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With the approach of Easter, I was really looking forward to a few days to plan and reflect, to catch up on  some work (yes, I know, I can’t help myself) and get some jobs done around the house and garden.

I was grateful, too, that panic buying hadn’t spread to chocolate as my weekly foray to the local supermarket revealed there were still plenty of hot-cross buns and chocolate goodies to choose from.

But on Good Friday morning I woke up feeling really tired, as in, completely shattered, despite having gone to bed at our normal time.

‘Hmmm’, I pondered. ‘I hope I’m not going down with something’.

The fatigue grew worse. I yearned to go back to bed but it was only 10.30 in the morning! Any plans to “do” things were put on hold and I spent the day mooching around, not doing terribly much other than playing with our dogs and going out for a walk.

Saturday and Sunday were the same. The extreme lethargy was driving me bonkers and yes, I admit, it was making me a bit grumpy too.

The reason for this extreme fatigue?

Stress. Pure and simple.

Perhaps you can relate. Over the last few weeks my business has been turned on its head, I’ve been experiencing a lot of anxiety about my 88-year old Mum in her care home and the wellbeing of our young adult children, and have been connected to seemingly back-to-back Zoom meetings that I was either listening to or presenting in. I have been frantically creating on-line content, rewriting presentations, reading books, journals, holding online book clubs and virtual social catch ups.

Despite not “working”, I’ve been working harder than I have ever done and spending far more time in front of a screen.

No wonder my brain is fried.

Has this been happening for you as well?


What stress does to your brain

When we’re facing a challenge or adversity, it’s natural to feel a bit anxious and uncertain. You might notice you feel more wired, a bit jumpy, or super sensitive to unexpected noise. Your brain is on high alert scanning the environment ready to take action at a moment’s notice.

You are now expending a lot of energy in the fight-flight or freeze stress response. Your body is pumping out extra adrenaline and cortisol that lead to an accelerated heart rate and prepare your body to make a run for the nearest exit or to put up a fight.

The downside about having too much cortisol in your system for an extended period of time is the damaging effect it has on your brain, damaging synaptic connections, reducing neuroplasticity and inhibiting neurogenesis.

Staying in this state is fine for the first five minutes and this is what our stress response was designed to deal with.

Six hours in and you’ve probably long run out of mental juice to maintain the level of focus and attention required. Fatigue is now starting to kick in.


The impact of stress on your body and mind


1. We lose mental energy.

When tired, it’s natural to seek an energy boost – maybe an extra cup of coffee to go with the four you had earlier, despite the fact you only normally drink one a day.

Or you might decide to take a short break and indulge in a toasted hot-cross bun and butter to enjoy with your cuppa, even though you don’t normally eat between meals and you know you’re not actually hungry.

Sadly, while the coffee will certainly keep you alert and attentive for a little while longer, your carb-heavy snack, delicious as it was, has only added to the need to get back to the gym as soon as it opens up again to burn off those additional unwanted kilos that somehow have snuck onto your waist and hips.

One tip here is to adopt “The Three-Day Tight Jeans Test.”

If snacking has become your go-to while adjusting to the new circumstances of working from home, home schooling your children and finding fifty ways of making pasta and tomato sauce more exciting for dinner each night, this test can help.

Nestling somewhere in your wardrobe you may have a pair of jeans that are slightly tight. Borrow some if need be. All you have to do every three days, is to put them on. If they will no longer rise higher than your hips, it’s time to adjust the snacks to healthier options and stop buying as many comfort foods.


2. It disrupts emotional regulation

You may have heard the saying: as emotions rise up, intelligence sits down. In a similar vein, as cortisol level rise, levels of serotonin and dopamine your feel-good hormones go down.

Research has shown how stressful life events have a relationship with the onset of depression. Lower BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) associated with the loss of neurogenesis especially in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory, also shows a correlation between stress and depression. When you’re feeling down, it’s not uncommon to also feel tired. Research from UCLA suggests chronic stress acts as a neurological circuit breaker causing the hippocampus and amygdala to block glucose intake to protect these areas from neurotoxic overexcitement. The downside is that this can, over time, influence our other behaviours leading to symptoms of depression.

If fatigue is starting to get you down, this is a red flag, signalling its time to back off from being so busy and take time out to decompress and reset.

You may have noticed how hard it is to think straight when you’re feeling tired and your decision making can become somewhat questionable. This is definitely not the time to be making significant potentially life-changing decisions.

If your productivity is sagging, cut yourself a bit of slack and remind yourself, you are human. It’s time to find ways that serve you better and reduce the amount of stress related fatigue. 

This might look like taking more frequent breaks during the day (away from a computer screen) or rationing the number of Zoom calls you attend. Does every interaction require face-to-face via a screen? The telephone can still serve a useful purpose without requiring so much mental interaction on your part to appear engaged attentive and smiling while also trying to ascertain what’s going on with your colleagues.

Your exhaustion isn’t just because you’re not exercising enough. Though being sufficiently physically active during the day does provide the bonus of improving your mood (lower cortisol and higher serotonin and dopamine) clearing your mind so you can think better and paradoxically reduces your level of fatigue. 

The test is to ask yourself each day. “How much am I moving?”. If your bottom has become embedded into the office chair, it’s time to stand up for your brain and seek more opportunities to move more and sit less. Standing while working, going for short walks, or signing up for an online exercise class (don’t forget to participate) will all help.


3. It disrupts normal sleep patterns

Even the most resilient amongst us may have noticed a change in the quality and quantity of sleep we’re currently getting. If you’re finding it harder to either fall asleep or sleep through without frequently waking, you are not alone. Stress impacts how well we sleep and can result in increased daytime fatigue. During sleep you spend time in what is called deep sleep which is restorative. You need enough time in deep sleep to wake feeling refreshed. Stress interferes with this, by keeping you in a lighter phase of sleep for more time.

What helps here is to keep to a regular routine. If you normally need eight hours make sure you’re sticking to a regular going to bed and getting up time. If that doesn’t feel quite enough at present, add an additional 10 -15 minutes by going to bed slightly earlier.

You pre-bed routine can make a huge difference, too. Tempting as it is to empty the wine cellar in commiseration at your incarceration at home, sadly that additional alcohol will play havoc with your sleep quality. As will staying up late to binge-watch all your favourite movies. Turning off all technology at least 60 minutes before bedtime will help your brain prepare for sleep. Why not have a warm bath to relax and reduce any associated anxiety? This prepares you to fall asleep more easily because it leads to a more rapid cooling of the core body temperature when you get out of the warm water.

Journaling your thoughts, expressing gratitude for what you do have, listening to beautiful music all helps to reconnect you to what is good and calms the mind. Undertaking a mindfulness meditation or breathing exercise will help you achieve the same thing, as does having a meaningful conversation with something you know well and trust – whether it’s your partner, your children, a family member or a friend.

We are living in a time of great change.

What is remarkable is how quickly we are adapting to this. Our innate resilience ensures that we will find the ways and means to step up and navigate our way through these challenging times. It’s also a time of opportunity to step back and question, why do we do things a certain way? Is there a better way, a new way that will work better?

Making resilience sustainable for the longer term is about knowing when to step back and let go, to recharge and replenish. 

Fatigue is a signal of how hard your body and mind is working to manage your present level of stress. Which means It’s OK to pause to draw breath. To take time out and be still.

Developing a thriving mind is all about managing the present well, so we can better prepare for the future.

How are you dealing with brain fry?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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