Image credit: Anthony Tran, Unsplash
Opinion piece: Dr Jo Lane, Clinical Psychologist and Research Fellow at the College of Health and Medicine at The Australian National University
Many Australians live with fatigue including those with chronic fatigue syndrome (which is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME), multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, depression, cancer and many other health and psychological conditions. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and long COVID, or “post COVID-19 condition” as defined by the World Health Organisation, discussions about fatigue have become much more common.
Fatigue is an overwhelming sense of tiredness or total exhaustion. It is very different from the ordinary tiredness experienced at the end of a long day or busy week. A person with fatigue can’t “put on a happy face and push through it” or “just ignore it”.
The causes and mechanisms of fatigue are complex and poorly understood and the experience of fatigue varies from person to person. For some, it fluctuates; for others, it is constant. Also, because fatigue is invisible, it can be difficult for people living with fatigue to explain it and for those around them to understand it.
Fatigue can impact a person physically, cognitively and emotionally. Physical fatigue is a lack of energy to move, whereas cognitive fatigue or “cog fog” is associated with a reduced attention span, ability to concentrate, make decisions and remember things. Others also describe emotional fatigue including feeling numb, irritable and having a short fuse all of which can have a negative impact on relationships and social interactions.
If you are experiencing COVID fatigue, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional. While there are different causes, types and experiences of fatigue, here are some strategies you may find helpful.
Acknowledge your fatigue
Fatigue is real and a person living with it is not faking it. Try to use language that describes your fatigue. For example, some people use a battery analogy and say their battery is fully charged, running low or needs a recharge.
Use a fatigue diary
This strategy can help you to get information about what triggers your fatigue, how it fluctuates and what helps to reduce it. Once you understand the patterns of your fatigue, you can schedule times for activity and rest that work best for you.
Prioritise, plan, delegate
When feeling fatigued, it may help to prioritise the things that are most important and do them first. It may also help you to plan when you will do things based on your fatigue levels (for example, doing things in the morning when you have more energy) and, if you can, outsource tasks to others.
Make things more efficient to conserve your energy
There are many energy-conservation techniques that can help with fatigue. You can organise your living and work spaces to keep things close together to avoid getting up too much; sit down to do everyday tasks such as cooking; lie down when talking on the phone; and break things down into steps and pause when you need a rest. People experiencing cognitive fatigue also find it useful to write things down so they don’t have to remember them.
Set realistic expectations and be kind to yourself
It is difficult living with fatigue and forcing yourself to “push through” does not help. It is important to set realistic expectations about what you can do each day and avoid going into “manic catch-up mode” when you feel less fatigued, as you may experience a significant crash afterward (known as the boom-and-bust cycle). Try to pace yourself and build up your activities gradually. Also, pay attention to your self-talk and practice talking to yourself in a compassionate way: “I am doing the best I can.”
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Even though this can be difficult, maintaining a healthy diet and good sleep practices, drinking water, exercising, reducing alcohol use and connecting with others are important for our physical and psychological wellbeing. Some people also find heat can exacerbate their fatigue, so using airconditioning or freezer blocks may help. Many also find stress-reduction techniques useful, such as breathing, yoga and mindfulness.
Talk to others and ask for help
Some people find it useful to speak to others who have experienced fatigue. You can also talk to a trusted friend or family member who will listen and validate your experience. If you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed, you can seek help from your GP, psychologist or support service. You can also access Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service by calling 1800 512 348 or ring Lifeline on 13 11 14.
COVID fatigue is challenging; it is important to take the time to rest the body and mind and get the support you need.
Article originally published in The Sydney Morning Herals Feeling fatigued? Here’s how to manage it (smh.com.au)