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Chronic fatigue due to stress: a siren without sound
in Stress

Chronic fatigue due to stress: a siren without sound

It is a problem we all know: feeling extremely tired. Usually you suffer from problems that cause a high degree of stress. As soon as the stress subsides, the fatigue slowly disappears from your body. But if the stress persists for too long, your body becomes exhausted. Even after the stress has disappeared, you continue to feel extremely tired. We call this chronic fatigue.

Chronic fatigue plays a role now more than ever, but is often not recognised as an alarm bell warning us of a burnout. Do you wonder where your chronic fatigue comes from and what you can do about it? This article answers all your questions.

What is chronic fatigue?

We speak of chronic fatigue when you are extremely tired for more than 6 months. This fatigue occurs not only during exertion, but also at rest. Relaxing and resting more does not reduce fatigue: you get up with it and go to bed with it. In most cases, the cause of chronic fatigue is a high level of stress, which often leads to burn-out.

Chronically tired people have difficulty concentrating and remembering things. Physical complaints such as pain in muscles, throat, head or stomach aches and hypersensitivity to light and sound are common.

We see the same symptoms with ME/CFIDS. This is a chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Although doctors and scientists recognise the disease as serious and long-term, no psychological or physical cause has yet been found. This means that there is no known treatment or medication to combat the disease.

Chronic fatigue and exhaustion are inextricably linked to burnout

When you feel extremely tired and the fatigue doesn’t diminish when you relax, you probably think ‘I must be a little overworked’. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a little overworked. You are either overworked or not. But at least we don’t always take our fatigue seriously. And that is really a pity, because by ignoring this complaint you are walking straight into the trap of a burnout.

There are five stages you go through before you end up in a burn-out:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Overload
  3. Stress complaints
  4. Overvoltage
  5. Burn-out

You can see that the very first complaints to a burnout are already related to fatigue. This increases at every stage: from a single signal to a loud siren going off!

In the first instance, we enter the alarm phase. But we get used to everything, even stress, so we enter the resistance phase. We want to keep going.

Eventually, we enter the break-up phase. The limit has been reached and our body no longer regains strength. You have nothing more to want, you are exhausted both physically and mentally.

Pfff, that’s just a hard confrontation, isn’t it? Believe me, the last thing I want is to scare you. But I would like to warn you: take chronic fatigue and exhaustion really seriously!

Chronic fatigue strikes especially now

In 2019, 1.3 million employees in the Netherlands had burn-out complaints. The main cause of absenteeism was stress at work. Add to this the fact that an average of 1 million people have a ‘hidden’ burn-out. If the work stress among this large group of people is not reduced within 3 to 6 months, this group will also fall.

As I write this it is the end of November 2020, we are all in the middle of the corona crisis. According to research by the National Centre for Prevention of Stress and Burn-out, the number of ‘hidden’ burn-outs has quadrupled. This means that 4 million people are walking around with symptoms of burn-out: a huge and very worrying number.

An accumulation of bad news is the cause. The balance between tension and relaxation is lost, now that the catering establishments are closed, we can no longer play football with our mates or go to yoga with our girlfriends.

Family members or friends are sick. Events cancelled. We are often forced to work at home, which increases loneliness. We are more and more dependent on ourselves, so we have plenty of time to worry even more.

Last but not least, we move less than ever, but still we are very tired. Where does this fatigue come from anyway?

Adrenaline and cortisol: lifesavers in distress

Adrenaline and cortisol: lifesavers in distress

When we are under high tension, our body first produces adrenaline. Adrenaline is a substance that allows us to react very quickly if necessary. Not only in an emergency situation, but also when we are scared or angry, when you are scared or when you participate in an exciting competition, this stress hormone is produced. So it helps us to act quickly.

Cortisol is also a stress hormone, but has a different effect. After the adrenaline rush, this substance ensures that we can remain on edge for a longer period of time in a stressful situation. It increases our performance for a certain period of time.

Both substances are our lifesavers when a threatening situation arises. They put us in survival mode and provide a fight or flight response, allowing us to avert danger.

However, Cortisol knows its limits. If this stress hormone is produced for too long, it causes complaints such as (you guessed it) overtiredness.

