Exhaustion—also referred to as extreme fatigue—is a severe lack of energy that affects a person's ability to perform mental or physical tasks. While the possible causes of exhaustion are virtually endless, the most common include excessive stress and lack of quality sleep. Mental and physical exhaustion can greatly affect a person's ability to function at work and in other areas and can have a negative impact on health when caused by a lack of sleep. Understanding the nature of mental and physical exhaustion can help lead to effective methods of preventing and treating the condition.
Fatigue is among the most common reasons for seeing a doctor. It is a symptom of conditions ranging from hay fever to HIV and is a defining characteristic of many autoimmune diseases. According to Medline Plus, prolonged stress, lack of sleep, and abuse of stimulant drugs such as cocaine and caffeine are possible reasons for physical exhaustion.
Mental exhaustion can be caused or aggravated by boredom, tedious or repetitive mental tasks, and emotional stressors such as work deadlines and relationship problems.
Mental exhaustion is often associated with job burnout—or consistently stressful situations in the workplace. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of job burnout include an inability to concentrate, decreased productivity, and irritability with clients or co-workers. Feelings of unhappiness, frustration and confusion may also occur in those with mental exhaustion.
Physical exhaustion is more likely to manifest in the body with symptoms such as shortness of breath, sluggish movements, muscle weakness and inability to stay awake. Other possible symptoms include frequent yawning and increased sensitivity to pain.
While they may be a mere inconvenience in terms of symptoms, mental and physical exhaustion can lead to serious problems if left untreated. Poor academic or job performance, reduced problem-solving abilities and irritability are common and can lead to conflicts at work, poor marks in school and even job loss.
When caused by lack of sleep, exhaustion may signal reduced immune function. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, sleep is thought to act as an energy-conserving mechanism for the immune system, thereby strengthening it to fight disease and infection.
The best treatment for mental and physical exhaustion is sleep and relaxation. Getting at least eight hours of quality sleep each night is ideal, though individual needs may vary. Taking time to relax and get away from on-the-job stress is an excellent way to overcome mental exhaustion. Short, periodic breaks from physical or mental exertion, in conjunction with regular exercise and a healthy diet, can go a long way toward restoring energy and balance.
If you experience exhaustion accompanied by dizziness, collapse or rapid heartbeat, seek immediate medical attention. These may be signs of a life-threatening condition.