Many of us cruise through life totally unaware that we’re exhausted.
I had all the habits of an energetic person: I slept eight hours a night, worked tirelessly towards my goals, ticked items off to-do lists. But I found my mood, energy, immune system, and even decision-making skills were rock-bottom. It culminated one afternoon when in broad daylight, I fell asleep at a red light.
“Zulie, wake up!” my mom screamed from the passenger seat. “You’re gonna kill yourself or someone else if you don’t start taking care of yourself!”
Society has us believe that productivity means energy. The problem is that if you’re productive, you can still be exhausted and just not realize it. Don’t wait until you actually passed out like I did— catch yourself early enough to actually change your rest habits sustainably.
Here are the nine most common habits of truly fatigued people. If you spot yourself exhibiting any of these traits, it may be time to reevaluate your life and what brings you energy.
1. You find it hard to get to sleep at night
You know that feeling when your eyes are dry and you keep yawning, but you can’t bring yourself to actually switch off your phone and go to sleep? This was the most telling sign for me: I’d read a book, scroll on my phone, even clean my room — anything to avoid actually trying to snooze.
When you’re beat, your body pumps your system full of hormones designed to keep you alert. Dr. Phillips, the author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough, says that “[w]hen you’re chronically sleep-deprived, certain hormone levels like cortisol become elevated. It’s almost as though when sleep-deprived, your body is in a constant state of extreme arousal.”
To combat this, the first step is to realize you’re doing it. Like many of the symptoms of this list, exhaustion looks an awful lot like productivity (just check those emails one last time!), so it’s easy to miss. Then, reduce your cortisol levels with a scientifically-proven method like yoga. Once your body is not working against you, you can get some well-deserved rest.
2. You look for quick sources of energy
Most people love a hot cup of coffee in the morning, but exhausted people like me didn’t just like it: we crave it. Truly tired people prefer easy sources of energy, which tend to be high-calorie and high-caffeine options.
Once again, blame your brain hormones. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body increases levels of a hormone called ghrelin, while at the same time decreasing leptin levels. Ghrelin stimulates the feeling of hunger, while leptin is normally responsible for telling your body you have enough energy. Together, they make you crave quick energy, as News Medical’s article on the subject reports.
To combat this symptom, you need to look for a healthy low-energy alternative. Things that will help you feel less tired in the long run, like healthy meals, exercise habits, and nighttime routines, already require too much energy for you. The alternatives that worked for me include five-minute walks to wake me up, boiled eggs, and matcha drinks. There are endless options — you just have to find one that works for you.
3. Your emotions are out of control
I’m ashamed to say I openly wept at a cleaning commercial. Turns out being flat-out tired makes it hard to control your emotions.
The science is clear: “[m]ental fatigue following performance of cognitive tasks impairs emotion regulation without affecting emotion reactivity,” write Grillon et al in their 2015 paper. While you still feel emotions the same way, you can’t regulate your response to them as well as you could if you were fully rested.
Especially when you’re already tired, lots of us prefer to just suppress emotions. Instead, though it can feel harder, scientists recommend a tactic called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This technique encourages you to feel your emotions in real-time, exploring negative emotions to build increased tolerance to them, which gives them less power over you in the longer run. Additionally, one anecdotal outcome of at least one study suggested this technique leads to better sleep, too!
4. Your normal hobbies are draining you
I used to love painting, but every time I contemplated getting out the old watercolor set, I would somehow find myself watching TV instead. If your old hobbies aren’t sparking the same joy they used to, it’s not because you need to get rid of them — it might be because you’re just worn out.
When your energy levels are so low, you’re basically in survival mode. Your body can only muster the bare essential energy. A lack of energy can give you anhedonia, as psychologists refer to this inability to find joy in old hobbies. For me, TV was just easier than painting.
The best way to reintroduce joy in the things you used to love is to remove the pressure. Especially, if like many of us, you’ve monetized your hobby, the price tag attached to it means requires more energy. Next, reduce the entry barrier.
For example, when I couldn’t muster the energy for a full watercolor, I found a physically smaller canvas, as well as allowing myself to work in sections, helped. Just getting started can help revive that old spark.
5. Decisions are tougher than they used to be
If you’ve ever stared at a grocery store aisle, incapable of choosing between a pre-made pizza or a pre-made pasta for dinner, I’ve been there, too. Let me tell you — it’s because you’re damn tired.
