by Jana Bounds
Those times of mental fog, the inability to finish a thought before it drifts from your mind, or feeling like you can only half-focus on a task or on what someone is saying: these are all signs of mental fatigue or mental exhaustion – a state of weariness that affects your cognitive functioning and mental processes.
Or, as Fatigue Science explains it in the athlete-specific sense: A state of “reduced alertness, reaction time, and effectiveness—all of which manifest in the form of sub-optimal athletic performance.”
Really, when you boil it down, mental fatigue primes everyone, no matter their fitness level, for sub-optimal performance, both at work and at home.
When your brain feels like it’s only half firing, it’s easy to feel like you’re just half of a human. And that’s both tragic –and untrue. Most everyone experiences mental fatigue at one time or another, it’s just that people who experience migraines often have more regular occurrences.
Mental fatigue is also a bit more insidious for migraine sufferers. To put it simply: mental fatigue contributes to migraines, migraines contribute to mental fatigue, and both contribute to depression.
Let’s explore the complex relationship between mental fatigue, migraines, and depression.
The Migraine-Fatigue Connection
Hours and even days before the onset of a migraine, the brain begins to react. Called the prodrome phase, four decades of studies have revealed startlingly similar symptoms across patient populations and study designs: tiredness, yawning, and mood changes.
This is followed by the aura phase, which is not shared by all migraine sufferers. This stage of migraine includes visual disturbances as well as motor disturbances like weakness and difficulty with concentration.
When the migraine takes full effect in the headache phase, the pain and neurological implications like sensitivities to light, sound, smells and lightheadedness or dizziness also contribute to mental fatigue.
The final “postdrome” phase is then “dominated by fatigue and cognitive change after headache resolution,” according to the study “Migraine Is More Than Just Headache: Is the Link to Chronic Fatigue and Mood Disorders Simply Due to Shared Biological Systems?”
“Some epidemiological studies have suggested that migraine is associated in a bidirectional fashion with other disorders, such as mood disorders and chronic fatigue, as well as with other pain conditions such as fibromyalgia,” according to the study. “[It’s] clear that from before the headache starts, through to even days after its resolution, migraine can be associated with dominant fatigue, mood, and cognitive change, among other symptoms.”
On the other hand, mental fatigue contributes to migraines in many ways and can even influence the severity and occurrence of them.
In fact, the mental strain and extreme exhaustion associated with mental fatigue can disrupt the delicate balance of neurological and biochemical processes that contribute to the development of migraines.
Mental fatigue also makes people more sensitive to migraine triggers and reduces a person’s ability to navigate stress, diminishing resilience and making it more difficult to engage in self-care practices that could help lessen the severity or frequency of migraines.
Migraines and Mental Fatigue Share Some Similar Triggers
Even though mental fatigue and migraines differ in their underlying causes, some of the same factors that create mental fatigue are also known to initiate migraines. These include things like:
Inadequate or interrupted sleep: We all hear of the multifaceted importance of sleep for myriad things, including metabolic functioning, but it’s also “crucial for brain rejuvenation. Sleep deprivation can make your mind foggy from weariness, adversely affecting your mood, focus, alertness and productivity,” according to Forbes.
Prolonged stress: Stress of any sort is counterproductive to optimal mental functioning, but emotional stress is particularly onerous. High pressure situations, public speaking, and difficult interactions can cause physiological changes in the body, namely in the release of stress hormones that cause migraines and increase mental exhaustion.
Tasks that demand a lot of cognitive or emotional effort: Cognitive strain, or engaging in tasks that demand intense mental concentration, problem-solving or extended cognitive effort increase the likelihood of both mental fatigue and migraine.
Shared Symptoms of Mental Fatigue and Migraine
A cursory glance at the two conditions reveals startling similarities, especially regarding symptoms:
Headaches: While both share headaches as a symptom, mental fatigue leads to tension-type headaches that are often described as more dull, achy pain. In contrast, migraines involve throbbing, pulsating headaches on one side of the head.
Problems concentrating: Both influence cognitive function, and create difficulties in concentration, memory, and focus. These symptoms make it difficult to perform cognitive tasks and negatively impact productivity and mental clarity.
