– Chronic fatigue is a major health problem because it can have disastrous consequences for your sense of well-being.
– Fatigue may be organic or functional, but in most cases it can be attributed simply to boredom.
– You can maintain a vigorous way of life even in your middle and older years.
The curse of millions.
Fatigue is the hidden curse of millions. It is perhaps the greatest single obstacle to a sense of well-being.
Fatigue deprives you of the most important human freedom – the right to enjoy life.
Fatigue can change your personality drastically. It can make you irritable, depressed, intolerant, unreasonable. It can make you feel frustrated. It robs you of vitality, efficiency, and the ability to make maximum use of your brain power. It can even reduce, with grave consequences, your normal response to situations of danger.
Numerous studies of accidents have shown, for instance, that some of the most frequent and disastrous mishaps in the home, office, factory and on the highway occur at hours when feelings of fatigue are at their peak.
Occasional feelings of fatigue are quite normal. A little rest, sleep, recreation, exercise, or change of pace, and we bounce back to our usual zestful selves. But when fatigue becomes chronic-as it so often does in middle and later years-you must do something about it as surely as you must treat an infection of the body. To fight fatigue intelligently, however, you must understand its causes.
When fatigue is physical.
The most understood cause of fatigue is physical in nature. Such fatigue may have its origin in either muscular exertion, illness, or organic defect.
Everyone undoubtedly has experienced the tingling, head-to-toe weariness that comes after strenuous exercise or after a day of hard, manual labor. A great amount of muscular activity has filled the body with toxic substances and the body cries out for respite to counteract the toxicity. We usually have no trouble recognizing this type of fatigue. We know it is a signal for rest – and we take a rest.
It is natural to become fatigued frequently and easily after a bout with illness. Remember the last time you had a bad cold,’ influenza, or the “grippe?” Even long after your aches and sniffies had disappeared, you were not quite up to par. You tired easily. Sometimes you could not think straight, and you wished that you did not have so many decisions to make. Sometimes it took you an entire day to do the work you might normally have accomplished in an hour or two. Illness fatigue stems from the efforts of your body to throw off the toxic effects which are a common aftermath of infection. That is why doctors frequently recommend adequate rest following illness. In cases of more serious illness, they may prescribe certain vitamins or a high protein diet, as well as rest.
Many doctors like to make a distinction between a disorder that is “organic” and one that is “functional” in nature. When a part of your body has been affected by something we can put our fingers on – cancer, diabetes, kidney stones, skin rashes (e.g. poison ivy) – we know the cause of your ailment is organic. But when you complain of aches and pains which have no apparent organic origin, such as occasional headaches, attacks of indigestion, or that “tired” feeling, we say that in all likelihood your troubles are functional.
Chronic fatigue may be a symptom of a serious organic defect, such as anemia, under-active thyroid, heart-disease, tuberculosis, or nutritional deficiency. In the case of organic fatigue, we are not as concerned about the fatigue as about the cause of it. Treatment may call for a special diet, drugs, surgery, or a combination of these methods.
However, experience shows that the overwhelming cause of excessive and chronic fatigue is functional.
When fatigue is functional.
In its broadest sense, functional fatigue may be called “mental” fatigue since the cause is in the mind, not the body. Functional fatigue is our greatest problem because (1) it is the most common form of fatigue, and (2) most of us either do not recognize the cause or refuse to recognize it.
Consider, for example, the case of a businessman who had a very happy home life and was in good physical condition. Most of his life he had been a hard worker and could put in a strenuous day at the office without “feeling” it. But now, at the age of fifty, he was suddenly so fatigued that he could scarcely accomplish a routine day’s work. He was certain that he was seriously ill, even though he had been assured, following a thorough examination, that there was no sign of any organic defect.
How did he feel when he left home? Tired? On the contrary he felt fine, full of energy.
When did his fatigue set in? Soon after arriving at the office. Early in the day? Yes.
After considerable prompting, he was persuaded to bring out the truth. He admitted that he hated getting to the office, because he and his partner constantly bickered. He was tired of the squabbles. Instead of doing something about his partner, he took it out on himself. He grew tense and anxious in the office and found refuge in being fatigued. His fatigue was certainly not “imaginary.” It was quite real. When he finally recognized the source of his troubles, he soon regained his original, normal vitality.
Some cases of functional fatigue, such as the one just cited, may be rooted in relatively complex emotional problems. The assistance of a sympathetic family and the guidance of a psychiatrist as well as the complete understanding and cooperation on the part of the patient, may be required. Overcoming severe “emotional” fatigue can be a long and complex process.
But considerable experience at Life Extension Examiners has shown that by far the greatest cause of fatigue is simply boredom.
Number-one enemy – boredom.
One of my patients, a hard-working engineer, once came to me in a rather troubled frame of mind. He had been through his annual health examination and had been found to be in good physical condition. But he was certain that something was wrong and had not been uncovered in his health examination.
