Fatigue is a different beast to tiredness—and may often be a symptom of deeper problems.
By Anna Kucirkova*
Everyone feels tired at some point—getting too little sleep, recovering from common illnesses, an unexpectedly heavy workload, partying into the night. But when should tiredness be taken seriously?
Exhaustion that lingers isn’t the norm. In a healthy person, exhaustion is temporary and remedied by extra rest. But there’s a second kind of tiredness that’s prolonged.
The term “fatigue” describes an overall feeling of a lack of vitality. People who are fatigued are deficient in energy and usually lack motivation. It’s not the same thing as feeling sleepy, yet drowsiness can be one of the symptoms. Fatigue is also different from weakness, which is a lack or loss of muscle strength.
What are the symptoms of fatigue?
Some or all of these symptoms can accompany fatigue:
- General tiredness or weariness that saps your energy
- Decrease in concentration and memory
- Rarely feeling alert
- Falling asleep suddenly or without trying to sleep (sometimes called “micro” sleeps)
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
- Digestive tract issues
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to manage daily affairs, or be productive at work.
Technically, fatigue is described as either acute or chronic. The Mayo Clinic Staff describes the two distinct types of fatigue this way:
“Instances of temporary fatigue usually have an identifiable cause and a likely remedy. Unrelenting exhaustion, on the other hand, lasts longer, is more profound, and isn’t relieved by rest. It’s a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration. Fatigue at this level impacts your emotional and psychological well-being, too.
How can I determine which type i’m experiencing?
Start by ruling out common causes of tiredness. Your fatigue could be the result of:
- Physical overexertion—new forms of exercise, a job that requires lifting, seasonal yard work or heavy cleaning
- Work or social schedule that’s too full
- Lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyle
- Emotional or mental stress—relationship issues, new job or pressures at work, moving to a new home, grief, death in the family etc.
- Lack of sleep—getting to bed late, overusing caffeine or alcohol, interrupted sleep deprivation from a new baby or sick children
- Common illnesses like colds or flu
- Inadequate diet or obesity
- Overuse of alcohol or tobacco
Make an honest effort to address lifestyle causes of tiredness. Get extra rest and 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Address poor eating habits and drink plenty of water. Gradually cut back on caffeine. Add some reasonable exercise a few times each week. Pinpoint sources of stress, and do what you can to find solutions. Enlist help from others, talk to a therapist, and participate in relaxing activities like yoga or mindfulness training.
Which are physical health conditions accompanied by fatigue?
Excessive tiredness for physical reasons can be related to simple, common infections, such as colds and flu. Rule those out first. But there’s a comprehensive list of health issues that could present as fatigue or include fatigue as one symptom. Some of them are:
- Addison’s disease (affects hormone levels)
- Autoimmune diseases/lupus and others
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, AKA myalgic encephalomyelitis (see detail below)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Congestive heart failure
- Eating disorders
- Hay fever or other seasonal allergies
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Sleep disorders
Which mental health conditions are accompanied by fatigue?
Physical problems aren’t the only source for fatigue. Depression and a wide spectrum of mental, emotional, or psychological issues can cause extreme weariness, too.
Fatigue is associated with depression, grief, anxiety, stress, and seasonal affective disorder. The issue gets more complicated when medications taken for depression or anxiety cause fatigue on their own.
It’s extremely important to be under a knowledgeable doctor’s care for mental health issues. A broad approach that involves medication, relational networks, and various forms of therapy should be formulated quickly.
Don’t rule out the need to cut off toxic relationships that are draining. Psychology Today points out that “unhealthy relationships can turn into a toxic internal environment leading to stress, depression, anxiety, and even medical problems.”
What are the effects of fatigue on work and career?
The impact of fatigue in the workplace ranges from lack of productivity to a downright hazard. Fatigue causes mistakes, adds to production costs, and leads to vehicle or workplace accidents.
Shift rotation patterns, unbalanced workloads, and poor workplace environment lead to tired workers. Studies show that workers who sleep less than 5 hours before work or workers who’ve been awake for more than 16 hours have a high probability of making mistakes.
Some people have simply too much work. All parents of young kids run the risk of exhaustion. Mothers of newborns or toddlers, who also work outside the home, may be highly susceptible to fatigue.
Exercise to manage fatigue
We’ve already considered various approaches to eliminate causes of fatigue from obvious lifestyle improvements to seeking medical help. It turns out that exercise is a powerful treatment for the problem, especially short-lived forms of fatigue.
A New York Times article shares that “When a person is sapped by fatigue, the last thing he or she wants to do is exercise. But new research shows that regular, low-intensity exercise may help boost energy levels in people suffering from fatigue.”
Daily 30-minute moderate exercise has shown more consistent benefit for fatigue symptoms than any other treatment studied, but there’s one glaring exception. Chronic fatigue sufferers should see their doctor before beginning an exercise program.
*Anna Kucirkova has worked as a copywriter for over four years. She speaks three languages, loves traveling, and has a passion for kids and writing.