Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 12 September 2022
  • 18 minute read
Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions

Years ago, I read somewhere that the Eskimo language have 50 different words for ‘snow’. Because they live in a frozen landscape every day, the Inuit notice all the small nuances, from soft falling snow to the kind that’s good for sledding. For their daily life, these tribes need multiple terms to communicate and prepare for the different kinds of snow.

Immediately after learning that I thought, “that’s how I feel about the phrase ‘I’m tired’!”

You see, we use the word ‘tired’ for lots of different sensations, from that satisfied feeling after a successful day of work to the sick tiredness when you’ve come down with a virus or feeling exhausted to the bone with chronic illness. We say “I’m tired” after making a stressful deadline, if we stayed up partying and when our baby has been waking us up during all hours of the night for months on end.

These are not all the same sensations and experiences, and we need more words to accurately describe the kind of tiredness we’re feeling. Why? Because the better you can identify and explain your specific fatigue, the easier it becomes to feel understood, to let your doctors find the root cause and to take the right actions to solve the problem, cope better and prevent worsening.

Disclaimer: Always check with your doctor if you struggle with unexplained fatigue that doesn’t go away after a few good night’s sleep. This article is written with tiredness related to (diagnosed) chronic illness in mind, but tiredness could also be a sign of anemia, thyroid problems, mental disorders and other health problems that require medical treatment. 

Obviously not all the terms in this article will be scientifically accurate or validated, and this is by no means a complete list, but here’s my attempt to help you find the right word for the types of tiredness you’re feeling.

Let’s start by digging into the different dimensions, qualities, causes and durations of ‘tiredness’.

The Different Aspects of Tiredness

First of all, we tend to think of feeling tired as mostly a physical problem. Take some rest, eat a healthy meal and go to bed early, that should help. But you are more than a body, and the mental, emotional and spiritual side of tiredness is still often overlooked.

You don’t just get tired from a lack of sleep or working too much, but also from negative thought patterns or going over and over the same problem in your mind. You could also feel emotionally drained from relationships troubles, stress at work or looking after your sick family member. Maybe even your soul’s exhausted from trying so hard to keep going despite life’s difficulties.

Secondly, our language doesn’t always distinguish exactly how we feel: the ‘good’ kind of tired when you feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplishment after a day’s work, or the ‘bad’ kind of tired when you feel absolutely drained or even sick. You can’t compare the malaise you experience during the flu nor the chronic fatigue that impacts every aspect of your life with normal tiredness – and yet, we often used the same word for all these sensations.

Finally, the cause and duration of your tiredness also play a big role in your experience of it. After all, it’s much easier to accept temporary tiredness when you’re in a busy period, haven’t been sleeping well or after a good workout, than the persistent exhaustion that causes simple daily activities like getting dressed and cooking dinner to wipe you out for the rest of the day.

With all these aspects to consider, let’s dive into some common types of tiredness – and what you can do to deal with that specific fatigue.

Types of Tiredness: 20 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions
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12 Better Words for Types of Tiredness

1. Sleepiness

Many people saying “I’m tired” actually mean that they’re drowsy and are slowly drifting off to sleep – and they assume you mean the same thing. My guess is that’s part of the reason why people will tell you to get some rest and think a few nights of good sleep will help when you are dealing with soul-crushing fatigue.

Unless you frequently nod off during the daytime, sleepiness is healthy sign of your body telling you it’s time for bed. Develop a short but relaxing nighttime routine so you can quickly hop into bed when you notice yourself yawning and dozing off.

If you have a chronic illness and struggle with sleepiness during the day, see if you could build in a short nap, regular resting times or mindful micro-breaks. Are your medications making you drowsy? Check with your physician and pharmacist if you might need a different dosage or change the timing or your intake (but never alter your medications without a consultation!) And obviously, you should never drive a vehicle or operate heavy machinery when you’re experiencing sleepiness, no matter what’s causing it.

2. “Rosiness’

You know how you sometimes get rosy cheeks after spending hours outside or completing a good workout session? I couldn’t find the right word in the English language (I’m Dutch, so not a native speaker) for this relaxed kind of tiredness after a day of physical activity, fresh air and sunshine, so I’m calling it ‘rosiness’. (If you know the actual word for this, feel free to let me know in the comments!)

When you feel rosy, your body’s ‘tired’ but in a pleasant way. Your mind’s calm and empty, and you probably have a smile of contentment on your face. It’s also somewhat similar to that lovely lazy feeling when you can linger a little longer under the covers on Sunday morning.