Lethargy: Both increase fatigue and exhaustion, including a sense of weariness and reduced mental energy that leave people feeling drained and devoid of energy.
Irritability and mood changes: Both migraine and mental exhaustion can influence mood and emotional well-being and cause increased sensitivity to stressors as well as mood changes, which can increase frustration, anxiety and depression.
Mental Exhaustion and Migraines: The Link to Depression
The relationship between the three conditions is complex and interconnected. For starters, migraines can be triggered and exacerbated by mental fatigue. So, exceptional cognitive or emotional efforts that involve prolonged mental strain or lack of sleep often increase the likelihood of mental fatigue. Such mental exhaustion then contributes to the development of migraines. Also, nearly every stage of migraine is plagued with mental fatigue.
Now, the link between migraine and depression is being researched more extensively on the physiological level in that researchers believe they share similar pathways in the brain, but their influence on each other is notable even when speaking in more generalities: people with migraines are about three times more likely to develop depression than the general population and roughly 80% of people who suffer migraines will also have depression at some point, according to recent research.
It could be argued that the chronic pain, physical limitations, and emotional distress that accompany migraines may naturally contribute to the development or exacerbation of depression. In that vein, mental fatigue often influences the development or worsening of depression by impacting mood, cognitive function, and a person’s overall feeling of well-being.
Shared Biology and Impact on Daily Living
Migraines and depression share underlying biological factors like imbalances of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which plays a pivotal role in regulating mood, pain perception and many other physiological processes. Dopamine and norepinephrine also influence cognitive function and fatigue regulation and may play a role in not only migraines and depression, but also mental fatigue.
Still, the study of mental fatigue is burgeoning and the impact of neurotransmitters on the condition is more nuanced and currently being studied.
Neuroinflammation or the immune response in the brain has been noted in both migraines and depression. The inflammatory processes and immune system dysregulation can contribute to both the development and progression of these conditions, according to a paper published in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience titled, “Migraine and depression: Shared Pathophysiological Mechanisms and Clinical Implications”.
Mental fatigue is also influenced by neuroinflammation, although the exact mechanisms and pathways are still being researched. Still, current research has found links between the activation of immune cells during times of mental exhaustion, which then spur the release of inflammatory molecules like inflammatory cytokines, according to a research paper titled “From Inflammation to Sickness and Depression: When the Immune System Subjugates the Brain,” published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Any significant disruption of neurotransmitters can influence the development of migraines, depression, and mental exhaustion. Dysregulation of key neurotransmitters can also impair functioning of some regions of the brain, including the one responsible for fatigue regulation.
Four Steps You Can Take to Lessen Mental Fatigue, Migraines and Depression
The good news when conditions are so intricately linked is that progress with one should translate to progress with all. Like most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are clear steps that should help you figure out what needs to happen to alleviate your mental fatigue and, as a result, lessen your frequency and severity of migraines as well as depression.
Work on creating a self-care plan and one that is specifically tailored to what you need. This can include finding just a few things that bring you joy in your day, deep breathing exercises, or spending time walking in nature. Basically, make a point of regularly incorporating joyful things into your life every day.
Move your body. While it seems counterintuitive, movement really is medicine when you aren’t quite feeling up to snuff. According to the blog: “A study completed in 2008 found that “Sedentary people who regularly complain of fatigue can increase their energy levels by 20 percent and decrease their fatigue by 65 percent by engaging in regular, low-intensity exercise.”
Work on your emotional resilience. Sure, that sounds like a huge project to bite off, and it is, but cultivating an ability to better navigate the ups and downs that life is always serving up—isn’t that a valuable endeavor?
Don’t Forget There’s Hope
You can make strides now by taking small steps to help alleviate these conditions. And the beauty of this time of incredible innovation is that medical advancements are ever evolving.
The brain, while it remains one of the last great frontiers for medical research and human understanding, is appealing to researchers simply due to its mystery. This is good news for anyone suffering any kind of medical ailment affiliated with the brain.
Stigmas are being broken, understanding is increasing in the scientific community and in the general population, and hope is always on the horizon. In the meantime, buckle down and do the work to help yourself. You deserve it.