Constant stress = constant increase in cortisol

As long as cortisol is produced in our bodies, we remain in the survival mode. Our adrenal glands, the ‘producers’ of cortisol, become exhausted as a result. Cortisol also no longer does its job optimally, because we become less sensitive to it. This causes the following symptoms:

  • You are still as tired in the morning as when you went to sleep.
  • Fatigue does not diminish during the course of the day.
  • You need extra caffeine to keep functioning.
  • It is difficult to concentrate.
  • You become more impatient and become irritated more quickly.

Adrenal gland exhaustion is also called a ‘physical’ burn-out that is synchronous with the ‘mental’ burn-out.

Cortisol does something else to our body: if the cortisol stays in our body too long, it will affect the hippocampus. This is a part of our brain that deals with our memory. The hippocampus can even shrink by 10%. This is also the reason why our memory and our ability to concentrate is getting worse.

Fortunately I can reassure you: if the stress hormone has disappeared from our body for a longer period of time, the hippocampus can start to recover again.

Chronic fatigue due to physical or mental complaints

There are also certain health problems that can cause chronic fatigue. If you are tired for more than 3 months and you do not know what the cause is, it is wise to speak to your GP. If you suspect that there may be one of the complaints listed below, a visit to your GP is also necessary:

  • Depression
  • Sleep apnea
  • Anemia
  • Slow thyroid
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Diabetes
  • Heart problems
  • Iron deficiency
  • Allergies

Chronic fatigue: what can you do about it?

Your chronic fatigue did not develop in a single day: it has been dormant for a long time and now sits at your table every day. In order to let that table-mate drip off, you will have to invest time in your recovery.

The best remedy for chronic fatigue is regular exercise, healthy eating, relaxation and rest. In addition, it is important that you take a critical look at your behaviour. What pattern has exhausted you?

Moving gives more energy than a can of Red Bull

I am sure that is not what you were waiting for: my advice to move. Where should you get the energy from?
By moving I don’t mean that you have to train hard. On the contrary, that’s not good for your body at all. You can achieve a lot with a nice walk.

The cortisol in your body has to come out. During exercise you make endorphins, a hormone of good luck. This substance not only ensures that you will enjoy your walk, but also that your cortisol is lowered. Exercise is also good for your heart and blood vessels, your muscles and your condition. By walking everything starts to flow again and you get a better night’s sleep for free.

Sugar and fat maintain cortisol

When you are extremely tired, healthy cooking often comes into play. Moreover, chronically tired people have a greater need for food that contains a lot of sugar, fat and salt. This is due to the increased cortisol level. For some people, eating is a way to forget.

Stress and cortisol consume a lot of vitamins and minerals. Healthy food fills that deficiency and gives your body an energy boost. Think of it as wood on a wood stove: good wood provides a lot of warmth and burns for a long time. Bad wood gives little heat and a lot of smoke.
You do not have to follow a cooking course to prepare a healthy meal. Just eating healthy food and providing variety is enough for a warm wood-burning stove.

Relaxing and resting makes you happy

Relaxing and resting makes you happy

Relaxation is the counterpart of stress. Probably you haven’t gotten around to your hobby for a long time or that new book has been ready to be read for quite some time. Now is the time to relax! Doing something you enjoy will clear your head. Your flow of thoughts becomes less or even disappears altogether.

Resting or sleeping is also a form of relaxation. During your sleep you process the events of the day. A good night’s sleep also ensures that you start a new day rested.

Dare to look in the mirror

This is perhaps the most difficult part: scrutinising your behaviour. If you don’t know why you have become chronically tired, you will quickly fall back into the same pattern after a rest period.

For example, if you set too high a standard for yourself and do not adjust it, you will become overtired again. Lack of autonomy, for example, also means that you are not in control. So you will have to make choices.

Everything that happens in your head affects your body. So it is time to say goodbye to wrong behaviour.

Cleaning up is letting go. Do you need help?

Healthy living requires discipline from someone who is chronically tired. You need to get back into exercise, eat differently and learn to relax again.

The hardest part is changing your behaviour. Maybe it is even difficult for you to find out what is really causing your problem.
For support in your recovery you can count on our help. All our coaches are specialised in stress and burn-out. They know all the phases, symptoms and problems that stress and fatigue bring.

Coaching at Ruud Meulenberg Training & Coaching means working 1-on-1 on your well-being in the fresh air. Don’t walk any further with your complaints, but call in our help. For your benefit we ensure there re no waiting times tob e seen and together we make sure that you get rid of your tiredness and stress once and for all.

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About the author
My name is Ruud Meulenberg. Owner and founder of Milltain and Meulenberg Training & Coaching.
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