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Sunday Scaries

4 strategies to combat mental fatigue, supported by science

Here's another reason to have a cup of coffee.

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Our brains are maladapted to this modern world. There is simply too much information to decipher — information that informs us, yes, but also can terrify and confuse. This processing, paired with subsequent decision-making, can lead to overload.

It’s why you’ve heard of phrases like “pandemic fatigue” and “election fatigue.” Ultimately, what you’re dealing with is mental fatigue.

Suzy Russell, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mental fatigue at the University of Queensland, defines mental fatigue as “a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive ability.” It can be measured by how someone feels, how they perform, and through physiological markers in the brain. What constitutes “demanding cognitive activity,” she tells me, “depends on the individual and their interaction with the environment.”

It’s a concept worth identifying, understanding, and combating. Mental fatigue is on the rise, triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Feeling overwhelmed isn’t just having an “off day” — it’s a fair reaction to unprecedented events.

Why talk about mental fatigue now

Yvonne Tran is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia and has studied the influence of mental fatigue on brain activity. She describes the phenomenon as a “biological need for recuperative rest, associated with a disinclination for any effort.”

Is it fair to say the stressors of the pandemic, alongside normal stress, could drive mental fatigue?

“Yes, definitely,” Tran tells me. “I think that mental effort and mental fatigue are closely related, especially in regard to neural response… with the additional stressors of the pandemic combined with work and life in general, this would lead to mental fatigue.”

“Caffeine has been demonstrated to acutely reduce subjective feelings of mental fatigue ...” Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images

Russell explains that any task that triggers cognitive lifts — including, but not limited to, information processing, working memory, sustained attention, and emotional regulation — can result in cognitive load and subsequent mental fatigue.

“In addition to the normal emotional stressors of life, the uncertainty and change associated with the pandemic has arguably increased the emotional regulation demands placed on an individual, contributing to potentially elevated levels of mental fatigue,” she says.

Russel studies mental fatigue experienced by athletes but notes that anything that makes demands of your cognitive abilities can result in this type of fatigue. “Whilst elite athletes and office workers undertake tasks that appear on the surface to differ greatly, parallels do exist between the cognitive domains which are targeted in their daily jobs,” she says.

The effect of mental fatigue on the mind and body

Mental fatigue’s influence on the mind shows up in brain scans, some suggesting significant associations between behavioral performance decline and cerebral blood flow activity. Tran and colleagues, meanwhile, observed increases in theta and alpha waves. Other studies, she explains, have also shown that the “increase in slow wave activity has been found to be associated with deterioration in mental performance.”

Her paper’s results, meanwhile, suggest that mental fatigue often results in the brain working hard to improve efficiency, “though at the expense of capacity to process cognitively, potentially leading to anxiety and frustration.” Some research, in turn, has found an association between mental fatigue and outbursts of aggression.

It’s a loop you don’t want to be in: overload leading to increased effort, and increased effort leading to overload. And eventually frustration.

“In the sporting context, this may contribute to the small margin of difference between a win or loss,” Russell says. “For our average office worker, mental fatigue is more likely to impact by reducing their ability to focus on a task at hand or process information to make the right business-related decision.

Our everyday exerciser may also notice the effects of a cognitively demanding day at the office during an evening run or gym session by finding it feels harder than normal to achieve the same level of performance.”

How to combat mental fatigue

Russell points to a handful of strategies, including:

  • Caffeine. “Caffeine has been demonstrated to acutely reduce subjective feelings of mental fatigue and some of the negative performance consequences.”
  • Creatine. Early evidence suggests this supplement can aid with mental fatigue, though more research is needed to say for sure.
  • Binaural beats, though their influence may be limited.
  • Avoidance of smartphone activity.

Tran, meanwhile, emailed me two tried-and-trues:

“Sleep and rest. 😊 ”

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