Why Am I So Tired?

6 min read  |  November 07, 2017  | 

Fatigue is the new black.

If you’re like a lot of people I know, you complained about being tired more than once in the past week.

By the end of the day, many of us feel exhausted, both physically and mentally. And if you’re a news junkie, as I am, you might also find yourself morally drained. To make matters more troublesome, we know we haven’t always felt this way. So we blame age, work, children, traffic, an imposing To-Do list, anything, and everything — but no explanation truly sticks.

Are we imagining this?

Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, a behavior science expert at the University of Miami Health System, says it’s difficult to determine how much of our collective exhaustion is new. “It is quite possible that fatigue is more prevalent now compared to times when people slept for longer hours and experienced less chronic stress,” he explains cautiously.

Medical conditions can lead to the bone-tired feeling, of course. Cancer, autoimmune disorders, and endocrine disorders can induce fatigue, as do anemia, depression, sleep apnea, diabetes, and heart disease. To rule these culprits out, it’s best to consult with your physician. For most of us, however, that feeling of exhaustion is inextricably tied to lifestyle. Overloading our schedule, spending too much time in front of a screen, and cutting back on precious sleep top the list of energy-sapping culprits.

A recent survey by the National Safety Council confirmed our worn-out feelings.

It found that 97 percent of us can claim at least one of the leading risk factors for fatigue. This includes working at night or in the early morning, working long shifts without breaks, and working more than 50 hours per week. Almost half of respondents also admitted that they didn’t get enough sleep to think clearly and be productive at work. What’s more, repeated studies have shown that stress can wreak havoc with our bodies, too.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we, as a society, act to stop the damage that can be done (to ourselves and our children) by chronic stress and by not getting sufficient sleep,” Dr. Dhabhar says.

Chronic stress and insufficient sleep adversely affect our physical and mental health and likely contribute to fatigue, and eat away at our creativity, and our ability to learn, grow, contribute, and thrive, and to make the best of what life has to offer.

Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar

Some pressure and tension are unavoidable, but other stressors are a result of a 21st Century attitude that we must be connected to electronics around the clock. We’re hooked on social media, and that addiction often interferes with our downtime.

“My feeling is that, like with anything else, if you are going to engage with social media, it’s best to do it in moderation,” Dr. Dhabhar says.

“If not, social media can be a contributor to our feelings of exhaustion.”

Dr. Dhabhar, who researches the beneficial versus harmful effects of stress on health in his laboratory at the University of Miami, suggests those of us feeling more depleted than usual should hit the pause button and analyze our lives.  The exhaustion we feel may be temporary, caused by long hours at work and too few hours asleep in bed. “It’s important to distinguish between fatigue that is physiological, or ‘normal’  at the end of a hard day of mental or physical work, versus fatigue that is pathological, present in the long-term, and/or even in the absence of particularly taxing physical or mental effort.”

So how can we put a little pep back into our lives?

  • Get enough sleep.
    While the quantity may vary among individuals, most of us need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Manage stress.
    Learn to say no to the extracurriculars. Decide what’s essential in your life and what’s not. “Balance your Stress Spectrum,” Dr. Dhabhar recommends. “Optimize your fight-or-flight stress response [short-term stress can trigger beneficial effects] and minimize chronic stress [which harms our bodies].”
  • Put down the iPad and the smartphone.
    Turn off the TV. Tune out Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. “Very often, our phones are constantly beeping, alerting us to something or other, with most of the ‘Alerts’ not even being of consequence.  As a result, we are constantly distracted away from work, play, or sleep. All this can contribute to chronic stress and fatigue,” Dhabhar explains.
  • Get moving.
    Exercise is not only good for the heart; it’s also a good way of relaxing and enabling sleep. A University of Georgia study found that people who exercised regularly reported an increase in energy levels of 20 percent. More good news: those who did a low-intensity aerobic activity like a leisurely walk three times a week had a greater reduction in fatigue levels than folks who did higher-intensity workouts for the same amount of time.
  • Fuel up with the right kind of food.
    (You know what they are: fish, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.) Indulge in healthy snacks such as nuts for a quick pick-me-up. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast, since studies have repeatedly shown that this can lead to feeling run down by the end of the day.
  • Lobby for later school start times.
    They “are likely not ideal for the natural sleep-wake rhythms of most children and adolescents. Specifically, schools start earlier than the natural wake-up time for most children and adolescents,” Dr. Dhabhar says. “The situation is compounded by the fact that kids often don’t or can’t go to bed early because of activities, homework, entertainment and/or social media distractions, and because their sleep cycle may naturally call for a later bedtime.”
  • Forget the nightcap.
    While drinking may help you fall asleep, alcohol actually blocks your ability to get REM sleep, the kind of deep slumber that helps you feel alert the next day.

Ana Veciana author

Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor

Ana is a regular contributor for the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami HeraldThe Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, healthy living, Sleep, stress

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