Is it any surprise that our default state is tired? Between work, friends, and family, Americans are busier than ever—no wonder we’re worn out. Don’t underestimate the importance of stopping your sluggishness before it turns into something far more serious: exhaustion.
What Causes It
We’re not talking about garden-variety tiredness, which everyone experiences from time to time. Exhaustion is the type of tiredness that just won’t quit. “The difference between tiredness and fatigue comes about in terms of its persistence,” says Dr. Kevin C. Fleming, a general internist and the Medical Director of Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “After a busy week or two of too much activity and too little sleep, people might feel exhausted for a day or two and bounce back.”
That’s normal. Exhaustion, however, sticks around. “You feel too tired to do normal activities and start avoiding doing things,” Fleming says. “Some people start getting rid of everything but going to work and going to bed. They quit doing things on weekends because they’re sleeping in, and they avoid going out because it’s too fatiguing.” One surefire sign of exhaustion? You wake up feeling like you want to go back to sleep.
Fleming notes that if symptoms persist for more than three months, it’s time to see a doctor. Some medical problems, such as anemia and hypothyroidism, can cause fatigue. Depression, too, can make people fatigued (and vice versa). Barring those more serious issues, though, there are a few ways to minimize the effects of exhaustion.
Photo: Skye Parrott
How to Fix It
Duh—you knew that. But, says Fleming, many people don’t understand that in our mid-30s, our bodies physically require more sleep than they used to. “Sometimes people in their twenties got by with four or five hours of sleep, but [after age 35] they actually need more,” Fleming says. The good news is that as little as an hour more of shut-eye can help. Oh, and forget about catching up on sleep over the weekends: “You might be able to get away with it if you’re 18 or 25, but it really doesn’t fix things,” Fleming says.
Understand the mind-body connection.
On one level, your body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. “The high amount of stress from modern work and modern life is phenomenal,” Fleming says, pointing to an always-on digital culture and long work hours as two culprits. That stress activates our limbic system, or the brain’s “fight or flight” response.
It’s a good thing gone wrong. Whereas earlier humans may have experienced occasional fight-or-flight situations, now we’re bombarded by them all day. “We’re born with a stress-management tool that was designed in the wild, and yet in the office it keeps getting turned on for overdue stuff, or your kid’s sick today, or someone cut you off in traffic,” he says.
When that system keeps getting turned on, it uses cortisol and adrenaline. “You just can’t live off of that as an energy source,” Fleming explains. That’s why a day of juggling conference calls and an endless to-do list can leave you feeling completely burned out—your body is as taxed as it would be if you’d just outrun an angry mama bear in the woods.
Boost your brain power.
We can’t always control our exposure to stress, but we can control our response to it, Fleming explains. “You have to train yourself to turn that fight-or-flight instinct off,” he says. Doing so involves engaging the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that regulates decision-making, consciousness, and emotional control. That part of the brain is also responsible for generating energy; learn to engage it, and you’ll literally build up your reserves.
Fleming recommends regular meditation as a way to “brain train.” Don’t be discouraged if you struggle at first, he says. “It’s not intuitive,” he says. “People feel like they should be able to manage stress, but it’s not something you’re born knowing. It has to be taught.”
Another way to turn off the fight-or-flight response? Engage in creative work. “It’s pure front-brain activity,” Fleming says. “If you have done non-work-related creative things like artwork, painting, crafts, or woodwork, this needs to become a regular activity.” As little as three times per week should help.
Have a Walden moment.
Zone out in nature, basically. “People everywhere love sitting around the fire and looking at waves,” Fleming says. “I don’t know why, but you have to suspect the human brain is wired to look at these things as a sign to the limbic system that it can shut off.” If you can, get out in nature (no smartphones, please!) and allow your mind to rest.
When you can’t physically be elsewhere, get online. Fleming recommends searching YouTube for videos of ocean waves. “Practicing paced breathing by itself is dull,” he admits. “Your mind fills up immediately. But I can watch ocean waves all day. It gives your front brain something to do and turns off your fight-or-flight response.” For those who have difficulty relaxing, he recommends this calming video and the free slow-breathing app MyCalmBeat.
We all know we should do it, but here’s the surprise: When you exercise matters. “You need at least 30 minutes of physical activity,” Fleming says. “Once people who sleep poorly do some physical activity, especially in the afternoon or evening, their sleep is deeper and more restful.”
Fleming recommends eating less-oxidative foods like fresh vegetables. “It’s the usual dietary stuff, and it’s not surprising,” he admits. “But actually doing it rigorously helps people, especially with memory.” Reduce simple sugars and carbs, increase protein intake, and consider vitamin D and B12 supplements—those vitamins are crucial for boosting energy.
Bottom line: Reversing the effects of exhaustion won’t happen overnight, but a good night’s sleep is a very good place to start.