Subtle, Early Signs That You’re Tired

. 6 min read

I’m not entirely sure when it began, but at some point in the last ten years, the fear of being tired became a regular source of anxiety for me.

At the end of the day, I would find myself beginning to stress about winding things down by a certain time in order to log the amount of hours of sleep I know my body needs in order to function optimally the next day.

In a perfect world, there would be no stress about winding down because there would be no barriers to the process.

In the real world though, many of us are up against a number of barriers that keep us from getting sleep, and downtime. Two sources of stress I’ve experienced have been…

(1) Feeling pressed for time: having too much to do in the evening post-work and not having enough time to get it all done if I was to get 8 hours of sleep as well.

(2) Needing to navigate tricky living situations: this may be because you have young kids that refuse to go to sleep or because you’re on a different sleeping schedule than your partner/parents/roommates, or some other reason.

Of course, I’ve also experienced what so many of us do: having difficulty unwinding for a reason that has nothing to do with anyone else and is entirely to do with my own racing mind.

I’ve wondered at times if I’m being a bit hysterical in my fear of tiredness. I’ve wondered if I’d be better off cooling it with the education I’m consuming on the importance of sleep, because, maybe, I’m overdoing it, and that’s making me anxious.

But whenever I ponder this line of thinking, I realize that, no, I genuinely greatly dislike being tired. The work that fills me up (writing, coaching), the things I do to connect with deep joy (reading novels, consuming interesting art, learning about psychology, having deep conversations with loved ones)… these things require brain power. I am and have always been a cerebral person, and though, yes, of course, there are so many other things that could bring me brief happiness, the things that fill me up most require my brain to be turned on—and I love that about myself!

The kicker is when I’m tired, I can’t partake in these things. I can’t even muster up the zest to play board games or play cards. I have to relegate my time to doing things that fill me up less.

And while that’s okay—I mean, it’s bound to happen, we all get tired and, further, I believe inner peace stems from accepting that life isn’t all about chasing moments that light us up to the nth degree all the time, but rather accepting all of the moments, the good, the bad, and the inbetween.

So I am okay with not always being full of life, but, to be real, I would prefer that, at least most of the time, I am.

It is true though that, in spite of this preference, to have fear of being too tired to live as I desire… Well, that is something to get curious about. My thinking is that if I didn’t teeter on the edge of burnout quite so often, I wouldn’t have this ‘need’ for fear. I wouldn’t need, in other words, my body to send me these protective warning signals, because it wouldn’t sense that exhaustion is looming. Rather, if I could better tune better into my body and its subtle cues of needing rest, my body would feel safer, and therefore my mind would be calmer.

Going down this line of thinking had me extremely curious. What are the early signs of being tired? What subtle cues do our bodies and minds give us that we’re losing steam?

Here’s what I found.

Subtle, Early Signs Your Body is Sending You to Tell You That You’re Tired

First of all, an early sign is not fatigue.

As Roy Raymann, VP of sleep science at SleepCore Labs, has said, our ability to know we’re tired is often flawed as our brains fool us.

Dr. Jedidiah Ballard, an osteopathic physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Augusta University has added to this, saying, “Recognizing your fatigue is particularly tricky if it’s brought on by regularly ‘under-sleeping’ a little (say, six hours every night) rather than severely shorting sleep only on rare occasions.”

So if we get used to living life in a mildly sleep-deprived state, and we forget how it feels to be properly rested—plus our judgment is extra impaired by being under-rested…

How do we gain the self-awareness to turn things around before we collapse face-first onto our pillows?

We educate ourselves on early signs to look out for that we may be getting tired.

