Applied Psychology

What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)?

May 13, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)?

What does it mean when someone says to you that they have chronic fatigue syndrome? What exactly is it? Is it something real or an “excuse” to wiggle out of yet another thing? Alternatively, is it a blanket-type diagnosis given when doctors simply don’t know what’s actually wrong? Can you treat it?

“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a real illness that can have mild to debilitating symptoms.”

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is not “in someone’s head”. It is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). Despite it tending to develop in mid-20s and mid-40s, anyone can have chronic fatigue including children. However, it is more common amongst women.  It’s characterised by extreme tiredness (fatigue) and has other symptoms which can be quite painful. One of the reasons CFS is difficult to live with, is that it is unpredictable. Meaning, you can seem very healthy one day and the next be so sick that you can’t get out of bed.

Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) include:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Sleep problems
  • Fast or irregular heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Muscle and/or joint problems
  • Headaches
  • Sore throats and glands (not swollen)
  • Flu-symptoms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Problems concentrating, remembering or thinking

Symptoms can range in how much they impact someone’s daily life. They are defined as:

  • Mild: Able to carry out every day activities with difficulty. However, may not be able to pursue hobbies or social activities.
  • Moderate: Difficulty moving about and carrying out every day activities. Possibly not able to work or study and need to rest frequently. May also experience problems sleeping.
  • Severe: Can only accomplish very basic daily activities (e.g.: brushing teeth), may be housebound and/or could require a walking aid to move about. Focus and concentration may be a big problem and any activity, even talking, might require long rest period afterwards.

Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME)

There are no specific tests for CFS, diagnosis is based on symptoms. This makes diagnosis tricky, as even on an individual basis CFS symptoms can vary in severity from day-to-day. Additionally, Chronic Fatigue symptoms are not unique, with many symptoms being similar to more common illnesses. A trained medical professional is required to make an accurate diagnosis. Therefore, self-diagnosis is discouraged.

What causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME)?

While there are numerous theories, no one knows for certain what causes chronic fatigue. However, there are certain triggers and factors which seem to make someone more likely to develop it than someone else.

Possible Triggers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME)

  • Bacterial Infections
  • Viral Infections (such as Glandular Fever / Epstein Barr Virus)
  • Immune System problems
  • Mental Health Challenges (for example: Emotional Trauma or prolonged stress)
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Genetic Predisposition (it can run in families)

Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic Fatigue is not curable. Often those with CFS experience periods of both great health and varying degrees of debilitation. Over time, full recovery is possible for many people, especially children and those that are younger when they get it. Researchers and doctors are not exactly sure why this happens to some people and not others.  Thus, the purpose of treatment of CFS is to relieve symptoms and not to cure.

Specialised Treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Graded Exercise Therapy (GET)

A longer term tailored exercise programme according to current ability, ideally overseen by a professional. The aim is to gradually increase duration and type of activity over time. It may include everyday activities, such as gardening, as well as fitness orientated activities like walking or swimming.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

While CFS is not a psychiatric condition, talking treatment can be of assistance. The aim of CBT is to assist an individual accept their diagnosis, adapt their behaviour as well as thinking patterns to better manage their CFS.

“CFS Treatment aims to manage and relieve symptoms.”

Structured Lifestyle

Eating a balanced, healthy diet on a regular schedule is key to managing CFS. Having an eating plan and keeping specific foods on-hand that help with nausea, are great coping mechanisms. As sleeping problems are common for those with CFS, having a bedtime and nap routine is often helpful. This can assist doctors with understanding and managing patient specific symptoms. It will also allow for better planning for daily activities and even being able to have social time. Learning then incorporating relaxing techniques into a daily routine has also been shown to be helpful as part of a CFS management plan. Especially if sleep is unrestful and/or problematic.

Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

In addition to negatively impacting physical health, CFS can have an adverse effect on mental and emotional health. It is therefore important to work closely with a health professional that you trust. As well as assist family and friends to understand what CFS is, so that you can ask them for support when you need it. There are also various support groups and official information channels that can be tapped into. Often connecting with those who also have CFS is helpful, especially when trying to develop coping strategies.

Helping Someone who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Two of the biggest kindnesses you can offer someone who has CFS are empathy and flexibility. Often the guilt of “bailing” again on a planned activity makes things worse for someone with CFS. Additionally, someone else, questioning the legitimacy of the diagnosis is counter-productive to them developing sustainable coping mechanisms. CFS is not easy to live with – for those who have it or for those close to them.

While you don’t need to encourage a self-defeatist attitude or behaviour which worsens symptoms, offering practical assistance can make a big difference. Especially if you are willing to see random acts of assistance as a longer-term part of your friendship. Dropping off a meal, helping with laundry or dishes can enable someone to redirect the “saved” energy to something else. Additionally, short visits with an alarm set to remind you when to leave can help prevent visits from being too tiring. This will assist in preventing someone from becoming increasingly isolated as well as help boost their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Interested in Helping?

Does assisting someone with a longer-term illness like CFS appeal to you? Enquire today about SACAP’s applied psychology courses. SACAP offers both diploma courses, in counselling, and bachelor degrees for those who want to become psychologists.

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