When people reach the point where they are seeking help for mental health challenges, it’s exceptionally common for them to have specific issues or situations they feel are weighing on them.

Perhaps you’ve been struggling with the tasks at work or are experiencing financial insecurity. Maybe you’re facing relationship challenges or you have too many responsibilities and don’t know how to balance them.

These are all real, tangible stressors that play a major role in your mental health. Yet frequently, what goes unspoken or unacknowledged also plays a significant role. This invisible mental load is frequently the primary driver of mental health concerns, whether you recognize it or not.

But what are these invisible responsibilities, and how do they contribute to your overall health and well-being?

Defining Mental Load

Mental load is a term used to describe the amount of mental and emotional energy you spend on a daily basis. To understand how mental load affects your mental health, it can be useful to think of your emotional and mental capacity like a battery that recharges overnight.

In the morning, you’re fully charged and feel as though you have the capacity and energy to take on any challenges the day brings you.

By afternoon, you can start to feel depleted as work, social interaction, or other responsibilities discharge your battery.

In the evening, you may feel drained, and while there may be tasks or responsibilities still left to be done, you simply don’t have the mental capacity to accomplish them.

A mental load is the accumulation of events, circumstances, or interactions that place a drain on this energy reserve.

Going to work may bring your mental battery down from 100% to 40%. Making dinner can drop you from 40% to 20%. Having a difficult conversation with your friend or spouse can drop you from 20% into the negatives, which is where true problems start to arise.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of mental load and your mental reserves. Countless factors and events contribute to mental load and weigh upon your mental health. The important part to recognize is that when a mental load exceeds its capacity, this is when people begin to experience troubling mental health symptoms and may start to show signs of a mental health disorder.

When Mental Load Becomes Too Much

When you deplete your batteries and run on empty, it’s common for people to start showing signs of anxiety, burnout, chronic stress, or depression. The events that weigh on you continue to happen, but you simply don’t have the energy to deal with them effectively.

Since most of the consequences of becoming mentally overloaded happen after your capacity is exceeded, people will naturally assume that the event that led to exceeding their capacity is the root cause of their trouble.

It is the classic story of the straw breaking the camel’s back — it is not the last straw that does the harm but the million other straws underneath it.

Yet, these events can often seem invisible, as they are part of everyday life and never given a second thought. These invisible responsibilities can slowly accumulate to become overwhelming, leaving people at risk of experiencing chronic stress, burnout, and ultimately seeking help for mental health challenges.

Invisible Responsibilities: This is Water

In a commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005, American author David Foster Wallace shared a parable that perfectly captures the invisible responsibilities of everyday life.

In the parable, two young fish are swimming along when they pass an older fish going the other way. The older fish turns to the younger and says, “How’s the water, boys?” The young fish keep swimming when one finally turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?”

It’s easy to see the younger fishes’ confusion. They have been surrounded by water their entire lives, but they have never paid it any mind. It simply exists.

The invisible responsibilities of life are a similar experience. We are constantly immersed in them and never give a second thought to how they impact our lives or contribute to our mental health.

They are constant, everywhere, and seemingly unchangeable, but they contribute to the mental load each person deals with from one day to the next.

What Are These Invisible Responsibilities?

These invisible responsibilities pervade everyday life, often without people being aware of how they dictate their actions, behaviors, thoughts, and moods. They come from any of a number of sources and can significantly increase the mental load you deal with every day.

There are several common examples of these invisible stressors and responsibilities, which can contribute to the mental load you experience in different ways.

Cultural Expectations

Cultural expectations can lead you into performing any number of tasks or taking on responsibilities for the simple reason of “this is how it’s always been done.” Depending on the culture, this can be anything from small responsibilities to major obligations.

Importantly, the weight of these decisions can seem to be more or less impactful based on the culture itself. Certain expectations seem outlandish to people from other cultures but are completely normal within the culture itself. Common examples include:

  • Family obligations
  • Marriage and relationship expectations
  • Complete self-reliance
  • Academic or monetary achievement
  • “Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”
  • Religious practice
  • Career choice
  • 40-hour work weeks

These expectations vary substantially between cultures and may weigh on your decision-making without your conscious awareness.

All these cultural expectations can add to your mental load. The expectation for high achievement, for example, can lead to people constantly seeking higher-paying jobs, furthering their education, or pursuing an unattainable standard of excellence for themselves.

