CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME
Yes, chronic fatigue is a real, but the vast majority of people do not recognize it and do not take the steps needed to deal with it before it becomes even more difficult to recover.
By John Leverington, LPC, LMFT, LMSW
After working in private practice and at a Christian Counseling Center in the United States for 16 years our family moved overseas where my wife and I began a full time Christian Counseling Ministry that has continued to this day. One of the issues that frequently came up in counseling people serving in faith based organizations was chronic fatigue. Based on my prior experience the number of people experiencing these often debilitating symptoms was out of proportion to the general public. While much could be speculated about the reasons, this hand-out is for you or someone you know who may be experiencing chronic fatigue to learn the classic signs of chronic fatigue and not take them as “normal.”
What is chronic fatigue syndrome?
People with chronic fatigue suffer an unexplained and extreme feeling of tiredness that can last for many months, and often years. The amount of energy a person has influences how easily a person can adapt to stressors. Individuals who are tired still have a fair bit of energy, so although they may feel forgetful, and impatient, and experience gradual weakness in muscles following work, this is often alleviated by rest. Fatigue, on the other hand, is characterized by difficulty concentrating, anxiety, a gradual decrease in stamina, difficulty sleeping, and the limiting of social activities once viewed as important.
Until recently, there was a widespread misconception—even among doctors—that chronic fatiuge was psychological, or worse, imagined. But a government panel of experts in 2015 that defined chronic fatigue as a “serious, debilitating condition” with clear physical symptoms. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee estimated that at least 84% of people haven’t yet been diagnosed. The panel wrote that, “Patients often struggle with their illness for years before receiving a diagnosis.”
Chris Snell, PhD, chair of the scientific advisory committee to the Workwell Foundation, which is dedicated to chronic fatigue research says, early diagnosis and treatment may be key to recovery. “I suspect the longer you’ve had the illness, the more effect it’s had on your system.”
Are you at risk?
Chronic fatigue affects people of both sexes and all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Women, however, are four times more likely to be diagnosed with the syndrome than men. Caucasians are also more likely to be diagnosed, but some research suggests minorities are actually at greater risk. It can strike at any age, even during childhood, and is most common among people in their 40s and 50s.
Are you experiencing debilitating fatigue
This is not weariness after a difficult week. This is profound fatigue that leads to a sharp reduction in your ability to function on a day-to-day basis—and lasts for six months or more.
The tiredness isn’t brought on by excessive activity (moving to a new country or learning a new language), but by activities you could once do easily.
The tiredness is unrelenting, and does not go away with rest. The IOM report found that at least a quarter of people with chronic fatigue become home- or bed-bound at some point.
If you have eight or more hours of sleep, but when they get up, you feel like they haven’t slept at all, the IOM committee has identified this as “unrefreshing sleep.” Most people with chronic fatigue develop a sleep problem of some kind that they didn’t have before, according to the CDC. The common complaints—including insomnia and frequent awakening—can leave people depleted in the a.m., rather than restored.
Mental processing difficulties may include difficulty paying attention, problem solving, and planning which make it difficult to do ministry or interact in social situations. And the issues get worse when you’re stressed, or you’ve over-exerted yourself. Unsurprisingly, they can lead to feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
For many chronic fatigue patients, the simple act of standing upright—in the shower, for example, or while doing dishes—can lead to feelings of dizziness and lightheadedness, and possibly fainting. When the person lies down or elevates his or her feet, the symptoms get better, but don’t necessarily disappear.
Pain is a common symptom of chronic fatigue—but it can come in many forms, from headaches to joint and muscle pain. It also differs in intensity from one person to the next, according to the IOM panel experts. In their report, they quoted a patient with a particularly severe case: “My personal experience with [chronic fatigue] feels like permanently having the flu, a hangover, and jet lag while being continually electrocuted (which means that pain plays at least as much of a role in my condition as fatigue).”
Don’t wait to get help
The important thing is to prevent the progression from tiredness to fatigue and from fatigue to exhaustion. If you recognize the signs of chronic fatigue in yourself—especially the severe exhaustion, unexplained pain, and unrefreshing sleep—talk to a counselor or go see your doctor. The quicker you get help, the sooner you can get the treatment you need to live well overseas.