‘Rosiness’ is the kind of tiredness you want to have – and may even long for if you’re living with chronic fatigue and post-exertional malaise.

3. Social jet lag

Do you hit the snooze button at least twice before you drag yourself out of bed every Monday morning? If you tend to stay up late during the weekends and sleep in the next day, you might be dealing with a social jet lag.

When you have (very) different sleeping hours on the weekends compared to the workweek, your internal clock gets disrupted in a similar way that a jet lag from traveling through different timezones affects you. This mismatch between your biological time and your social time can make you feel groggy, irritable and unfocused throughout the day, while you struggle to fall sleep at night.

No worries, you don’t have to prevent the occasional social jet lag at all costs. But if you’re partying every weekend or doing shift-work, you should know that social jet lags can negatively impact your energy levels, mood and performance, as well as increase your risk of obesity, heart disease and depression.

Even on your days off, it’s helpful to somewhat stick to your normal sleep schedule and sleep in for maximum one hour. Expose yourself to natural daylight in the morning to reset your circadian rhythm and take a short nap after lunch if needed. And if you can, try to work as much with your sleep chronotype as possible to avoid social jet lag at any time of the week.

Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions
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4. Sleep-deprived & Worn-out

We all struggle to have a good night’s a sleep from time to time, whether you’re working late to meet a deadline, hanging out with friends until the early morning hours or your baby’s keeping your up all night. But when you’re not getting enough hours of sleep for many nights in a row, a deep, persistent fatigue creeps in that impacts your waking hours too.

If you have trouble falling or staying asleep multiple nights a week for months, you may feel dizzy and faint, struggle to concentrate and make decisions, or experience headaches. Sadly, long term lack of sleep wreaks havoc on your health. Insomnia increases your chances of developing depression and anxiety, weakened immunity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as getting involved in serious accidents.

So what can you do? Assuming you have your bedtime basics covered, turn off your electronic devices at least 1 hour before bedtime and wind down with one of these relaxing routines instead. Finding more helpful things to ‘do’ when you can’t sleep could also improve your sleeping habits over time. If chronic pain keeps you up at night, you can check out my best tips on coping with ‘painsomnia’, but ask your doctor for tailored advice for your unique situation too.

Do you wake up exhausted despite spending 8 hours asleep each night? Let a medical professional check if you might unknowingly be suffering from sleep apnea.

5. Mental fatigue

Do you ever have those days when brain just won’t function? Your thoughts are so scattered you can’t focus on your work or even a conversation, you have trouble finding the right words and feel indecisive about the simples choices. You may experience a form of brain fog related to your chronic illness or perhaps you’re dealing with mental fatigue from information overload. No matter the cause, mental fatigue that messes up your cognitive functioning seems to be an overlooked type of tiredness.

What can you do when you’re dealing with mental fatigue? First of all, mind your mental diet. Limit the amount of information coming at you by turning off notifications, reducing your screen time and making room for quietude. What’s more, be mindful of what kind of information you consume and how that makes you feel. Things like scrolling social media during every spare moment, reading heated Twitter threads and watching horror movies that give you nightmares can drain your energy more than you may realize. Instead, choose mental input that nourishes your mind, whether that’s listening to an inspiring podcast or spending more time in nature.

6. Malaise

There are ‘good’ kinds of tiredness, like sleepiness and ‘rosiness’, and then you have the painful kinds that scream “something’s wrong”.

Malaise is that unidentifiable overall feeling of not being well. It comes with the kind of fatigue you experience when you have the flu – a sense of weakness and general discomfort that doesn’t go away with resting. Malaise is actually commonly caused by viral infections, but also accompanies many chronic illnesses, like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, diabetes, AIDS and depression.

That’s why easing malaise really depends on its cause. Generally speaking, there are a few strategies that could help you reduce or prevent malaise. Experiment with different ways to better manage your symptoms (even if you cannot take them away), whether that’s taking medication, kickstarting a healthier lifestyle or trying natural ways to reduce your pain and stress levels. Understanding the basics of pacing your energy can also prevent overexertion and a downward spiral of more symptoms and more malaise. Build in time for real rest – the kind that activates your body’s natural relaxation response – and do so before you get too tired and overstimulated.

