If there’s one thing millions of people would like to know, it’s why they sometimes get sudden extremely tired – and what they can do about it.
And if there is anyone who would like to be able to give a nice clean-cut answer to that, it is every doctor and psychiatrist.
A certain amount of fatigue is perfectly normal in any worthwhile human life.
This, of course, refers to the tiredness that comes at the close of an honest day’s work. Spend a day shoveling coal or tending babies and you have a right to feel tired.
This “earned”‘ fatigue has a first cousin which is also completely rational. Suppose you’re doing your coal shoveling in a cellar that’s inhumanly hot. You’ll probably be tired before you’ve tossed many shovelfuls.
If you never experience these “earned” or “alarm” brands of fatigue, you can be pretty sure of one of two things: Either (a) you aren’t doing much work in this world, or (b) you are working under conditions fantastically free of the upsetting sights, sounds, surroundings, and people with which most of us have to put up.
If you do experience these two legitimate types of weariness and they don’t dissolve with a night’s rest or with correction of working conditions, something is wrong.
About 20 percent of fatigue not connected with actual work comes from physical illness, overt or hidden.
This percentage seems unflatteringly low, but doctors have pretty much accepted it as par for the course since the announcement of the important investigations of Dr. Frank N. Allan, of the Lahey Clinic, Boston, who reported on the cases of 300 men and women who came to the clinic complaining of chronic weakness and tiredness.
Sixty of them, Dr. Allan discovered, really did have physical ailments that could cause weakness and tiredness. But there were two striking things about these physical ailments. One was their diversity there were 24 different illnesses divided among 60 people.
But even more striking was this sentence in Dr. Allan’s report:
“Certain conditions such as vitamin deficiencies and endocrine disorders, considered common causes of weakness by both the public and the medical profession, actually were rare (one case and four cases respectively), and not a single case of weakness due to liver trouble, poor elimination or low blood pressure was encountered.”
In short, no matter how “sick” chronic weakness and fatigue may make you feel, the chances are about one in five that you are ill.
If you feel chronically and unexplainably tired, look first for a physical reason. Have a physical check-up with your doctor. It may solve your whole problem.
We move now into another category. Dr. Allan found the remaining 240 of his 300 tired people were suffering from what might be termed benign nervousness.
About 80 percent of fatigue not earned by work or caused by illness is psychological.
You can take that or leave it, but the more closely you examine the fantastic ground rules governing fatigue in this psychological category and the more candidly you observe your own fatigue as it responds to these antic rules, the more likely you are to take it – and leave most of your fatigue.
We almost never get tired doing things we enjoy doing.
This is true regardless of how much effort we put into doing then. People who like to dance till dawn, for instance, don’t get tired dancing till dawn. Practically everyone has some hobby or other activity at which he can spend hours happily oblivious of time, effort, or weariness.
This activity may, if you’re especially lucky, be the workaday job at which you earn your living.
Or the liked activity maybe something completely senseless, something which would have most of us moaning with weariness in a few hours.
On the other hand:
We almost always get tired doing things we really don’t like to do or which we consciously or unconsciously resent having to do.
More and more psychiatrists are coming to think that right there is a mix of the fatigue problem for a great many of us.
Dr. Wendell Muncie, a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who treats many tired people, has summed it up tersely, “It’s not so much that people get tired. They get tired of something.” And that something, as you can see by a candid look at your own life, is some activity you dislike or resent.
Let’s be frank about it. There are people who resent their children and having to feed and tend them. There are people who resent having to work for a living. There are people who resent being married or having to play bridge when they’d rather read.
It would be a saint indeed who did not sometimes resent some or all of these things. There are people who live in a perpetual stew of resentment about them, and they are almost always chronically tired.
Why should a resented task cause more fatigue than one we enjoy? We don’t have to be psychologists to be aware that negative, unproductive emotions – resentment, anger, jealousy, rage, and so on – are wearing and tiring.
Furthermore, being tired is our favorite way of excusing ourselves from doing things that we don’t want to do. Incidentally, when such “tiredness” fails to get us out of the unwanted task or pastime, it still serves as a nice martyr’s crown.
