How to Treat Mental Exhaustion with Active Rest
The pandemic has exhausted all of us, and there’s no end in sight. To cope better, we need to rest but what kind of rest do we need? And how to treat mental exhaustions? For most of us, recovery from mental exhaustion is key, and that requires active rest.
We all are exhausted. We are all sleeping badly and working crazy hours at stressful jobs. We’re worried, drained, and tense, and our attempts to rest don’t seem to help much. It will get better when the pandemic is over, I hope, but it looks like that’s a long time from now. So what can we do to treat mental exhaustion with active rest?
The 7 types of exhaustion
To help ourselves, we first need to better handle what kind of exhaustion we’re dealing with. In her TED talk, Saundra Dalton-Smith, M.D., identifies seven:
- Physical: You’re sleep deprived, you’re ill, or you have just finished a difficult workout.
- Sensory: You’ve been exposed to loud or incessant noise, tons of impressions, or strong and bright lights.
- Mental: You’ve been doing difficult mental work, like concentrating hard or rushing between challenging tasks. Your mind is racing, and you can’t turn your brain off.
- Creative: You’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming and coming up with new ideas.
- Social: You’ve spent too much time with people who drain you and not enough time with people who help you recharge.
- Emotional: You’ve spent too much time biting your tongue, not being honest about what you think and feel.
- Spiritual: You feel like you don’t belong, that you aren’t accepted, or that your work isn’t meaningful.
What kind of exhaust are you?
If you’re like me, you feel like you’re suffering from all seven types right now.
- We’re mentally exhausted because we are flooded with bad news and because we are dealing with so much uncertainty. Our phones, our television, and our friends give us constant pandemic updates and our minds are stuck in hyperdrive.
- We’re creatively exhausted because we do more problem-solving than normal. How often do I shop and at what stores? Can I go out to dinner, or is that too risky? What do I do if my friends are not vaxxed? How do I do my job?
- We’re emotionally exhausted because we’re in a constant state of low-grade conflict with other people about vaccinations, politics, Black Lives Matter and all the other issues that are dividing us as a nation. And we’re emotionally exhausted because we are frightened about how it all will turn out.
- We’re socially exhausted because our friends and co-workers are dealing with the same stuff that we are and because we have pandemic-related conflicts with some of them, making more of our interactions draining instead of nourishing than usual.
- We’re physically exhausted because we’ve been working long hours at jobs that are harder than normal and because all the other kinds of exhaustion are making us sleep badly.
I skipped a couple — I’m too tired to go on! — but you get the picture.
How should we manage our exhaustion?
Start with mental rest
I wish we could just snap our fingers and make the pandemic go away, but we can’t. So what can we do to treat mental exhaustion in this situation?
We can rest more. But we need the right kind of rest.
When we think about rest, we usually picture passive rest – sitting on the beach or napping on the sofa. And if we’re recovering from the flu, that’s what we need: sleep a lot, take naps, and watch tv when we’re not sleeping.
But in times of stress, like now, we often feel like we need to sleep and watch lots of TVs even though it doesn’t help us rest. As Dalton-Smith points out, passive rest only works if the problem is physical exhaustion. When we need mental rest, we need something more active.
My guess is that right now, for most of us, mental and creative exhaustion is the biggest problem. You know that’s true for you if your mind keeps racing and you can’t fall asleep. Or maybe you do fall asleep, but your mind keeps waking you up. Worrying. Going back over the decisions you made. Mind racing. After a few nights of that, you are physically exhausted too.
To treat mental exhaustion, we need active rest.
Exploring active rest
So how do we get active rest? The specifics are individual, but there are common themes. Research by Sabine Sonnentag, Professor of Work & Organizational Psychology, shows that the best way of dealing with mental and creative exhaustion is through challenging and meaningful activity. The activity must meet four requirements:
- Required to enjoy it (relaxation).
- Need to choose the activity ourselves (control)
- We need to be pretty good at it (mastery experience)
- We need to find the activity engaging and challenging so that it helps us detach from other things (mental detachment)
My husband plays guitar and for him, that meets all four. It wouldn’t work for me. I do yoga instead.
Here is a list of activities to consider:
- Rock climbing
- Playing basketball
- Building something
- Playing an instrument
Find something you enjoy doing and are already pretty good at. It needs to be challenging enough that you can’t worry about other things at the same time. Cooking a simple meal probably won’t work but trying a tricky new recipe might.
Active rest won’t magically make you feel completely rested – but it will help – and it may help you sleep better too. And at that point, we can use whatever help we can get.
- Exhaustion isn’t a single thing – we can be mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually exhausted.
- Different types of exhaustion require different types of rest.
- If we’re physically exhausted, chilling on the sofa helps. Otherwise, we benefit more from active rest because it lets us detach mentally.
- When you feel tired, don’t just collapse on the sofa. Think instead. What kind of tired am I? If you’re not sure, take a brisk 10-minute walk. If you feel worse afterward, you do need physical rest. If you feel better, you need active rest.
- Right now, many of us are mentally and creatively exhausted, so we need active rest. We need to do something fun but challenging, like playing an instrument, dancing, or cooking.
- Make sure you make a note of all those points that can help you
The active rest that Sabine Sonnentag has studied and described is summarized by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in Rest: Why you get more done when you work less. His website and book are here.
Anna Lännström was born and raised in Sweden. She is professor of philosophy at Stonehill College where she teaches Greek and Asian philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of religion as well as a learning community course which integrates yoga, mindfulness and Indian philosophy.
Her writing focuses on the mindfulness movement. Why are we all increasingly stressed, distracted and angry? Why do so many of us feel lonely; how can we connect better? What role can mindfulness and self-examination play in reducing our suffering? How can techniques like yoga and meditation from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions help us live better lives, and how do we address the ethical challenges involved in borrowing such techniques?
Find her blogs at