Why Mental Exhaustion Is Physical Too

After a rigorous workout at the gym or a long run, it isn't surprising we feel physically spent. After all, a physical activity is bound to leave us exhausted. But experiencing physical exhaustion after a long day working hard at our desks can cause us to scratch our heads — sitting down all day isn't generally our idea of a workout. But as it turns out, doctors say these two forms of exhaustion often go hand in hand. 

Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist with Doctor On Demand, tells SheKnows everyday operations of the brain such as thinking "don't just occur by some stagnant process. The neurons that get fired and the electrical energy that it requires for the brain to operate uses energy, and that energy has to go somewhere." 

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For the most scientific explanation, think back to high school physics class. If you don't remember much (or, like me, anything), don't worry — you've got plenty of company, and luckily, doctors are here to put it in simpler terms. "The second law of thermodynamics explains that energy has to go somewhere. In this case, the energy ends up being dispersed throughout our bodies and, thus, creates fatigue," Mayer explains. 

Along the same lines, Dr. Alex Dimitriu tells SheKnows that our bodies aren't in their natural state when we spend the day at our desks without getting much movement. "Our mental 'software,' in many ways, has evolved far faster than our bodies, so we ended up working at desks while we were meant to be running through the forests, foraging for food," he says. 

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For these evolutionary reasons, Dimitriu explains that the act of sitting behind a desk all day is actually unnatural, and that's why it requires a significant level of mental and emotional effort. "Your body says, 'Let's get some sunshine, run around and be with friends and loved ones,' while your work demands may be quite different," he adds. As a result, we must exercise impulse control, which is mentally taxing. 

"Physical exhaustion is often the result of mental fatigue," Dimitriu says. "It is one of several clues that the mind and heart are not in tune."

The act of sitting behind a desk and going through the daily grind is enough to tire us out physically — so it's no wonder that, during times of emotional stress, our physical exhaustion is compounded. 

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Therapist and licensed clinical social worker Shannon Thomas explains that when we're under emotional stress from life events such as temporary conflict with a loved one or the grief from the loss of someone close to us, our bodies are "flooded with bad chemicals like adrenaline or cortisol." Our bodies can only handle these excessive adrenaline and cortisol levels for so long — then the chemicals begin to impact our immune, muscular and nervous systems. 

"When we find ourselves emotionally exhausted, that's a warning sign that our body is also being pressured at an unhealthy level," Thomas tells SheKnows. 

Of course, stressful and even traumatic events are unavoidable — and in order to remain successful at an office job, sitting down at a desk all day is a necessity. Dr. Michael Genovese, a physician and chief medical officer at Acadia Healthcare, tells SheKnows that it's important to be cognizant of the impact this has on our mental health — and to seek help if it triggers serious conditions like depression, anxiety or substance abuse disorders. 

"I encourage people to talk to a doctor about their overall mental health," Genovese says. "Taking care of your mental and emotional health requires the same effort as taking care of your physical well-being." 

The mind-body connection is well-documented by science, so it's completely normal to feel physically exhausted after anything from a long workday to a stressful life transition. Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body — so, as Genovese says, it's important to be open with your doctor about both so he or she can give you the best, most comprehensive guidance possible. 

For example, a medical doctor can refer you to a therapist if they determine you need more support and care when it comes to your emotional well-being. We live in a stressful, high-paced world so, when we stop to think about it, it's not terribly surprising that day-to-day stressors can leave us physically drained. The most important thing is to find ways to reduce the toll on our physical health, and experts can help us find coping techniques that do just that.

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