Yet, these expectations are often dismissed as irrelevant or just the way life works. This isn’t to say that cultural norms aren’t important components of your identity and worth holding on to, but they can often lead to undue stress or anxiety if they aren’t addressed, understood, and accounted for.

Social Norms

Social norms overlap with cultural expectations significantly and with similar added mental load. Social norms are the explicit or implicit rules people live with every day, dictating what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. Some examples of social norms include:

  • Gender roles
  • Etiquette
  • Social hierarchy
  • What is or isn’t appropriate to talk about
  • Acceptable dress
  • Acceptable levels of emotion

The vast majority of social norms are learned through social interaction. If a person breaks these unwritten rules, they may be chastised by their peers, looked down upon, or isolated from others.

Frequently, people strive to conform to norms that don’t align with their identity or beliefs, which can lead to undue stress and strain but still be perceived as “normal.”

Take masculinity as an example. Men are often taught that it is their responsibility to take care of their family, be strong, and not show emotion. This norm is so pervasive and prevalent that it can become rooted in how men perceive themselves, adding to their mental load if they feel they aren’t living up to these unwritten expectations.

Daily Routine

The day-in, day-out routine of everyday life can be another invisible responsibility contributing to your mental load. Countless daily routines quickly add up, making it more difficult to reserve energy for unexpected situations or new life challenges. This can include:

  • Sitting in traffic at rush hour
  • Grocery shopping
  • Taking your kids to school
  • Cleaning the house
  • Making dinner
  • Walking the dog
  • Doing laundry
  • Working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Washing the car
  • Doing your taxes
  • Paying your bills

The list of daily routines, when looked at objectively, can quickly approach overwhelming limits.

Paradoxically, people can experience the stress of these often necessary life routines and attempt to counteract them by adding even more routines and behaviors into the mix. To counteract their stress or mental challenges, people can be encouraged to:

  • Find time for meditation
  • Exercise at least 3 days a week
  • Schedule a weekly meeting with a therapist
  • Carve out time for self-care
  • Cook healthy meals rather than getting takeout
  • Attend support groups
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • Take a wellness retreat
  • Meet with friends
  • Spend more time with family

This isn’t to say that these aren’t worthwhile activities that can do great things for your mental health, but people can fall into the trap of burning themselves out by taking on too many wellness activities at once.

These types of healthy routines are meant to build your capacity to handle greater and greater mental loads. But they take energy themselves, and exceeding your limits can lead to the burnout and chronic stress that can cause so many mental health challenges.

How to Manage Your Mental Load

Learning to streamline and manage the everyday responsibilities of life can pay dividends in your future mental health. Reducing your mental load can make room for unexpected challenges, give you the capacity to deal with troubling events effectively, and relieve the stress or anxiety you feel when your limits have been reached.

A few key steps can keep your daily life manageable, so you have the reserves when you need them.

Identify Your Daily Struggles

The first step is to identify what’s contributing to your mental load each day. Take an inventory of the routines, worries, or obligations that weigh you down and leave you feeling depleted. By acknowledging that these are factors in your mental health, you can begin to take back control over them.

Name Your Priorities

After taking inventory, you can begin to recognize what’s important and what isn’t. Certain activities, even when they are draining, can be non-negotiable. Others may be important but not urgent and can be set aside on days when you’ve almost reached your limit.

Set Boundaries

Learning to set boundaries with friends, family, your boss, or your co-workers is a powerful tool for managing your mental health. Too often, people feel as though they are obliged to say “yes” to every request — even when they don’t have the capacity for the task at hand.

Learn to say no, recognize the importance of your mental health, and make room for the important things in your life.

Seek Support

If you can’t seem to get out from the weight of responsibilities on your own, consider reaching out to a therapist. Individual therapy can help you identify the things that contribute to your mental load and also provide actionable strategies to overcome your day-to-day challenges and responsibilities in a healthy and productive way.

Getting the Help You Need

At Plus by APN, our team of highly trained mental health professionals can help you relieve the mental load of daily living. And with virtual or in-person therapy options available, seeking help doesn’t need to be an added stressor in your life.

To get started, use the live chat function on our website, call 424.644.6486, or fill out our confidential online form for more information.


  • Brady, Kathleen T., et al. “Co-Occurring Mental and Substance Use Disorders: The Neurobiological Effects of Chronic Stress.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1 Aug. 2005, ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.162.8.1483.