It’s not unusual for our energy levels to dip, especially if we’ve succumbed to those mid-year blues. We’ve been working hard for months and there’s no break in sight. We wake up tired, even after a good night’s sleep.
We’ve lost motivation to begin the day and struggle with our every-day tasks. And to top it all it’s winter – daylight hours are short and cold and flu season is taking its toll. Most of us know what it means to be tired from time to time, but if you’re suffering from a constant lack of energy and ongoing fatigue, it may just be time to check in with your doctor.
WHAT IS FATIGUE?
“In its simplest definition, fatigue is a constant feeling of extreme tiredness or weakness that can be physical and mental,” says Johannesburg-based GP, Dr Lerato Motimele. She says there are two main categories of fatigue – chronic, which is long term, and acute fatigue, which is short term.
“The most common type affecting people is chronic fatigue resulting from extended periods of strain on the mind and body. These are from working extensively in high-pressure environments, working long hours without adequate breaks, poor lifestyle choices such as lack of sleep or excessive sleeping, poor eating habits and a sedentary way of life.
“It can also come from a lack of human interaction due to a dominant working lifestyle, a lack of selfcare, or mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.”
Motimele says acute fatigue may result from a short-term illness like a viral infection, drugs, excessive alcohol intake or sudden strenuous physical activity. It may become chronic fatigue if not identified and managed in time.
CAUSES OF FATIGUE
Fatigue can be caused by physical exhaustion or illness.
Physical fatigue “This is extreme exhaustion, usually caused by workstress,” says Hope Poopedi, a psychologist at Voortrekker Hospital in Limpopo. “It can lead to you losing interest and to demotivation at work.” It usually builds over a long period of time until you’re completely drained. This type of fatigue is usually accompanied by worry and when diagnostic tests are done they come back normal, Poopedi says.
Medical fatigue Unrelenting exhaustion may be a sign of a condition or an effect of the drugs or therapies used to treat it. Examples include anaemia, anxiety disorders, cancer, chronic infection or inflammation, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), depression, diabetes, obesity and stress. Medications and treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, pain drugs, heart drugs and antidepressants can also be the cause. This type of fatigue is usually accompanied by other symptoms. For example, if you have anaemia, you might also suffer from dizziness, heart palpitations, lightheadedness and fainting spells.
YOUR EMOTIONAL WELLBEING
“People who are emotionally fatigued perpetually feel emotionally overextended. They just don’t have the emotional resources to get through the day,” says Johannesburg-based psychologist and researcher Elliott Kotze. Emotional fatigue is usually caused by excessive job or personal demands, being in a continuous state of stress or a combination of these. “With increasing financial stress, which has knock-on effects on other aspects of people’s lives, emotional fatigue is the reality for many people,” he says. For this, Kotze says the best treatment is rest.
“You can treat depression, anxiety and insomnia with medication and therapy, but until you find ways to rest the problem won’t go away. “This kind of fatigue tends to hit those of us who are overachievers or who engage passionately in their work. When you first notice the signs, you can very easily downscale them to laziness and push yourself to work harder, which makes everything worse and gets the person stuck in a toxic cycle.” He suggests people should regularly check in with themselves about their emotional and physical wellbeing. “Ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling today? What have my physical experiences been? How do I make sense of these?’ If you find yourself justifying why you’re feeling the way you feel, I think that’s a clear sign to stop and reconsider why you’re making the sacrifices you’re making and whether or not they’re benefitting you in the long run,” he says.
MANAGING YOUR FATIGUE
Fatigue isn’t something you can just ignore and hope it goes away. “A delay in managing fatigue can be harmful to your health and may even result in irreversible health implications,” Motimele says. “The signs can all ultimately lead to burnout where the mind and body can no longer cope and signal you to stop overworking the body.”
Kotze says fatigue is a symptom of an underlying problem so you need to identify the cause with the help of a healthcare professional. Essentially, you must know what type of fatigue you suffer from to receive the necessary treatment for it. “The management of it will usually be dictated by the underlying cause. For example, if lack of sleep is the cause, a healthcare professional can assist in investigating the primary cause, which may be working at night when the body is programmed to sleep, insomnia, taking stimulants that inhibit sleep, anxiety or maybe depression.”
Do what you need to do but take care of yourself, he says. “It’s helpful to increase physical activity levels because it increases your endorphin (a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system) levels and gives you a bit more energy. But sometimes the fatigue is so extensive you can’t convince yourself to go out and be active. So, my advice is to engage in activities, people or experiences that make you feel happy and relaxed.”
He adds that you must listen to your body – if you feel really exhausted, give yourself a break from people. Counselling and medication might also be necessary as you allow yourself to go through the emotions.