What Is Stress-Related Fatigue?

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Imagine holding your arm straight out, grasping a rope. In the beginning, it is easy but the longer you keep your arm held high and your hand gripping the rope, the harder it becomes.

Your arm will begin to get tired, your fingers will want to let go. As you continue to hold on, you become more and more uncomfortable. Sooner or later, the physical act of holding the rope will be too much to bear. It will take a toll on your muscles and you will need to let go.

So it goes with stress. Situations that cause temporary stress can be painful but bearable. But as you live with chronic stress, it begins to take its toll on your body.

You can't sleep or maybe you sleep too much; your digestive system doesn't work the way it used to; you deal with headaches on a daily basis; you sometimes want to just give up or cry for no reason. All of this is easily noticeable, but chronic stress also impacts you in ways you can't see. When you are stressed your heart works harder and your immune system may not work as well.

Another manifestation of stress is the continual feeling of fatigue. You are simply tired. The impact on your body causes fatigue. For example, if you aren't sleeping right because of the stress in your life, you are probably going to feel tired throughout the day. Living with chronic stress can leave you feeling depressed, worried, irritable, and just totally exhausted.

Physical exhaustion vs. stress exhaustion

When we are physically exhausted, it is the result of something we did. You may work a physically demanding job or have completed a rigorous exercise regimen. Physical exhaustion is usually a choice we have made.

With rest, the proper food, and time to relax, we can easily recover from physical exhaustion. In some cases, it may take a few days, such as when you have exercised to the point of having sore muscles. However, with a day or two of taking care of yourself, the physical aspects of your exhaustion are gone, and you once again feel refreshed.

When your exhaustion comes from stress, it is different. It is a mental exhaustion, caused by worrying or the difficulty in coping with a situation in your life. It is a result of thoughts and feelings rather than physical exertion. You may have lived with stress for so long that you no longer see the negative consequences. You believe that this is "normal." You may not know what is wrong with you and have accepted the constant feeling of being tired as part of your life.

What is stress-related fatigue?

Fatigue is different than being tired or feeling drowsy. We normally feel tired or drowsy at the end of the day, when our body needs sleep to rejuvenate.

Although you may feel tired or drowsy as a result of fatigue, fatigue is a chronic feeling of lack of motivation or energy. Understanding the difference between physical and stress-related fatigue helps you know whether you should talk with your doctor.

As we discussed in the previous section, physical exhaustion is the result of something we did and is gone after you take the time to sleep or rest. If you are feeling tired and sleep or rest does not take this feeling away, you may be suffering from stress-related fatigue.

Symptoms of stress-related exhaustion

While the main symptoms of fatigue are a general feeling of weariness or being tired or drowsy, stress-related fatigue is usually accompanied by other symptoms:

  • Sore or aching muscles, or feeling of muscle weakness
  • Headache
  • Moodiness, irritability, or easily agitated
  • Dizziness and blurred vision
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulties with short-term memory
  • Inability to concentrate or focus on tasks
  • Slowed reflexes or difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling as if your actions are useless or that you can't change your situation
  • Lack of motivation

Frequently, once your stress has brought you to the level of exhaustion, you feel alone and isolated. You may want to hide or have the overwhelming feeling of wanting to climb into bed and not get out. Living with chronic stress often impacts your relationships and your job, leaving you feeling lonely and inadequate.

What to do

There are a number of ways you can help to relieve the fatigue you feel from stress.

  • First, it is important to identify the sources of your stress and take steps to resolve these issues. For example, if your job is causing stress, it may be time to look for a new job or take some time off work to take a vacation and relax. If your relationship is causing stress, you may want to consider steps, such as marriage counseling, to help you work on your marriage. If you are not sure why you feel stressed all the time, or if you are unable to resolve these issues on your own, it may be beneficial to speak with a therapist or counselor.
  • Use relaxation techniques each day. Yoga or meditation has been found to be helpful in reducing overall feelings of stress. Taking 15 minutes each day to relax and take care of you can help you feel better throughout the day.
  • Add exercise to your daily routine. Daily exercise has been found to increase feelings of well-being and to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Sleep and eat right. When stressed, it is hard to sleep. You may not be able to fall asleep or you may wake up throughout the night. Even so, it is important to go to bed at the same time each night and to get up at the same time each morning. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet each day. The proper nutrients are important to helping you feel better.

If feelings of chronic stress and fatigue don't go away, contact your doctor. He or she may want to run some tests to make sure your symptoms aren't being caused by a physical illness.