With no end in sight to the pandemic, how do we meet the challenge of fatigue? Recognizing the specific kind of fatigue you are experiencing can help you address it more quickly and effectively. This is particularly important if your self-care time is at a premium.
As we enter the long haul with the Covid-19 pandemic, each of us is doing what we can to stay resilient. My biggest barrier to resilience is fatigue. I know I’m not alone in this as a highly sensitive person. It is humbling constantly to face the limits of what we can take on, given our tendency to get overstimulated.
Over the years, I’ve tried again and again to push those limits. In the process, I’ve dealt with all sorts of fatigue, from garden-variety tiredness to exhaustion so overwhelming it brought my daily activities to a virtual halt. Even with a sturdy self-care routine in place, I get really tired sometimes. I’ve accepted that. But I’ve also learned all I can about my fatigue so I can restore my energy as quickly as possible.
Eight types of fatigue I’ve experienced
1—Ordinary fatigue: “Ordinary,” garden-variety fatigue is just that: the pleasant tiredness you feel after a good day’s work or a long hike. Ordinary fatigue feels “clean,” natural, and uncomplicated. When a kid crashes into deep sleep at the end of a day, that’s ordinary fatigue.
2—Short-on-sleep fatigue: The signs of classic sleep-deprivation are well-known. If you fall asleep immediately in a dark room, get drowsy after lunch, or simply feel chronically obsessed with sleep, you are sleep deprived.
3—Healing fatigue: When you are sick or injured, your body demands rest. When I’m getting a cold, I feel like I could lie down in the middle of a four-lane superhighway and fall asleep. I’ve experienced similar fatigue recovering from physical injuries too, like minor surgery, a bad fall, or a nasty sunburn.
4—Extraordinary overstimulation fatigue: If you’ve ever felt exhausted following a big performance, a job interview, an audition, or a challenging conversation with someone important to you, you’ve experienced the fatigue of extraordinary overstimulation. This is a classic challenge for HSPs. The more important an event is to you, the more aroused you will be in association with it. Fatigue from extraordinary overstimulation is easy to identify. It crashes into you like a wave as soon as the overstimulating event is over.
5—Processing overload fatigue: Processing overload fatigue is a particular issue for HSPs. Like “extraordinary stimulation” fatigue, processing overload fatigue may stem from an identifiable incident. But the resulting fatigue is not due to the overstimulation of the incident itself. Rather, this kind of fatigue is your body telling you that you need to slow down and process your mental and emotional responses to the incident. Overload fatigue is a sign you need time to rest, reflect, write, and sleep. Otherwise you’ll develop long-term-stress fatigue.
6—Long-term-stress fatigue: If you experience elevated stress over a prolonged period of time, your body produces more cortisol which makes it hard to let down and sleep deeply. You end up in a vicious cycle: the more tired you get, the more your stress goes up, the more cortisol you produce, and the harder it is to sleep. Identifying this kind of fatigue can be surprisingly challenging. You get used to feeling tense all the time and forget what it’s like to feel relaxed and at ease in your body.
7—Chemical or hormonal fatigue: If you’ve ever been low on Vitamin D, or your thyroid hormone has been off, or you’ve undergone hormonal changes, you’ve experienced the kind of fatigue chemical and hormonal imbalances can cause. Along with long-term stress fatigue, this is the most challenging kind of fatigue to identify and to treat. There is no sudden onset, and the cause is only obvious after the problem is addressed.
8—“Get me out of here” fatigue: “Get me out of here” fatigue feels intensely physical, but its causes are entirely psychological. It is a trauma reaction. Something in you is sending fatigue in an attempt to protect you from feeling or knowing something that might overwhelm you.
Identifying the kind of fatigue are you experiencing
In real life, of course, these kinds of fatigue frequently overlap. If I’m tired, I start by making an inventory of my recent experiences to better understand what I’m dealing with. For example, I found myself exhausted after returning from a trip to the Midwest to see my parents last week. I was puzzled, because the visit itself was lovely: mellow and relaxing. But then I took a closer look:
- I had been up in the night a couple times during the trip, and had had trouble sleeping in the two weeks before. As a result, I experienced a classic case of “short on sleep” fatigue.
