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.
Tiredness Culprit #3: Caregiving
Taking care of a loved one with chronic illness or raising a special needs child is exhausting, and I mean marathon-every-day kind of exhausting. As one caregiving patient put it, you know you’re a caregiver when going to the grocery store feels like a treat.
Tip: You are a hero, but not a sacrificial lamb.
When you’re on the high wire of caregiving, you need a safety net. Say “Yes!” when others ask, “Is there anything I can do?” If possible, create a system where you delegate or trade off with others (check out my article on How to Ask for Help).
Learn about services in your community from adult day care centers, special needs or integrated playgroups, respite care, transportation services, and grocery and pharmacy delivery. See yourself as the coach of a team, not as every single player. Finally, allow yourself to feel what you feel and then get support—suppressing resentment or guilt is wearying, plus it will just leak out in other ways.
Tiredness Culprit #4: All Eggs in One Basket
A singular focus can feel virtuous: workaholism, unwavering focus on a child, a never-apart relationship. If it works, it’s devotion, but if it doesn’t, it’s a drain. Often, it ties you too closely to one outcome. In the inevitable rise and fall of life, even a minor setback can feel devastating if you’re not cushioned by other interests and values.
Tip: Wear more than one hat.
An oft-cited 2011 study showed that working moms, particularly part-timers, have better health and less depression overall than stay-at-home moms. This certainly doesn’t doom stay-at-homers to depression, but the message is that several (manageable) roles create a buffer: if one area of life isn’t going well, hopefully the others are. A traditional version is work and family, but in today’s world, anything goes.
One happily single marathoner friend says of “work, friends, and running,” she needs at least one to be going well. So even with shin splints and a boss on a rampage, she takes refuge in friends who feed her emotional energy and get her through.
In another example, a chronically ill patient of mine found herself slowly becoming a “professional patient,” with a life comprised only of doctor’s appointments—a surefire way to drain the life from her....well....life. She pushed back by investing her energy not only in managing her illness, but also in her grandkids and an online shop for her artwork.
In a final example, a recently retired patient was referred to me for unexplained fatigue. Work had been his identity. Together, we determined that his fatigue stemmed from purposelessness and meaninglessness. A combination of going back to work part time, volunteering, and joining the local choir reinvigorated him.
Tiredness Culprit #5: Clutter
Yes, this is a surprising contributor to fatigue. Stuff is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, stuff can make you feel secure. I know women who carry three purses at a time and men with a car trunk full of stuff “just in case;” it makes them feel prepared. If it’s not hurting you, go for it. But sometimes stuff can drag you down. Teetering piles, clutter with no designated place, and maddening numbers of lost items make home an exhausting stressor, not a refuge.
Tip: If your stuff costs you more than it buys you (for instance, you can’t invite people over, can’t use your home as intended, or feel like stuff runs your life), then see #6 Feeling Overwhelmed below.
If you know clutter is draining your energy but can’t bring yourself to donate or toss, ask yourself what you are really keeping. Security? Happy memories signified by stuff? Information in the form of paper? Is there another way to find what you’re seeking? Would the security/happy memories/information truly be lost if you didn’t have the stuff to signify it? Test out the idea by getting rid of a few items. A week later, see if you miss them as much as you predicted.
Finally, here are two states of mind that drain energy:
Tiredness Culprit #6: Feeling Overwhelmed
“I’m too tired” may be code for “I can’t do this,” or “I don’t know where to start.” Facing an overwhelming task often stops us in our tracks. We are too tired to deal. We just don’t feel like it. For instance, a patient of mine really wanted to change careers but never made any progress. She wrote it off as being too tired, until she realized she procrastinated, putting her energy towards other things first. Career change stuff always came last, when she was exhausted, so nothing got done. Instead of treating it as if she were tired, she began to treat it as if she were facing a challenge, and did the following:
Facing an overwhelming task often stops us in our tracks. We are too tired to deal.
Tip: To stop procrastinating, break the task down.
Start with a bite-sized chunk that doesn’t drain your energy away. Cleaning an attic becomes going through one box. Writing a 20-page paper becomes working on the outline for 15 minutes. In the case of my patient, changing careers began with searching online for personal training certification programs. After the bite-sized chunk, it might be time to stop for awhile. Or—a pleasant surprise—the gathering momentum may carry you beyond the first chunk. So start small. Chunk by chunk, chip away.
Tiredness Culprit #7: Boredom and Underexertion
Everyone needs the occasional bout of eating peanut butter from the jar while mindlessly surfing YouTube. But if a multi-day run of cable TV in your pajamas makes you feel slow and cotton-headed, it’s not a break anymore. Staying in the house all day with no purposeful activity is oddly more exhausting than a pleasantly full schedule.
Tip: Behavioral psychologists describe a technique called “acting as if.”
Act as if you’re exhausted—pjs, no shower, lying around all day—and you will probably feel exhausted. The bright side? It works in reverse: act as if you have some energy—stand a little taller, put a spring in your step—and you’ll feel more energized. Put on some makeup or shave, even if you’re staying in. Brush your teeth even if you’re not talking to anyone. Act as if, and your energy will follow.
Overall, whether you’re worn out, weary, zonked, drained, or just plain tired, pinpointing a culprit—physical or psychological—is the first step in moving from “I don’t feel like it” to “I’m ready for anything!”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Current Depression Among Adults—United States, 2006 and 2008. MMWR, 59, 1229-1235.
Buehler, C. and O’Brien, M. (2011). Mothers’ part-time employment: Associations with mother and family well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 895-906.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders. Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.