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If you’ve ever felt physically exhausted after a long day of thinking too hard, you’re right: Mental exertion is physically exhausting. And in this climate of COVID-19 uncertainty, nearly everyone in the U.S. is most likely experiencing this level of mental fatigue.
A 2015 study shows that when we add mental stress to our physical activities, we activate the prefrontal cortex in our brains. Blood oxygen lowers in that area, and we get tired much faster than we would without the mental exertion.
It’s about dividing resources, researchers say. Physical fatigue develops more quickly when the brain has to devote resources to highly cognitive tasks. The brain is like other biological tissue, after all — it tires out when overused.
“Not a lot of people see the value in looking at both the brain and the body together,” says study author Ranjana Mehta of Texas A & M Health Science Center. “However, no one does purely physical or mental work; they always do both.”
So if you’re feeling physically fatigued, maybe it’s time to get some mental health help. Even during social distancing, reach out to your mental health practitioner to see if you can schedule a video appointment. If that's not available to you, do what you can to get outside for some exercise, eat a good meal, try to get a good night's sleep. If none of those things work, it may be good to start with a brief writing exercise: making a list of things you can control (vs. things you can't).
I’ve seen many clients’ overall feeling of wellbeing improve tremendously as we’ve tackled mental stressors and practised relaxation techniques to give their brains a break.
Mental health is so important to physical health — it’s always good to see our understanding of that relationship grow.