Chronic fatigue is caused by chronic stress

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Our bodies naturally heal. When you get a cut, you don’t instruct your blood to clot and your skin to grow; it does it for you.

But if you keep prodding and poking at the cut it won’t improve, because it needs to be in a resting state before it can heal.

Our body as a whole works in the same way.

We have two basic nervous system modes: stress (sympathetic arousal) and rest (parasympathetic arousal).

Stress mode focuses our energy into fight, flight or freeze, by diverting energy from non-essential bodily activities, including healing. In rest mode, our body doesn’t have to worry about survival, so energy is focused on healing and growing.

This also happens at the level of mitochondria in our individual cells, which produce the energy our body needs. They are either in energy production mode or danger signalling mode, but not both at the same time.

To recover energy and heal, we therefore need to be in a resting state.

When I first crashed with chronic fatigue, and during the many months post-hospital when I was stuck in bed, I couldn’t seem to recover. It felt like my body had just given up.

It was bewildering and scary. I was healthy, active and working on lots of things, so why had my body stopped functioning out of nowhere? It was hard not to feel broken beyond repair.

I wasn’t broken, I was stuck in a chronic state of stress. So naturally I couldn’t heal properly.

Chronic fatigue is caused and perpetuated by chronic stress.

During those months, there weren’t any obvious physical obstacles or external threats. But the stress load was still there. In fact I was so normalised to high levels of ongoing stress that I wasn’t aware of it.

Stress takes many forms: the pressures of the past or the future, the weight of responsibility, obligations and everything we pile on ourselves in daily life.

When we start to listen to our body, we can feel it. Maybe we feel on edge, anxious, highly sensitive, exhausted but struggling to sleep, our minds constantly whirling. Or maybe it manifests as physical pain, in our head or neck.

It builds over time, until your body becomes overwhelmed and gets stuck in stress mode.

This stress is still there even when you’re stuck in bed or seem to be relaxing, which is what perpetuates the cycle of chronic stress.

This was one of the fundamental realisations that helped me start to recover.

It took a while to really acknowledge and come to terms with this. It felt like a weakness to talk about stress being a factor in my fatigue. Was I really that incapable? Did that mean that fatigue was all in my mind? Surely I could just power through as I had done before.

It’s not a failure to recognise the emotional and physical loads you’re carrying, it’s a strength. Listening to your body and acting to give it the conditions for healing is an essential step in building a sustainable recovery.

Until you work to lift that load and have a more balanced relationship with stress and your body, you won’t be able to heal properly. But when you do, you’ll find recovery is possible.

You are not broken. You have everything you need and your body already knows exactly what to do to recover. All you have to do is give your body the resting state that it needs to heal.