It’s coming up to two years now since a former colleague changed her life around and began to return to health. Although the details will vary, her story will probably resonate with others.
The working day started just like any other in that she got up for work, went through her usual routines and then a few moments before leaving something changed. “It was as though someone flicked a switch. In an instant I became lightheaded, anxious and unsettled”. She went on to say that during the drive to work she could feel her heart racing and that she became aware of a curious sense of detachment as though she could see herself driving. It was, of course, scary and very unsettling. It was the start of something that, in varying degrees of intensity, went on for many months and something she kept hoping would pass but didn’t.
It turns out these symptoms were actually part of a more general set that she hadn’t originally recognized as being associated. There were the endless coughs and colds that seemed to drag on for weeks at a time. Her back ached, her head ached and she was indifferent to the things that had previously occupied a lot of her time. Her pattern of sleep was “reasonable”, she said, but she’d wake up feeling drained, anxious and “panicky”. The most routine tasks had become a challenge. She became anxious in her dealings with people, found meetings stressful and was overwhelmed with a sense of just wanting to get away from it all.
Eventually she saw a specialist who diagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Chronic fatigue is something of an enigma. Nobody really understands where it comes from or what causes it so there are no measures in place to prevent it. There are some vague theories about viral infections, gene susceptibility and stress as possible triggers, but this is really as far as it goes. Yet Chronic Fatigue appears to be a huge issue that involves hundreds of thousands of people.
There has always been a level of cynicism about issues of fatigue based largely around whether it even exists. When I was young it was loosely referred to as ‘burn-out’ but this included people who just didn’t give a stuff about what they did anymore as much as it did to those who’d had a ‘nervous breakdown’, whatever that meant. Today the symptoms are at least recognized as a medical condition although there is some debate around whether Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) are one and the same thing or not.
Dr. Frank Lipman rather neatly calls the condition ‘spent’. He has written a book by the same name based on 20 years experience of seeing people with symptoms of physical and emotional depletion coming to see him for help. Dr. Lipman’s theory is blissfully simple and intuitively sensible. He argues that whilst our society has evolved rapidly our physiology hasn’t changed in any significant way since the time we lived in caves and foraged for berries. Our bodies are still attuned to the seasons, day/night cycles, rhythms of activity and fairly simple diets. The total amount of physical, psychological and environmental stress on our body has quadrupled in just the past 30 years, says Dr. Lipman, and this increases the extent to which our bodies are out of sync.
There are a number of issues that contribute to being ‘spent’, says Dr. Lipman. For example, we spend far too long in artificially lit environments. Our primitive bodies have evolved over the centuries to function during periods of light and dark. Our hormones and other physiological processes have adapted to the assumption of certain patterns and rhythms that modern life simply ignores. Refined foods, processed foods, sugars, gluten and dairy are consumed in quantities our bodies simply aren’t designed to cope with. “We’re overfed and undernourished with food, and undernourished when it comes to light”, Lipman says.
Dr. Lipman isn’t the only commentator on the hazards of modern living. What it boils down to is the fact we work too long, sleep too little, consume too much, become too self-involved, chase things we’re told we need, and ignore the things that really matter. What results is exhaustion.
To talk about treating Chronic Fatigue is an interesting concept in its own right. We’ve become used to identifying symptoms and suppressing them with medication when really the root cause of the problem is being ignored. Yet this is pretty much how we currently go about treating Chronic Fatigue. The idea of the whole world slowing down in order to get some perspective is quite a way off. Presumably we have to reach pandemic proportions before this day ever arrives. In the meantime it’s a case of people looking at themselves to see what they can reasonably add or take away from their lives in order to salvage their health.
Incidentally, my former colleague decided to give up full-time work and the fat salary that went with it. She now works just a couple of days a week in a job that requires little or no thought and has hardly any responsibilities. She says she is happier and more content than she could ever have imagined. She sleeps soundly, eats well, exercises with her dogs, and takes each day in her stride. The symptoms that, in one way or another, plagued her for years have now pretty much disappeared. I suspect there’s a message here for those of us who care to listen or who are willing and able to make the changes.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.