“I am not the same,” he said. “I used to be able to work like a horse all day. Now, by mid-afternoon, I am completely pooped. I know I have got a job to do and I try my best, but I just don’t seem to have the energy. I get tired so fast.” We had a long talk. His problem was “creeping boredom.” At first, his job was exciting and challenging. But gradually, he lost much of his enthusiasm for his work, and he became increasingly bored. Yet he could not afford to leave his job, he said.
Nevertheless, he found a happy solution. First, he agreed that he had no choice but to accept the fact that he had to live with that particular job. Accepting this fact meant a great deal, because it enabled him to find some other means for overcoming his boredom. He followed my prescription for frequent “changes of scenery.”
I use the term “change of scenery” in its broadest sense. It does not always mean taking a vacation or a trip. It can be one or a combination of changes, as we shall discuss later. It can mean a short walk away from your desk. A coffee break or two. Taking on a hobby or putting more time into existing hobbies. Getting more exercise. Sheer escape through movies, or television. More reading. The changes are limited only by your imagination. Some of the most notable men in history, such as President Eisenhower and the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, found restful escape in doing their work away from their main headquarters. President Eisenhower always has the enthusiastic endorsement of his doctors whenever he transfers his tremendous load of work from the White House to his Gettysburg farm. Secretary Dulles often carried state papers to his island shack, where he had to chop wood for fuel and there was no electricity or telephone. Yet even when he was past seventy years of age, Dulles’ tremendous drive and energy made him one of the most talked-about diplomats in history.
Why boredom is bad for your health.
The effects of boredom are insidious. Boredom breeds poor living habits. Many people smoke not because of the pleasure it brings them but because the action distracts them from boredom. Others find a similar escape in eating. When they are bored, they become great ones for in-between snacks. Coffee and cake. Midnight sandwiches. Candies.
A vicious cycle sets in. Soon, excess pounds hang heavily on them, inviting more fatigue and perhaps some of the serious ailments that come with overweight. What’s more, because they are bored, they are too “exhausted” for exercise and recreation. They become increasingly inactive; their bodies lose muscle tone and grow flabby. Their resistance to infection is lowered, and they become prime candidates for all types of disease. A stiff price to pay for functional fatigue!
This vicious cycle is not an exaggeration. I have seen it occur with frightening regularity among the thousands of current examinees at Life Extension Examiners.
A number of the nation’s leading medical experts have been conducting special studies which greatly support the observations that functional fatigue is at the root of most cases of “chronic exhaustion,” and that the outstanding cause of it is boredom.
A well-known Boston clinic made intensive examinations of 300 men and women who complained of being “chronically tired.” Nearly all the complainants had attributed their excessive and constant fatigue to an organic ailment. Some were certain their fatigue was due to a lack of vitamins. Others felt the source of their fatigue was in heart trouble, diabetes, kidney infection, or poor blood circulation. But the examinations disclosed that less than twenty per cent of the 300 patients had some physical ailment which might have been partially responsible for their fatigue. The remainder – more than eight out of ten-were clearly suffering functional fatigue. And boredom was the principal culprit.
Boredom in later years.
Up to about the age of thirty, most of us have no trouble with fatigue. We have enormous reserves of energy and generally lead such active lives that we are not usually afflicted with boredom, although young people are certainly not immune to fatigue when in the throes of severe emotional storms.
In one case, a twenty-four-year-old man had been the victim of chronic fatigue for more than two years. When a thorough health examination disclosed no organic cause for his fatigue, intensive questioning brought out the fact that his troubles began shortly after he had married and left his mother’s home. It was the old story of a mother trying to make her son feel guilty for leaving her alone. Advised that he had no real reason to feel fatigued and might have sought shelter in it to avoid the constant nagging and criticism of his mother, he soon found that fatigue was no longer his problem.
Nonetheless, we know very well that an overwhelming number of us will become victims of increasing fatigue as we approach our middle and older years. The cause in most cases will be boredom or something closely allied to it, such as loneliness. Certainly we cannot expect in later years to have the energy of our youth; on the other hand we should be able to maintain a vigorous way of life that is commensurate with our age.
In writing about fatigue in older persons, Dr. Theodore G. Klumpp, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on problems of the aging and a member of the Commission on Chronic Illness, has said:
“There is no reliable correlation between how hard a person works and the degree of his fatigue. If anything, fatigue in older people, as we have noted, is seen more commonly among those who don’t have enough to do… Their fatigue, therefore, has its origin in boredom, loss of incentive and interest.
“Over and over again, when a crisis arises or something of deep interest comes along, these individuals miraculously lose their fatigue.”
I also want to endorse as strongly as possible this statement by Dr. Klumpp:
“Is this overpowering weariness and depression an inevitable consequence of growing older? Is there nothing that can be done to prevent or mitigate it? We can look to the long and vigorously active lives of such men as Winston Churchill, Jean Sibelius, Herbert Hoover, Konrad Adenauer and Bernard Baruch as a basis for optimism.
“These and a legion of others prove that fatigue need not be a bar to vigorous activity in later years. Indeed-and this is an important aspect of the problem – it is more than likely that the reason such people don’t tire as easily is that they refuse to give up the pace of their living.”