Decisions take a lot of unconscious mental energy. Every day, you decide what to eat, what to dress, what to say, how to act, what to do, and what to plan. Normally, sleep revitalizes you every day after making these. But, if you’re starting to struggle, tiredness could be the cause. “No matter how smart or diligent we are, our ability to make good decisions eventually runs out,” writes Oto in his 2012 paper on the subject.
To reduce this source of exhaustion, you can take two actions. First, lower the number of decisions you make per day. Then, give yourself fewer options for those remaining decisions.
For example, I standardized my breakfast to oatmeal. Would a capsule wardrobe remove the stress and energy-sapping effects of picking what to wear every day? By streamlining your decisions, you can give yourself a bit more energy at the end of the day.
6. You’re physically exhausted, too
If you’re winded from going up a single flight of stairs, it’s not necessarily because you’re in bad physical shape. It could be because you’re mentally fatigued.
Though humans persist in the belief that mental and physical health are totally separate, they’re inextricably linked. Physical tiredness is a telling sign of mental exhaustion.
The reason is twofold. First, when you’re tired, it makes it harder to make the decision that costs more energy: instead of going for a run, you might choose to stay inside. Second, chronic lack of sleep leads to fatigue, which can actually weaken muscles.
Pick activities that energize you, but take less mental energy to complete. For instance, I’m normally a runner but compromised on a 5–10 minute walk. Getting some exercise — even if it’s just a leisurely stroll! — can help give you some energy back, both in the short term and in the long term through improving fitness and even helping regulate your sleep.
7. Your memory is failing you
Have you ever struggled to find the right word, or remember what you ate yesterday, or even what you came into the room to do? Lack of sleep could be affecting your normal recall.
“[Y]our body uses sleep to stabilize chemical imbalances, to refresh areas of the brain that control mood and behavior, and to process the memories and knowledge that you gathered throughout the day,” Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen, medical director of Take Shape for Life, tells Daily Burn.
The best way to combat a bad memory due to tiredness is, of course, to get more sleep. But while you’re working on improving your sleep, another method to try is forgiveness.
Like others, I tend to beat myself up when I forget to reply to that email. Grant yourself a little grace and remember that your body is trying to tell you something — that you’re worn out to the point of collapse.
8. You’re getting sick — a lot
Sleep is one of the basic biological functions that keeps our body working as it should. If you’re constantly fighting off a cold, it could be because your body is short on rest.
“Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects’ likelihood of catching cold,” Aric Prather, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry at UCSF, said in his study on sleep. “It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income.”
To avoid getting sick due to lack of sleep, prevention is the best method. While of course you should always wash your hands and try to avoid touching your face, just knowing that lack of sleep is a huge risk factor can make it easier to remember to take these basic precautions.
9. Your impulse control is lower than ever
“F*** you!” I screamed at my sister when she committed the heinous crime of eating all the bean burger leftovers. Normally I don’t holler curse words for these minor infractions, but the fact that I just couldn’t seem to make a good decision to save my life was because I was flat out exhausted. Everyone has grumpy thoughts, but people who are tired don’t bother to reign them in.
“A sleep-deprived individual who has expended the necessary resources for self-control is at an increased risk for succumbing to impulsive desires, poor attentional capacity, and compromised decision making,” write Pilcher et al in their 2015 study on the topic.
This can actually have further effects on sleep, as bad decisions like more coffee or staying up for a fifth episode of Gilmore Girls means you get less rest.
To deal with your low impulse control when you’re exhausted, just be honest with yourself and others. If you admit that you’re making bad decisions because you’re tired, it’s easier to excuse the behavior — but also to address it.
By reaching out and letting others know you’re struggling, you can lower your stress levels and help you manage your impulses, and maybe sleep a little better.
Our society vigorously rewards all-nighters, caffeine boosts, and early-morning runs with praise and acclaim. But the problem with keeping your noses so close to the grindstone is that when you inevitably do run out of energy, you’ll be far more bloodied than if you’d stopped sooner.
These symptoms of exhaustion are subtle because we’re used to thinking of sleepiness as something to fix with a coffee. But it’s that subtlety that makes them so dangerous.
We sacrifice sleep on the altar of productivity with such enthusiasm that it’s easy to miss what it’s costing us, but you don’t have to let exhaustion rule your life. Spot these scientific signs, start living your life right, and maybe avoid getting screamed at by your mom for reckless endangerment.
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