Why Am I So Tired?

Sometimes there’s no clear medical reason for flagging energy and dragging drive.  And sometimes the tried-and-true trio of sleep, diet, and exercise doesn’t help as much as we wish.  Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 possibilities, some common, some not-so-obvious, for why you may be tired.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #2

“Tired” is a slippery word. 

There’s physically tired: heavy limbs, moving through metaphorical mud, or drowsy eyes.  But there’s also emotionally tired: lack of motivation, feeling unable to deal, and the most common: “I just don’t feel like it.”

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Fatigue can be a medical issue stemming from anemia, thyroid issues, pregnancy, cardiovascular problems, or other culprits.  House Call Doctor discusses the top 9 medical causes of fatigue here

To round out the possibilities, we’ll look at fatigue from psychological sources.  We’ll use 3 perspectives: diagnosable disorders, exhausting situations that may be sapping your energy, and tiring states of mind.

Let’s start with two diagnosable disorders that include fatigue in their constellation of symptoms:

Tiredness Culprit #1: Depression

Depression results in both physical and emotional fatigue—you not only have no energy, you also have no motivation.  Either way, it feels like both mind and body are slogging through knee-deep sludge.  Everything is an effort, perhaps even getting out of bed or taking a shower.

Depression is particularly tricky, because sleep, even lots of it, doesn’t relieve the fatigue.  On the flip side, depression can also mean sleeping too little—trouble falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, or waking hours before the alarm goes off, with only crickets and the occasional siren for company.  Either way, feeling tired—often a hopeless, meaningless exhaustion—is the result.

Tip: Depression is awful.  I won’t pretend that a quick tip (Think positively! Do yoga!  Cut out gluten!) can make depression vaporize. 

Believe me, if it were a matter of employing a quick tip, the 10% of Americans who suffer from a depressive disorder would have done it by now.  Enlist the help of a physician or psychologist—or better yet, both—if you suspect depression.  Shop around until you find qualified providers you like and trust.

If I may offer a tip, it is this: Show up.  It may all seem pointless and empty in the moment, but go through the motions of doing things you used to like to do.  See your (true) friends even if you are an irritable grump.  Exercise even when it seems stupid.  Show up to work.  Show up to class.  Show up and show up again.  You won’t feel ecstatic, but you’ll feel better than if you don’t go. You won’t get better and then rejoin life; you’ll get better, in part, by rejoining life.

Tiredness Culprit #2: Anxiety

Worry is exhausting!  Vigilance is strenuous.  All that tension is draining.  Even the classic leaking of anxiety from the body—the jumpy leg—is tiring.   Worrying about things all the time—a constant, draining buzz of worry that gets in the way of living your life—is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Key symptoms are being easily fatigued, tense muscles, feeling on edge, and disturbed sleep: in short, a recipe for exhaustion.

Tip: Rather than waiting until your anxiety is gone before forging ahead, try doing so while feeling anxious. 

Anxiety is nature’s way of telling you something might not be safe, but it is often wrong.  The cure for anxiety, counterintuitively, is to do the very thing you’re afraid of.  You don’t have to jump in with both feet; you can start small, then grow from there.  Visualize getting on the plane.  Write one paragraph of your novel.  Write out what you’d say if you were brave enough to pick up the phone. In a nutshell, the old “face your fears” adage really is true.

Sometimes, anxiety is more about “what ifs.”  “What if someone kidnaps my daughter?” “What if the car crashes?”  “What if the committee hates my submission?”  Shift your focus from the endless terrifying possibilities of “what if” to what’s happening right now.  Describe what’s going on around you.  What can you see, hear, feel, and smell?  Scan your body and notice how it feels.  What are you thankful for?  What is going well?  To copy Oprah, what do you know for sure?  Ground yourself in what is rather than letting what ifs pull the rug out from under you. 

Next, let’s move on to states of exhaustion caused by a situation:


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.