- I had read to my partner in the car for nearly the entire 9-hour trip home. The subject matter was intense: racism and social justice. This herculean effort plunged me into extraordinary stimulation fatigue.
- We were trying to stop as little as possible for safety reasons, so I didn’t drink much water. As a result, I woke that night with a severe dehydration headache. For the next 24 hours I experienced deep healing fatigue.
- I completely forgot to take my vitamins during the trip. I don’t know how quickly one’s Vitamin D gets depleted, but that was another possible reason I felt so tired.
Different kinds of fatigue, different antidotes
In this case, I restored my energy by taking it easy for two days over the weekend. I moved slowly, went to bed early, and took extra time for both sleep and restorative rest. On the third day I was still a bit slow, but rested enough to enjoy working.
Along with ordinary fatigue, the three kinds of fatigue I experienced after the trip—short-on-sleep fatigue, healing fatigue, and extraordinary overstimulation fatigue—are the easiest to address, if your life affords you the time and privacy to address them. Many people’s lives do not afford them that luxury, especially now during the pandemic.
The next three kinds of fatigue—processing overload fatigue, long-term-stress fatigue, chemical or hormonal fatigue, and “get me out of here” fatigue— are often trickier to identify and harder to resolve. You may have to observe and experiment over time to identify their causes. Processing overload fatigue, for example often shows up in me initially as irritability or restlessness. I often don’t realize I need to process feelings about an incident until later, when I notice I feel “off.” Only when I sit down and tune in to my body do I begin to get images, thoughts, or memories that help me identify what needs attention in me.
Similarly, chemical fatigue is tricky because it may require blood work and long-term experimentation with supplements or medication. For example, I went through a period of constant fatigue ten years ago. Only after extensive blood testing did my doctor and I discover that my Vitamin D levels were dangerously low. And that wasn’t the end of it: I experimented for a full year before I found the right kind and level of supplement to restore my Vitamin D levels to a normal range. The effort was spectacularly worthwhile: my energy level improved dramatically. But getting results took time, multiple blood draws, and a supportive doctor.
“Get me out of here” fatigue is unique
The final item on the list, “get me out of here” fatigue, is unique. While it feels intensely physical—as if you’ve been given anesthetic—it is in fact a psychological reaction. I first experienced this when I was learning Inner Bonding. I’d write my dialogues in a journal. Without fail, I’d nod off mid-sentence. I’d wake up 20 minutes later to find random pen squiggles on the page where my hand at twitched in my sleep.
In this case, I perceived that this “sudden-onset sleepiness” must surely be related to the inner work I was trying to do. But “get me out of here” fatigue can come in forms that are trickier to recognize, especially if you aren’t familiar with the concept. In my twenties, I once spent an entire summer sleeping until noon every day—strange behavior for confirmed “morning lark.” Only later did I realize I had been in a state of unbearable inner conflict about the relationship I was in at the time. I couldn’t bring myself to face the problem, so my body/mind did its best to “get me out of here,” by arranging to be unconscious as much as possible.
Antidotes to fatigue
For ordinary fatigue, short-on-sleep fatigue, and healing fatigue, the antidote is uncomplicated: sleep. Getting that sleep may require help though. If you are not sleeping because you are anxious, depressed, in pain, or up with a colicky baby, ask for the support you need.
You will likely also need sleep to recover from the fatigue of extraordinary overstimulation. But before you can sleep, you’ll need time—preferably alone in a dark, quiet place—to wind down. Recovering from long-term stress fatigue and chemical or hormonal fatigue, as we’ve seen, is a longer-term project. It requires patient self-observation, experimentation, and possibly medical help.
Last but not least, to address “get me out of here” fatigue, you will likely need support. It’s hard to stay present with yourself when you are falling asleep. With help, you can learn to slow down your inner process and turn towards something in you that is scared to feel something. Once you know how to slow things down, you can catch “get me out of here” fatigue before it immobilizes you.