According to Holly Phillips, author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough, the below are early signs of tiredness to look out for…

  • muscle weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • sluggish, uncomfortable digestion (constipation, diarrhea, bloating)
  • random aches and pains
  • migraine headaches
  • brain fog (including experiencing difficulty with problem-solving, decision-making, processing what you’re reading/hearing, and/or word recall)
  • greater emotional distress, depression, anxiety when faced with minor challenges
  • decreased empathy and patience
  • trouble falling/staying asleep
  • low libido

On the note of that last one—

While we sleep, our sex hormones are replenished. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that when young men slept less than five hours a night for one week, their testosterone levels dropped as much as they would have had they aged 10 to 15 years. I don't know about you, but that is shocking to me.

There are a number of other early signs of tiredness I dug up you may want to take note of.

Like, ramped up, insatiable hunger. I feel this every time I take a red-eye and have to get by on a mere few hours of sleep. According to Michael Breus, Ph.D, a board certified expert in clinical sleep disorders, this is because inadequate sleep leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and foods that are high in carbs and fat are calming, therefore great at bringing our cortisol levels down.

If you find your vision poorer than usual, or your body less coordinated, these may both have to do with inadequate sleep, as our eye muscles tire out and our motor skills become off when we’re deprived of rest.

Acting impulsively is another sign according to Kelly Baron, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University in Chicago. The reason being that your inhibitions are lowered as the part of the brain that deals with reasoning and processing emotions is weakened.

Over time, if you continue to skimp on the downtime your body so requires, you may also notice…

  • frequent sinus or respiratory infections
  • decreasing quality of skin (more wrinkles, breakout, flakiness, puffiness)
  • lack of results in spite of working out and/or more injuries
  • increased apathy/low mood/even depression

Dr. Jedidiah Ballard has explained that neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine are generated while we sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, these chemicals are depleted, and, as a result, our emotional reserve plummets.

The above, then, are warning signs we can look out for when determining whether we’re in need of more sleep. Honestly, I’m going to assume that the large majority of us these days do, especially in the Western world where we work so much, have incredible expectations for ourselves when it comes to our personal lives (socializing, keeping the home spick and span, developing ourselves, etc.), and, of course, thanks to the addiction most of us have with our phones/computers/screens at large.

If you determine you need more sleep but are struggling to see how you’ll get it…

Number one, it’s about getting clear on what your personal barrier(s) are.

  • Are you ingesting too much caffeine?
  • Eating too late at night?
  • Are you glued to a screen minutes before you decide to close your eyes?
  • When your head hits the pillow, does your mind race with thoughts that have been suppressed all day?
  • Is your partner tossing and turning beside you?
  • Are your kids unable to sleep?
  • Is your bedroom too light? Too noisy? Too hot?

What is it for you? Explore.

Then, it’s about addressing that barrier of yours head on.

A huge one that helped me was wearing a sleep mask—and wearing ear plugs any time I'm sleeping next to my partner.

Oh, and drastically reducing my caffeine intake. These days, if I have trouble sleeping, it’s most often because I’ve had a bit too much dark chocolate before bed. The next night, I have half, and I can drift off to sleep.

This is just a super simple example, obviously.

Oftentimes, things are more complex. Like maybe your lifestyle really needs to change. That is an understandably, overwhelming realization.

No matter what you've identified as being your barrier(s) to getting good sleep, remember that change doesn't happen overnight. Change, typically at least, happens slowly. So, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you do, you risk stressing yourself out even more and then zipping back to your old ways.

The key is to, day by day, do something small that will point you in the direction you need to go. If you encounter stress as you do so, know that's normal and actually a good thing.

Try to embrace it, and congratulate yourself each time you do something that aligns with the person you want to show up in this world as. That really makes a huge difference, on a neuroplasticity level.

In the meantime, you may find it helpful to implement some relaxation tools before bed, such as this Slow Breathing exercise, any other form of meditation that calls to you, and/or reading, rather than watching TV immediately before sleeping, or listening to a sleep story on apps like Insight Timer or Calm.

Resources for further reading:
The Exhaustion Breakthrough by Holly Phillips
US Health, "7 Signs You're Tired Other Than Yawning"
Science Daily, "Sleep Loss Dramatically Lowers Testosterone in Healthy Young Man"