About a year ago, I started experiencing horrible chronic fatigue. I tried to examine every possible cause.
Was I getting enough sleep? Giving myself enough downtime during the day? Taking breaks between work and school projects? Did I need more coffee? Was I eating a healthy enough diet? Did I need more exercise?
I went down the checklist of possibilities — from too much inactivity to upping my morning caffeine intake, to trying to get more sleep every night. Still, the fatigue persisted. By mid-afternoon I could barely keep my eyes open, no matter how much caffeine I drank upon waking. Every day around 4 p.m. I found myself in bed, unable to sleep, but too fatigued to function.
My little respites in bed did little to help the fatigue. I would inevitably have to get up and continue doing grown-up things like cooking dinner, working and studying. I felt like a zombie from The Walking Dead, endlessly roaming the house in a stupor; attracted to food and loud things that might help keep me awake.
I had not had any recent changes to my medications. I didn’t have any changes in my routine at all. I was just plain exhausted for no reason. I was considering talking to my primary care doctor about chronic fatigue syndrome, because I could not come up with any reasonable explanation for this sudden onset of severe fatigue.
I was venting to my friend one day, and she asked, “So you have anxiety that keeps your mind racing nearly all day?”
“And you have depression that makes it difficult for you to get any pleasure out of anything that you do?”
“And sometimes hallucinations hit you at night?”
“Your brain is probably just so overwhelmed fighting itself that it doesn’t have any energy left for anything else. Your anxiety has your brain balancing on the edge of panic and general overwhelm, and your depression is making it difficult to think the way you normally do. And your hallucinations contribute to your anxiety, plus you’re a student and you are trying to start your own business. How exactly did you not realize that your brain is just overloaded and that’s why you’re so exhausted?”
I could not believe that someone figured out the source of my fatigue before I did, and I was shocked by how much sense it made. I had been looking at every cause except my brain. I was used to symptoms of mental illness being fairly obvious — changes in mood, suicidal ideation, panic attacks or insomnia. I never considered that my brain being tired of dealing with its own problems would leave me with an utter lack of energy to handle the things I needed to handle.
I talked to my psychiatrist. I got on medication to control my anxiety. My fatigue improved once the meds had time to work. Suddenly I could do more than I had been able to do for months. I held off on an anti-depressant, as being bipolar, my depressions were not long-lasting. However, my fatigue returned after a couple of months with improved productivity, and I decided to start a medication to help control the depression.
The fatigue has not left yet. I have learned, however, that some things – like exercise and meditation – can help me get my brain back on track so I can continue doing all the things that I need to do. If it was not for my friend, I doubt I ever would have realized that my fatigue was a symptom of my mental illnesses, and yet it makes so much sense. If your brain is spending all day fighting itself, what time does it have to accomplish the goals you have in place?
If you’re struggling with intense fatigue, consider your brain health and see if you can’t find a solution that works for you, be that medication or therapy or yoga. Once I prevented my mental illnesses from running the show, my fatigue seriously improved and I was like a whole new person…no more wandering the house in search of brains. No one treatment works for everyone, but if you find yourself in bed half the day or more, I recommend taking action. You never know what you might accomplish if you do.