Speaking of which…

Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions
Photo by Ivan Samkov via pexels.com

7. Overstimulation

All day long, your senses are bombarded with information. Your eyes scan the busy traffic on the road so you can drive safely, while listening to the radio in the background, chatting with your fellow passengers, smelling the snacks they’re eating and sensing that you’re getting thirsty. Normally, your brain identifies and filters out all the irrelevant sensory information. For example, you only hear fragments of the radio news until the latest travel updates or your favorite song comes on – when suddenly you are all ears.

But when your brain receives more input from your five senses than it can process and organize, you may experience sensory overload. When you’re overstimulated, you may feel restless and wound up, unable to concentrate. Or perhaps you feel the need to escape the overwhelming situation and retreat to a quiet spot, alone. Sensory overload can leave you feeling tired and brain fogged.

In recent years, people have become more aware of how everyday (over) stimulation affects your mood, brain functioning, energy levels and nervous system, especially since the pandemic lockdowns. How much stimulation you find enjoyable or tolerable differs from person to person, and depends on whether you’re an introvert or extravert, your overall health and situational factors.

If you get overstimulated easily, it helps to know your triggers, learn to recognize early warning signs and develop coping strategies that work for you. This article lists 19 tips to help you deal with sensory overload at work, in shops and during social get-togethers. You should also be mindful of digital overload when your chronic illness makes you depend on your electronic devices for many hours of the day.

8. Burned-out

You probably associate a burn-out with persistent work-related stress. But did you know that anyone who feels overworked and undervalued is at risk of becoming burned-out, including overwhelmed parents or caregivers?

When the physical, cognitive and emotional demands of life just become too much to handle, with too little time to recuperate in between. you could start to experience signs of burn-out. You’re exhausted all the time and you just can’t keep up. It feels like nothing to say or do makes any difference. Slowly, your emotions become blunted, you loose your motivation and you start to withdraw and detach yourself from the people and activities in your life.

If you’re worried you might be on the road to burn-out, reach out to your doctor for medical advice. (Online) therapy can also help you to cope with things like unhelpful thought patterns, perfectionism, setting healthy boundaries and rebuilding your workload over time. You may feel like you’re alone and that it’s all pointless, but with the right help and support, you can rediscover the joy and meaning in your life.

9. Post-Exertional Malaise

It’s an all too common scenario when you’re living with chronic illness: After a fun day out or spending the holiday weekend with family, your body crashes hard the day(s) afterwards. This post-exertional malaise, as it’s officially called, comes with a flu-like exhaustion that makes it hard to move your body or string words into coherent sentences. You may also experience disorienting brain fog, whole-body pain or a worsening of your usual symptoms.

And it’s not just big outings that may lead to post-exertional malaise. Especially in ME/CFS patients, even relatively small physical and mental efforts like going for a longer walk than usual or trying to make conversation in a crowded place, can trigger a health set back that lasts for days (or longer).

You can’t always prevent crashing after activity, but when possible, become an expert at pacing, take pre-emptive rest before events, plan recovery time afterwards and stop activity as soon as you notice the warning signs of post-exertional malaise.

And for the inevitable moments when you can’t prevent overexertion, try to accept the situation you’re in and don’t fight it with negative self-talk. Instead, give yourself enough time and space to rest (as boring and unfair as that is). Make sure you get real rest – the kind that triggers your body’s relaxation response, not just lying in bed flicking magazines – but try to keep your baseline of activities up whenever you can. You can get more in-depth advice on coping with post-exertional malaise here

Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions
Photo by Tim Samuel via pexels.com

10. Listless & Lethargic

You know that beautiful French word ‘joie de vivre’? Well, being listless and lethargic is the exact opposite sensation of this lust for life. You lack the physical energy and mental motivation to take action and think clearly, as if you’re in a daze. You’re probably sluggish and move around slower than usual. Very few things spark your interest anymore.

Many acute and chronic illnesses can make you feel lethargic, as well as some types of medication. Lethargy could also be a warning sign of (postpartum) depression. Especially if you experience other symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, disorientation and vomiting, or you have thoughts about harming yourself, you should always contact a medical professional for help.

Listlessness can also be a more ‘normal’ part of the process of learning to live with chronic illness. In that case, the inactivity and indifference aren’t directly caused by medical or mental problems, but you simply have to find new, meaningful ways to keep yourself busy and entertained when you can no longer work, play sports, socialize or do your usual hobbies. Accepting your new reality is not something that happens over night, so distracting yourself with fun things to do at home can help to overcome feelings or listlessness and lethargy in the mean time.

