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11 Ways to Fight Fatigue

If you think it's all about how much you sleep, you need to read on.


What does it mean to feel energetic?

Watching children play, adults marvel at their energy. Can't we feel energetic as well? The answer is yes, although as we age, it is normal to experience less vigor. This fatigue is not entirely due to the physical process of aging. Stress increases as we age—we may have big mortgages, car payments, increasing responsibility at work, ill parents, medical conditions, or children to raise. And we often play less—those who are younger are often better at prioritizing socializing, trying new things and having fun, while we can become bogged down in responsibility and forget to do the things that fill us up.

Adults also tend to decrease their activities as they get older—and less activity is associated with greater fatigue. It can mean poorer physical conditioning, too, which means that less activity is needed to produce muscle strain. Fatigue is functional; it can help protect us against overexertion. However, our bodies are also sensitive to too little activity. So although fatigue is often associated with not wanting to do anything, paradoxically, sometimes we need to increase activity to shake off the cobwebs. Too often we take the cues of fatigue as a sign that we must do less.

As someone who treats sleep disorders, most of the people I see attribute their lack of energy to difficulties sleeping. Interestingly, when we test whether how someone sleeps on a specific night predicts fatigue the next day and vice versa, there isn’t a consistent relationship, so the fact that sleep is so often blamed for fatigue is interesting.

We once asked people complaining about sleep to list what accounted for their fatigue. After their list was complete, for each factor they listed, we asked them to rate the proportion of their fatigue for which the factor accounted. We were surprised to see some very short lists. Sleep was at the top of everyone’s list and it often was listed as the only factor; that is, they believed it accounted for 100% of their issues with energy). We then split the group of people in half. With half of the group, we spent time teaching them about the many causes of fatigue. With the other half, we spent time teaching them about the causes of sleep problems. Afterward, we asked them if they would make any changes to their original list of what accounts for them feeling tired.

Unlike the group that learned about sleep (whose list remained unchanged), the group that learned about fatigue began listing many more factors. They acknowledged how stress, depressed mood, and anxiety contributed to feeling fatigue. They listed nutritional choices, dehydration, or the withdrawal symptoms that occur hours after their last coffee. They began to remember how fatigue occurred with physical overexertion but also after periods of inactivity. They recognized that fatigue commonly occurred with boredom or monotonous tasks. They recognized that they felt increasingly tired in the hour or two after lunch, and after learning that this was due to a daily, temporary drop in body temperature, called the post-lunch dip, they cited this as a causal factor for their fatigue.

After submitting the new list, we asked them questions about their sleep and the group that learned about fatigue said that they felt less anxious about sleep and fatigue. They recognized that among multiple culprits of fatigue, there were endless opportunities to address fatigue, and this was associated with feeling more at ease about sleep.

What can we do to feel less fatigued?

  1. If you have persistent fatigue, see your doctor. There are many treatable causes, and fatigue can be a sign of something else that requires medical attention.

  2. Stop blaming fatigue exclusively on sleep. If you have significant insomnia, by all means, seek treatment. However, even our most effective strategies for insomnia (cognitive behavior therapy and medications) do not always eliminate a fatigue problem. Look for common contributors to fatigue and engage in some proven strategies to address it. (See below.)

  3. Change the way you think about fatigue. One of the best predictors of fatigue is whether you tend to ruminate about how badly you feel when feeling tired. Focusing on the sensations of fatigue is an excellent way to ensure that the fatigue will persist. Distract yourself, or better yet, get active and do something you would enjoy.

  4. Gradually increase your level of physical activity.

  5. Watch what you eat. Certain foods result in feeling sluggish or create a sugar crash later; eat well now to sustain the feeling of energy.

  6. Reduce caffeine. Caffeine is a short-term fix because after a substantial amount of the caffeine is eliminated from the body, you will experience withdrawal symptoms of fatigue (a caffeine crash)

  7. Stay hydrated—dehydration causes fatigue.

  8. Manage your stress. Chronic stress causes symptoms of fatigue but there are many ways to manage it, including support from loved ones and/or professionals, yoga, mindful meditation, saying no, pleasurable activities, and relaxation strategies.

  9. Take breaks. If your eyes are burning and your body is aching at the computer, it is time to get up and take a break. You will be more productive if you take a moment to stretch and breathe.

  10. Ride out the wave of the post-lunch dip. We all experience a small dip in energy in the early afternoon. Drinking coffee now will lead to caffeine withdrawal and fatigue in the evening. Focus on some of the other strategies in this list instead.

  11. Seek treatment for anxiety, depression, pain, and sleep disorders, as these can cause fatigue or make it worse.

More from Colleen E Carney Ph.D.
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