Modern life is very demanding, so it is not surprising that the philosopher Byung-Chul Han has classified our society as “the burnout society“. In fact, it is likely that on more than one occasion you have felt extremely exhausted by the amount of responsibilities, commitments and tasks that you have to face.
The demands of everyday life, all those small, practically invisible tasks, can generate an overwhelming mental load that ends up affecting your well-being and mental balance. A study carried out at Harvard University revealed that women bear the brunt of the relationship, since often falls on their shoulders the responsibility to anticipate the needs of the family, look for options to satisfy them, make decisions and monitor progress, a cognitive work that is added to their work and social obligations, generating a strenuous mental load.
What is mental load exactly?
The mental load is the cognitive and emotional effort that day-to-day management demands in all the areas in which you operate. It is the set of details that you must manage throughout a day, from your responsibilities to the decisions you must make and, of course, the tasks you face and the problems that arise.
Mental load is particularly difficult to manage because it is often invisible. The stress you endure on a daily basis, the chaos you have to deal with, juggling to fit social commitments, work and family obligations, staying in tune with the people around you, remembering to-dos, biting your tongue to avoid unleash an argument… Everything adds up to generate a significant and draining mental load.
The loop that generates an excessive mental load
We all endure a certain mental load on a daily basis. In fact, it would be unrealistic to try to get rid of all the stresses and obligations that life implies. A study conducted at Tilburg University revealed that we can work hard on complex tasks, even under unfavorable conditions, without experiencing cognitive strain, psychosomatic discomfort, or adverse physiological effects.
Highly demanding tasks can be accomplished by mobilizing additional energy; that is, increasing the mental load. In fact, it is a normal and healthy coping strategy to adapt to the demands of a specific situation. However, when that burden is not reduced and grows disproportionately, it can have very negative consequences.
An excessive mental load leads to emotional exhaustion. Constantly thinking about the responsibilities and tasks ahead of you is emotionally draining, so it’s not surprising that you feel drained, with low energy and zero vitality.
The stress that comes with the mental load also prevents you from relaxing and taking care of yourself. As a result, the quality of sleep suffers, so that you do not get adequate rest. Therefore, it is understandable that during the day you are a victim of tension, irritability and anxiety. That means you’ll be defensive, you’ll have less patience, and your relationships will suffer.
Likewise, it is common for positive emotions to disappear, giving way to a pessimistic outlook on life, so that in some cases this high mental load leads to depression. All of this generates a state of severe emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.
How to lighten that invisible weight in your life?
• Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communication is vital to reduce mental load. If you feel overloaded with tasks and burdened with responsibilities, you need to ask for help. Maybe you can talk about it with the members of your work team, your boss or your partner. Explain to them that you are carrying an excessive mental load that is affecting your health and performance, so you need to lighten it. Ideally, you should prepare for that conversation beforehand and come up with some solutions or alternatives so that other people can help you ease the weight you’re carrying.
• Delegate whenever possible
Many times the mental load comes from the desire to control everything and the thought that only you can do things right. If that is the case, you must learn to flow and trust more those around you. It is possible that your partner does not fold the towels like you or that your coworker does not follow your same method, but generally those details are not important, as long as things are done. Delegating tasks will not only help you ease the mental load, but also turn into growth opportunities for others.
• Set limits to protect yourself
Not setting limits and saying “yes” to everything can make you assume more and more responsibilities and obligations that will end up increasing your mental load. For that reason, it’s critical that you set boundaries in your close relationships and at work. So you can make sure you have time to relax, take care of yourself, and do the things you enjoy and allow you to recharge your batteries. This balance between occupation and free time, will protect your mental health and allow you to be more efficient in your day to day.
• Take care, no excuses
The cognitive and emotional work involved in managing work, love, social and family life takes up everything. Those obligations, pending tasks and worries can become a black hole through which your time and energy escape. To avoid this, make sure you lead a lifestyle that allows you to disconnect and recharge your batteries. You need to rest enough, connect with yourself and learn to relax. No excuses…
Daminger, A. (2019) The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor. American Sociological Review; 84(4): 10.1177.
Gaillard, A. W. (1993) Comparing the concepts of mental load and stress. Ergonomics; 36(9):991-1005.