11. Depleted

Tiredness can also be a warning sign that your body is lacking important nutrients. For example, feeling weak and fatigued is a key symptom of anemia, a condition in which deficiencies in iron and/or vitamin B12 cause a shortage in healthy red blood levels that carry oxygen throughout your body. Other tell-tale signs of anemia are a pale or yellowish skin, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats and cracked corners of your lips. Anemia is more common in menstruating women, people over 65, patients who use blood thinners and vegans.

You could also be depleted of vital nutrients after persistent vomiting and diarrhea, or because your body doesn’t absorb vitamins and minerals sufficiently as a result of Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or other gut-related disorders. In that case, it’s helpful to make a nutritional plan with your treatment team to prevent weight loss, bone weakening and other consequences of deficiencies.

What’s more, digestive problems can also put you at risk of dehydration, especially if vomiting and diarrhea are regular symptoms of your illness. Because your entire body needs water to function properly, even mild dehydration can cause tiredness and weakness.

Finally, fatigue and nutrient deficiencies also play a role in thyroid disorders. A diet low in magnesium, a mineral that promotes relaxation and energy production in your body, is another common cause of  tiredness. You might also experience fatigue when you can’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight and food. (And if you -logically- struggle to head outside and put a healthy meal on the table due to chronic illness, it’s wise to have your blood checked occasionally to rule out that depletion plays a role on top of your usual fatigue.)

If you feel depleted and you’re worried you might be lacking nutrients, or you show other symptoms of anemia, thyroid disorder, malabsorption or dehydration, please contact your doctor for medical advice and treatment. 

12. Soul exhaustion

Ok, this is even more difficult to measure or explain than a lack of energy in your body or brain, but does your soul ever feel tired? Like you’ve been through so much that you’re too exhausted to care or fight anymore?

Soul exhaustion sounds a bit like listlessness and lethargy, but it happens on a deeper, more spiritual level. It’s the kind of tiredness that touches the core of who you are and your place in the world.

Living with chronic illness can confront you with all kinds of existential questions. Why is this happening to me? Who am I now that everything – my job, passions, some friendship, the ability to move freely and think straight – have bee stripped away from me? What’s the point of living if all I can do is lie in bed all day?

All the physical, mental and emotional changes that you’re going through can challenge your core beliefs about yourself, the people in your life and the world around you. Sometimes, life will even have you question your reasons for living.

When you’re faced with an existential crisis, how do you deal with this soul exhaustion? There’s no easy answer for that. Depending on your health situation and (prior) spiritual beliefs, you may find comfort in religious texts or in talking to your pastor, imam or rabbi. Some will find meaning or new insights in books that nourish your soul or by exploring deep questions, while others find it most helpful to talk to a psychologist specialized in humanism.

Most importantly, don’t let those overwhelming thoughts take over your mind and get you on a downward spiral. If you start to feel depressed, ask for help form your friends and counselor. Keep expressing yourself – even in a hands-on way if you can’t find the words – and don’t bottle your feelings up. Also don’t withdraw yourself, but stay in touch with your friends and family.

And if you feel like you have no control over things, it can help to ground yourself, literally. Walk barefoot on the grass or beach, get your hands dirty in the soil. Head into nature, play sports or make music. Moving your body, working with your hands and minding your breathing will take you out of your nonstop-thinking head and into your body.

Types of Tiredness: 12 Better Words to Explain Your Specific Fatigue | The Health Sessions
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In case you’re wondering why ‘chronic fatigue’ isn’t featured in this list: 

The chronic fatigue that many people with chronic illness experience, is often a combination of several of these types of tiredness,  and these specific fatigue(s) can change from day to day. After being active, the post-exertional malaise may be most prominent, while other times you suffer most from a mix of overstimulation, mental fatigue and deep sense of tiredness.

And chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as ME/CFS, is an illness with chronic fatigue, post-exertional malaise and unrefreshing sleep as its most characteristic symptoms, but it encompasses much more than being extremely tired. People with ME/CFS often suffer from cognitive impairment, neurological symptoms, gastrointestinal problems, impaired immunity and/or musculoskeletal pain too. It would not do this debilitating disorder justice to casually mention it in this kind of list.

Tell me, which types of tiredness are still missing from this list? And what kind of fatigue do you personally struggle with the most?  

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