Signs of Exhaustion

and How to Fix It


Dr. Darria Long, MD MBA

Are you exhausted? In this third article in our Sleep Wellness Series, Dr. Darria explains what happens if you don’t get enough sleep, why you need to know if you’re exhausted—and how to fix exhaustion now.

As I’ve previously mentioned, my sleep schedule, during my ER doctor residency training, would flip back and forth between day and overnight shifts. Was it any wonder that after a 24-hour long shift, I found myself leaning against a wall, crying one morning—for no clear reason at all. I remember sobbing to my professor, “I don’t even know why I’m cryyyyiiiiiing.” She took me by the shoulders and said “Darria, YOU ARE TIRED. Sleep deprivation is a spy torture tactic. It makes everyone go crazy.”

That day I learned two things: (1) that I’d never join the CIA (I would have traded nuclear secrets to get a nap), and (2) that getting good sleep and rest was the key to my sanity. So, how does exhaustion affect you, your body, and your mind? And once you realize you are exhausted, how do you fix it?

Can Exhaustion Make You Sick?

Let’s be honest—all of us short-change our sleep at times and it comes with a cost. The initial symptoms of sleep deprivation are often cognitive: it’s harder to focus, your response times are slower, and you may struggle with problem solving.

Sleep deprivation also leads to:

  • Mood changes resembling depression or anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Low energy
  • Other mental health changes

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in accidents and workplace errors. It can also impact cardiac health due to increased chances of obesity, fasting glucose irregularity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and metabolic syndrome—and even an increased risk of heart attack. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with decreased immune system function, decreased function of vaccination, and even increased vulnerability to the common cold.

Am I Exhausted?

How do you know if you’re beyond just a little tired, and are truly exhausted? Signs of fatigue and exhaustion include any of the above effects of sleep deprivation—including difficulty thinking and erratic mood swings (much like I was that morning after the overnight shift). People who are chronically sleep deprived can also fall into “microsleeps,” or sleeping for only a few seconds when they’re not being physically active—such as driving. If you’re experiencing any of the effects of exhaustion, consider a sleep reset!

What to Do If You’re Exhausted

You’ll say, “OF COURSE, the solution is sleep.” But it’s not always that easy, is it? There’s no one solution for everyone, so here are three strategies to combat exhaustion, based on the main reason you are exhausted.

1) If You Try to Sleep, But Cannot Fall Asleep

If you’re in bed, but are staring at the ceiling and can’t fall asleep, it’s time for some sleep hygiene tactics:

  • Make your sleep space more of a sleep sanctuary
  • Minimize blue light before bed
  • Darken your bedroom
  • Get out of bed when you are tossing and turning
  • Reserve your bedroom for only sleep (and not paying bills, etc.)
  • Consider cutting caffeine after 2 p.m. at the latest

2) If You Sleep, But Are Still Tired

If you’re getting what you feel is the right amount of sleep, but still feel exhausted, it may be time to talk with your doctor about getting a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea or other sleep problems. 

3) If You Don’t Get the Sleep You Need

If you’re not getting enough rest, it’s time to make sleep a priority. Keep in mind, a long “binge sleep” does not make up for several days of sleep restriction—and may actually make you feel worse. Instead, aim for 4 to 5 days in a row of consistently getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Try to keep bedtime and wakeup times around the same hour, to not just catch up on your sleep, but reset your circadian rhythm all at the same time. Make sure to avoid blue light devices for 90 minutes before bed and get bright light the moment you wake up. 

While sleep deprivation and exhaustion can affect your health, these solutions can help you improve your sleep and fix exhaustion. Try them out and explore the rest of our Sleep Wellness Series for actionable tips to improve sleep habits and help you feel well rested.

Dr. Darria Long, MD MBA

Dr. Darria Long is the nation’s go-to doctor for distilling the best information to make our lives healthier, better, and easier. She is a Harvard and Yale-trained Emergency physician, international TV contributor and regular on CNN, Headline News, The Dr. Oz Show, NBC, and other outlets, national bestselling author of Mom Hacks, and TedX speaker of the now widely popular “An ER doctor on triaging your crazy busy life” - and mom of 2. She’s also the founder of the TrueveLab - your data-driven source of truth for all things health. 

Dr. Darria is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee and received her training in emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine and her MBA from Harvard Business School. Combining her life’s work as an Emergency Room Physician, patient with autoimmune arthritis, and mother, Dr. Darria distills complex information for her audiences to give people holistic, evidence-based, and manageable solutions for their health and wellness.