towards recovery today.