South Africans are facing a myriad of stressors including loadshedding, the cost of living, and work. Stress is a result of being constantly triggered into fight or flight mode, says clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. After a year of daily activities, the brain and body end up feeling the effect of stress, which can be fatigue.

It’s important to have renewal activities to counter the effects of stress. 

“When you’re running a marathon and there are a few sprints in the middle, you can have water breaks, but eventually you do need to stop and take a proper rest,” Linde explains. 

Call centre manager at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Tracy Feinstein, tells Health-e News that the organisation has received a lot more stress related calls this year compared to last year.

“On a daily basis our call centre handles close to 3000 calls. The calls range from relationship matters to illness, to unemployment, anything related to depression and anxiety, stress, burnout, mental illness and addiction. A lot of our calls are desperate pleas for help. People are overwhelmed.” 

The true extent of the problem is difficult to measure. But the effects of stress, fatigue and burnout can be severe. 

Burnout

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from unmanaged, chronic workplace stress. It is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job; or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

In a 2022  research article about burnout in the workplace, Professor Karin Calitz from Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Law, explains that burnout is often a slow process. Workers increasingly feel exhausted, responsible for a high workload, guilty about spending less time with family, cut out other activities, and eventually lose sight of the meaning of life entirely.

“If workers do not have the necessary support to enable them to cope with the workload, it could eventually lead to burnout. It has long been recognised that extensive work hours may pose a health risk to employees,” she writes.

Calitz also says research shows that excessive work hours lead to conditions such as heart disease and stroke. 

“Stress hormones are released which negatively affect the cardiovascular system. Behavioural patterns following excessive work hours such as a lack of exercise, substance abuse, bad eating habits, and smoking have additional health implications.” 

Exhaustion

“Burnout is described as a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged period of stress and frustration,” explains Tharwat Julius, a registered counsellor and student wellness advisor. 

Exhaustion is synonymous with fatigue but it is more intense. It is defined as extreme tiredness and loss of strength due to a lack of food and sleep, overwork, and stress. It causes the sufferer to be constantly tired and physically and mentally worn out.

“Physical exhaustion is our body’s sensation of extreme, persistent tiredness. It is a type of fatigue that completely drains us. When we are physically exhausted, we lack energy, motivation, focus, and engagement,” says Julius.

According to Juilus emotional exhaustion is a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained because of accumulated stress from personal or work lives, or a combination of both. Emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.

Fatigue

There are three main triggers of fatigue. These can be lifestyle related, lack of sleep or regular exercise, or work-related stress. Emotional stress such as depression, grief, or anxiety; and underlying medical conditions such as a thyroid disorder, heart disease or diabetes can all lead to fatigue. 

According to Linde, fatigue is classified according to its duration. 

“There are three kinds of fatigue. The first is acute, which is less than a month;  prolonged, which lasts one to six months; and chronic fatigue which is more than six months.”

Acute fatigue can be a result of a late night, studying for an exam, completing a piece of work, or even a sickness like flu or a tummy bug. She says it generally disappears after a good rest. 

“But the other two [prolonged and chronic fatigue]  are a problem because they limit your physical and social activities. The worst is medically unexplained chronic fatigue which can be debilitating,” she explains.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is diagnosed when there are three main symptoms present. 

  • a substantial impairment in your social, work or physical activities. This is accompanied with fatigue that goes on longer than six months. With this comes exhaustion when you do things like exercise or even just trying to clean, and unrefreshing sleep. 
  • cognitive impairment, so you can’t think properly, plan or remember.  
  • blood pressure issues. So you can’t regulate your blood pressure, it’s often just low for no reason.  

Dealing with stress and fatigue

“If it’s chronic, please see a medical doctor first. There could be a deficiency, illness or underlying medical condition. It could also be part of depression especially if you’ve been going through something traumatic like a loss,” says Linde.

Linde also says when it comes to stress related fatigue the best way to handle it is by doing activities that help increase your energy.

“Spending time with your loved ones, eating a meal with your family, a loving moment with your partner, a special moment with a friend, or acts of kindness and then of course time to rest and relax, can all help counter the stress activation effect,” she says. – Health-e News

If you or anyone you know is struggling with any stress-related issues, SADAG offers a variety of support groups you can reach out to.

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