Can the 5 signs of exhaustion tell us why we’re so tired right now?

Written by Alex Sims

It’s been suggested there are five key reasons for tiredness. Here’s why finding out the reasons behind why we’re so tried can help us on the way to restfulness. 

“I’m just so tired” is a phrase we’ve become overly familiar with. Our colleagues complain of burnout and our friends and family complain of having low energy day after day. In fact, it can often feel like tiredness has become a modern-day scourge on society – a 21st century plague we can’t seem to shift.

It’s no coincidence that the World Health Organisation listed burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, describing “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion” and “reduced professional efficacy” as the main signs.

Researchers have also found there is an “exhaustion gap”, with women being hit hardest by burnout and tiredness. The Exhaustion Gap study, a collaboration from Berlin Cameron, Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play, and Kantar, surveyed over 1,000 employees in the US and UK in February 2022 and found that two-thirds of women had felt burnt out, with the worst affected group 25-34-year-old women. In the UK, 71% of women in this age group said they had felt burnt out in the past week. 

What is clear from the huge spike in people experiencing burnout and the overwhelming feelings of exhaustion people have endured during the pandemic, is that tiredness can be more than just a physical affliction. Sometimes the cause of our exhaustion is more internal, more granular.

This realisation has led various medical figures to start categorising deep tiredness into five distinct categories. But, what do these categories mean and are they accurate? 

What are the ‘5 types of tiredness’ 

You may have seen a proliferation of articles and Instagram infographics listing five distinct types of tiredness.

1. Physical exhaustion. “This is probably the easiest type of exhaustion to identify,” psychologist Dr Alison McClymont tells Stylist. “It is identified by experiencing sluggishness or brain fog likely attributed to sleep deprivation or overexertion.”

2. Mental exhaustion is “marked by an inability to focus or concentrate and a need to disconnect,” says Dr McClymont.

3. Emotional exhaustion “is a feeling of being on edge or close to tears; you could also be experiencing irritability or depression – this may be caused by relationship issues or problems at home.”

4. Values disconnect exhaustion. “This is a slow, insidious form of burnout closely connected to imposter syndrome. It is a feeling of being ‘in the wrong place’ and in a situation that does not align with your values and beliefs,” explains Dr McClymont. “This may manifest in a flat feeling or a feeling that you are compromising your own character in order to get a job done.”

5. Lack of purpose exhaustion. “This may appear similar to values disconnect in the sense it is characterised by everything being fine, but feeling like something is ‘missing’,” says Dr McClymont. “This can manifest in a general feeling of discontent or being ill at ease.”  

Can we rely on this tiredness model?  

Defining exhaustion in this way is a good start to understanding that tiredness can be more complex than we give it credit for, but for Dr Meg Arroll, a psychologist specialising in health and wellness, this five-category model does not go the full way to underpinning why we might feel so exhausted.

When studying for a doctoral thesis in the area of fatigue, Dr Arroll initially hypothesised that exhausted people would display a distinct fatigue profile based on physical, cognitive and psychological symptoms. 

Instead, her data found that people crossed boundaries. “If they were physically exhausted from exertion, some cognitive complaints would be reported such as difficulties in concentration, attention and finding the right word when in conversation,” Dr Arroll tells Stylist.

“Fatigue, like pain, is subjective in nature,” says Dr Arroll. When she and her colleagues tested the idea of physical and mental exhaustion further on participants in their study, “we found both mental and physical exhaustion produced cognitive symptoms, but mental tiredness seemed to only affect cognitive capabilities, not exercise capacity as had been anecdotally reported”.  

There are many triggers for exhaustion and they most likely all affect our brain, nervous system and cognitive processing capacity.

What does this mean?  

“This tells us there are many triggers for exhaustion and they most likely all affect our brain, nervous system and cognitive processing capacity which then goes on to influence how we experience and interact with the world,” says Dr Arroll.

For Dr Arroll, the five definitions of deep-tiredness are not distinct types of exhaustion, but instead different causes of exhaustion. 

“Think of it a little bit like a boat – if you have one small hole in the bottom, it’s OK; you can probably scoop the water out and keep afloat,” she explains. “However, if you start to have many holes, say some mental loads such as hectic work schedule and deadlines and the anxiety around your loved ones’ health during a global pandemic, then the bottom of your boat is now started to look like Swiss cheese. 

“You may start to feel like you’re going to capsize, leading to the experience of exhaustion. Right now we have quite a few tears in our vessel so it certainly the burden of these loads may feel much greater.”  

How to identify why you’re so exhausted 

If the reason you’re so exhausted isn’t easy to identify, Dr Arroll suggests trying positive coaching psychology questions to help get to the bottom of it. These include:

  • If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about your life, what would this be? Think about why you’ve chosen this aspect of your life.
  • Now visualise yourself at a point in the future where you are living a life full of vitality – what does this look like?

Exploring the answers to these questions can put your tiredness into much clearer focus and help you on the way to feeling more rested. 

Images: Getty

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