4 psychological & emotional causes of tiredness

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Ask Emma

31 October 2019

Can tiredness be psychological?

Normally when you think of being tired, the physical reasons, such as lack of sleep, poor diet, exercising too much and working long hours, are considered first. But, according to the NHS, 'psychological causes of tiredness are much more common than physical causes'.1

Some of the main psychological and emotional causes of tiredness are:

Below, I explore these problems in more detail and explain why they can make you feel low in energy, plus I recommend ways to help ease this emotional fatigue.

Why does stress cause you to be tired?

From pressures at work to relationship problems, stress can arise for a whole host of reasons. When these kinds of issues crop up, the nervous system responds by releasing hormones including cortisol and adrenaline.

This is a defence mechanism, designed to get the body out of challenging situations. Cortisol makes us more alert, for example, in order to improve performance, whether it's in an interview, during a race or at work.

Whilst this response is unlikely to be problematic in the short term, if stress is present for long periods at a time it can lead to some more serious symptoms.

First off, with the body in a constant state of alert, it is no wonder that you may begin to feel exhausted!

On top of this, cortisol impacts the sleep hormone melatonin, which may make it difficult to fall asleep and then stay asleep.

Another symptom of long-term stress is muscle tension. Aches and pains can influence our ability to get a good night's sleep, plus they can cause low energy, as chronic pain is very draining on our nutrient levels.

Other stress-related issues that are likely to contribute to tiredness include cravings. When stressed, we are more likely to crave sugary snacks that provide a quick burst of energy. This burst of energy is usually followed by a dramatic fall, though, meaning you may end up even more tired than before!

Finally, poor digestion and problems like constipation and diarrhoea can arise as a result of stress. This means nutrients that are essential for sustaining steady energy levels, such as magnesium, are not absorbed so well.

Take a look at our blog 'What are your stress triggers?' for more information on causes of stress and how to deal with them.

Why does worrying make you tired?

Whilst we all worry from time to time over the stresses and strains in our lives, for people suffering from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) worry and overthinking become constant and can affect your ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

If you are prone to tiredness and regularly worry about day-to-day issues, it could be that this is impairing your quality of sleep, leading to fatigue during the day. There is also some evidence to suggest that lack of sleep ramps up the regions of our brain that contribute to excessive worrying, so it can be a bit of a vicious cycle of symptoms.2

In addition to worry, symptoms of GAD include restlessness, difficulty concentrating, heart palpitations and dizziness. When the body is uptight like this for long periods at a time, it can be quite draining, so tiredness may become more pronounced.

Why does grieving make you tired?

For most people, grief naturally follows the death of a loved one, or the loss of something very important, such as a job or a relationship. How grief manifests itself, however, will vary from person to person. Some people experience fear or a sense of powerlessness, others can feel angry.

Another common feeling at this time is exhaustion. Part of this may be to do with the fact that there is a lot to think about, process and then adapt to at these difficuilt times. In a practical sense, it can also be a busy and stressful time as funeral arrangements or new job applications have to be made and this too can take its toll.

People may also lose motivation to carry out their usual activities if a loved one is no longer around, or if they do not have the routine of getting ready for work. This too can manifest itself as extreme tiredness.

In addition, the emotional strain of losing someone or something close to you may result in trouble sleeping. Again, this can lead to lack of energy and tiredness during the day.

Why do we get more emotional when tired?

It can be a vicious cycle - not only can your emotions make you tired, but being tired can also make you extra emotional.

Research by the University of Pennsylvania showed that participants experienced more stress, anger, sadness and mental exhaustion when they were restricted to just under 5 hours of sleep, 7 nights a week. These symptoms improved, however, after participants had had 2 full nights of sleep.3

These extreme emotions may arise because the part of the brain that deals with emotion (the amygdala) becomes more reactive when people are sleep deprived.4

One key sign of sleep deprivation is lack of concentration, so it could also be that you are less able to put events into context or control your response to challenging situations when tired.

What can help support your emotions and boost your energy?

There are a few steps you can take to reduce tiredness if you think that a psychological issue could be behind the issue.

Speak to those around you

If you are stressed, anxious or grieving, it can often be a relief to offload your worries to another person, be it a colleague, family member, friend or GP.

Boost your nutrient intake

It is really important to keep your nutrient intake up when suffering from low energy and tiredness. The likes of magnesium, for example, helps to support energy levels.

Eating fresh foods like vegetables, fruit and wholegrains will help keep your nutrient levels up but, if you want some extra support, a supplement could be an option.

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Practice Beditation

Help your body and mind unwind after a stressful day by practising Beditation. To get started, dim the lights and find a comfortable place to sit or lie. Close your eyes for a count of 3, exhale for a count of 4 and then repeat this three times. As you do this, try to focus on your breathing and your body. When you feel calm, climb into bed and repeat the breathing exercises there if necessary.

You can find out more about deep breathing techniques and how to do them here.

Stress Relief Daytime

Those experiencing a stressful time may benefit from Stress Relief Daytime. This gentle herbal remedy contains Valerian and Hops which support the nervous system and, in doing so, may help ease mild stress and anxiety.

Do relaxing activities

Making time for yourself can be really helpful when you are stressed or anxious by providing a distraction from whatever is on your mind.

I'd recommend going for little walks as exercise can be really good for reducing stress levels and improving mood. If you don't feel up to that, though, a warm bath or even just 30 minutes spent listening to calming music can be quite relaxing.

Talk to your GP

It may help to make an appointment with your GP if you are experiencing extreme tiredness. There are a wide range of services or medications they can offer, plus sometimes it can help just to get a new perspective on an issue that you may not have considered before.


1 https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/ 


3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9231952 

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