Industrial psychologists feel that much of the fatigue felt in business and industry arises from job discontent. Two sources of such discontent, and this can be vehement enough to amount to resentment or even revulsion, are especially common.
One is where we feel that our job is so far beneath our capabilities or deserts that we find it a contemptible and boring part of our lives. The other is where the job is so far beyond our capabilities that it requires us to overstrain ourselves.
There is probably no such thing as occupational fatigue.
The reasoning here is that if an occupation were in itself fatiguing, everyone in it would be worn out. Actually, all the word “occupational” means is where the fatigue occurred, not why. And the why often proves to be that the person detests his occupation.
The burden of internal emotional conflicts added to the chores of daily existence can cause anything from mild chronic weariness to utter and hopeless fatigue.
Though most of us harbor these internal conflicts, fortunately they are usually not of a violent nature.
Don’t you ever debate inside yourself whether you want to become a ‘”big shot”‘ in your business or just go on carrying a spear in the show?
Don’t you ever wonder whether you should continue to live in the city or move to the country?
Aren’t you ever torn between whether or not to give some interfering in-laws their walking papers?
Everyone has such unsettled problems in one form or another. Many of us take them emotionally and spend part of our working or resting hours stewing about them. And is it not surprising that this finally expresses itself in fatigue?
Such fatigue often, though not necessarily always, comes on while we are doing unwanted tasks. However:
We don’t have to work at an unwanted task to be fatigued by it. Contemplating it is often enough.
What housewife has not, on occasion, felt her legs start to wobble as she approached a sinkful of last night’s unwashed dishes? Now about mankind’s favorite explanation of weariness. Unfortunately:
Of all the reasons we give ourselves and others for chronic fatigue, overwork is probably the most dubious.
The suspicion among medical people nowadays is that overwork rather than being a cause of chronic fatigue (with or without nervous breakdown) is actually a symptom. We all know people who, as they grow more and more tired and “nervous,” drive themselves more and more to outlandish amounts of unproductive work.
A lot of office lights are burned late at night for this reason. A lot of floors get polished day after day, although they don’t need it.
In brief, most overwork comes of a need to find relief from tension, to stall off neurotic conflicts, or to look like a hero or martyr. If the victim tires or breaks in the process, we may be sure it was his unhealthy need that floored him.
Some chronic fatigue may be caused by hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia is a defect in the blood-sugar mechanism. When one is suffering from it, not enough sugar gets into the blood in a steady enough flow to be always on hand as fuel. An even supply is especially important because blood sugar is the only fuel acceptable to the brain.
Treatment consists of medical management, psychiatric interviews, and a diet low in table sugar and rich in complex carbohydrates.
What’s useful to most of us is that we can attack our chronic fatigue with the same diet that helps defeat the chronic weariness of hypoglycemia sufferers.
This means forgetting about a balanced diet and eating vast and concentrated quantities of foods such as potatoes, cereals, bread, milk, beef, pork, bacon, ham, eggs, and cheese. Such foods take their time digesting and send their sugars into the blood steadily and over a period of hours.
Dr. Mack Lipkin, a physician at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital who treats fatigue cases, has his patients eat such foods two or three times a day and take milk and biscuits between meals too.
You may find, by the way, that while this diet rids you of chronic tiredness, it still leaves you stuck with the emotional problems that were mixed in with it. If so, you’d be smart to get to work on them.
The next time you get ambushed by “that tired feeling,” you might ask yourself which of its illogical antics it’s probably up to now – and lay a commonsense counter-ambush or two of your own.
And if your tiredness is habitual and no physical cause explains it, you might even want to take a challenging look into your whole life pattern.
Are you in the right line of work? Do you pace your output of effort in a sensible manner? Do you permit yourself enough rest and fun? Do you get enough physical exercise?
Activities like running, tennis, swimming, and so on help discharge fatigue products from the body. Above all, do you take the irritations and boredom to be found in any job, any life, any human relationship in a mature stride?
That is a simple and unsophisticated approach, and don’t be surprised if it works.