You may have heard the term “mental load” arising in recent mental health discourse. So what is it and why is it important to look at? 

Mental load refers to the invisible cognitive efforts that go into managing a household and family. 

Often when I talk to clients, particularly those socialized as female, what they describe is a sense of overwhelm associated with mental load. This can sometimes lead to frustration or resentment with partners or loved ones and often general burnout from the weight of the work.

Examples of Mental Load

Here are some examples of thoughts that could be associated with an issue managing mental load: 

“I’m annoyed every time Christmas rolls around because I’m the only one who thinks about what to get for gifts for our family members.” 

“I didn’t do anything all day, but I’m exhausted.” 

“I can’t start on this task because I just get so overwhelmed with the lead-up.” “I notice that I’m the one in my family who manages planning to see family and friends… and I feel some resentment about it.” 

“My partner will wait until we’re out of something before they think to go get more at the store and this drives me insane.” 

Mental load as a phenomenon addresses that within every household or social to-do task, there are usually multiple mini-tasks that make up the broader task. A study published in the American Sociological Review describes it as the responsibility of “anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.” 

If you’re going grocery shopping – who is making meals for the week? What are they making? Do they know those food products will be at your regular grocery store? Do you have the proper appliances to make these recipes? Will you have to double the recipe because you might want leftovers for lunches for the week? If you schedule doctors appointments for your kids – are you also managing their allergies? Keeping tabs on their growth charts so you know if they will need to see a specialist later on? Making sure their appointments don’t overlap with the field trip that you know they’re excited for? Or that they won’t miss Mrs.Harris’ math class because you know they’re struggling in math right now? The list could go on. 

Mental load is tricky because the common “easy” antidote is to ask for assistance from loved ones. “Can you start remembering to buy the toilet paper before we run out?” Sure, your loved one says. But when they consistently forget to buy it just as you’ve run out… you find your blood boiling. What then? At that point, we might begin a broader conversation about communicating needs and what it looks like to release control from outcomes. 

What to do about mental load

If you think you might be struggling to manage mental load in your life, possible ways to begin addressing this are:

  1. Mindfulness. The more that you can be aware of what it is that you’re thinking about, the easier it will be to figure out how to work with it or through it. 
  2. Release control. Understand that some tasks are allowed to slip and that you’re not responsible for bearing the weight of the responsibility. 
  3. Schedule an appointment with a therapist who can help you figure out how you can shift priorities and communicate with your loved ones to make managing mental load an easier process in your life. 
  4. Be kind and compassionate to yourself in the process. It’s hard to unwind these cognitive thought processes that many of us have been socialized to engage in. Recognizing the toll it takes is a huge effort all on its own. 

Sources: Sagepub.com’s The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor

Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW

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