Why Pushing Through Usually Doesn’t Work

Last week I was fortunate to go to Arizona for a few days to visit a long-time friend and his family. After a long, gray and rainy northwest winter and a tiring couple of months at work and home I was pretty exhausted and looking forward to soaking up some sun and relaxing with friends.

As expected in Arizona, the sun was out in full force and the temperature was in the mid-90’s, the perfect recipe to melt away my winter blues. Seeing my friend and his family was great as well. They were on spring break so I got to tag along on their adventures. We went hiking, swimming, cliff jumping and also saw a movie at a drive-in theater. We even ate at In-N-Out Burger which is a necessary and celebrated tradition for any Oregonian visiting the Southwest United States.

Unfortunately, even though the trip was so much fun, when I got home I was almost as drained as before I left. At first that was really frustrating. This was supposed to be my chance to recover so why was I still worn out? Then as I got to thinking, I realized it was pretty silly to expect a four-day trip, no matter how great, to unwind months of exhaustion. Even so, I was perplexed as to why I’d be feeling so tired still.

As usual, I did some research online and discovered that much of what I’d been experiencing prior to my quick vacation was consistent with something called Brain Fatigue.

Slide Rock State Park – Sedona, AZ

For a long time I’ve known how prolonged stress and exhaustion can be harmful to our overall health, but I hadn’t thought much about how our brains can get fatigued just like any other part of our body. It turns out they can and as the control center of our bodies, that fatigue can have significant negative effects on our health and well-being. In reality when any of us have experienced all around exhaustion, brain fatigue probably played a role.

According to wellnessresources.com brain fatigue is “a symptom of your brain reaching a point of dysfunction. Brain fatigue happens on a large spectrum of dysfunction. The spectrum ranges from momentary blips on the radar of simply needing a break, or needing to eat lunch, to more severe, devastating, life-altering, neurodegenerative disorders. Brain fatigue, when it is not managed well, or goes on for too long, reflects wear and tear or neurological oxidative stress. In essence, brain fatigue is a symptom of neurodegeneration.”

It can be caused by anything that taxes the brain – intense studying, prolonged concentration, stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, emotional tension, mental over-stimulation, etc.

The symptoms of brain fatigue are quite broad and vary from person to person and with age, but in hindsight what should have tipped me off to look under the hood was when I was experiencing the following: trouble with cognition (I would often not be able to think of a word I was trying to say, sometimes I’d open a new tab on my web browser and forget what I was going to look up), trouble focusing, being extra tired, being irritable and emotional, etc.

I specifically remember one day at work when I was literally staring ahead blankly off and on for a couple of hours. Finally my co-workers suggested I go home and rest. That’s what I should have done but instead I pushed through. Not only that day but for many days to come, when I should have taken those symptoms as a warning sign to slow down and take care of myself, I kept going. That’s what I so often do and look where it led me.

I don’t think it’s just me. I think so many of us do the same thing. We expect ourselves to be superhuman and eventually it catches up to us. I don’t think our bodies were built to deal with many of the pressures or the pace of modern life and we have to develop habits that help us maintain both our physical and mental health.

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about things I’ve been trying to do to improve my overall health and live a more balanced life – meditating, practicing gratitude, prioritizing fun, being gracious to myself, etc. I also try to exercise regularly, and eat right (at least most of the time) – two of the most important factors in overall health.

These things have had a positive impact but I’m realizing a pattern. I’ll try something out for a few days or weeks but then often, I’ll get busy or distracted and it’ll fall off the priority list and I’ll default to less than helpful routines as I “push through” only to end up overwhelmed again eventually.

I want to develop longer term habits of healthy activity so there are less extreme ups and downs. Obviously the seasons of busyness and stress ebb and flow in life but I believe there is a lot we can do to help ourselves better weather what is thrown at us. The pace of life and how much we’re “on” grows every day so if we don’t respond to take back some space for our overall well-being, including brain health, we could be in trouble in the long run.

I think the best way to do that is to figure out what habits or practices help us and then build them into our routine making sure we stick with them, whether or not we’re busy, stressed or whatever else might tempt us to get off track. Obviously I’m still figuring out how to do that. It’s also really important to allow ourselves time to rest and recover when we’ve had to push hard for a while. In the long run our bodies and minds will thank us and I can almost guarantee we’ll be happier and more productive too.

To learn more about brain fatigue and how to help prevent it I recommend this excellent article on wellnessresources.com.