Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay Off in Chronic Illness: How to Stop Pushing Through Your Fatigue and Give Yourself Permission to Rest

Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay Off in Chronic Illness How to Stop Pushing Through Your Fatigue and Give Yourself Permission to Rest

I’ve never been a big fan of napping. I was that overexcited kid, running around, yelling “No! I am not tired!” Moving on to the next thing I want to do has always seemed more interesting to me than stopping and sleeping. You can imagine how well that impulse has (not) translated into living with fibromyalgia. The metaphor I like to use is putting a racing car engine in a beat-up old car – my mind always wants to go faster than my body can keep up with. But it’s not just curiosity that pulls me forward. I also put a lot of pressure myself to push through, to keep working until it’s all done.

I’ve learned that always pushing forwards is toxic for my body. I’ve also learned that the impulse to soldier on isn’t a personal failing. Believing that “hard work pays off” is a social value, something we are all taught growing up.  We attribute positive character traits to people who spend long hours at work, without ever making time for themselves. We describe them as being committed, determined, effective, ambitious, responsible, and upstanding, rather than just calling them workaholics. The flipside – laziness – is a cardinal sin in our productivity-obsessed culture. But encouraging this imbalance between activity and relaxation serves to support unhealthy attitudes and behaviour around work.

I’m far from the first person to point this out. In recent years there’s been a movement to prioritize emotional wellbeing. You hear a lot about self-care, emotional balance, burnout, stress management, mindfulness, and disconnecting from social media, among other things. Psychologist Guy Winch, in his TED talk How to Practice Emotional First Aid, explains our favouritism towards physical well-being over emotional well-being. He points out that, while we learn from a young age to put a Band-Aid on physical injury, we don’t learn how to treat our psychological injuries, like sadness, loneliness, or anxiety. Psychological pain has a significant impact on the body’s state of health, and increases the risk of chronic disease. The mind and the body are interconnected, and what affects one has an impact on the other.

I think chronic illness magnifies the mind-body connection. Living in a state of constant physical fatigue has significant cognitive and psychological consequences. Brain fog, frustration, anxiety, a sense of helplessness, and many other responses are common among people living with illnesses involving chronic fatigue. Dr. Peter Rowe, director of the Chronic Fatigue Clinic at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, says that “The emotional impact of a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome is different for each person, but it relates to the loss of the ability to do the things you were good at before” (quoted in Everyday Health).

Put another way, fatigue causes people living with conditions like fibromyalgia, to experience multiple and complicated losses. These losses occur in areas that affect our sense of self-identity, like career, friendships, hobbies, parenting, and daily functioning. Kate Jackson (2014) calls them ‘infinite losses’ because they are not time-limited – instead they are unending, which makes them harder to resolve.

So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with taking a nap? For people who don’t live with chronic illness, resting might be a straightforward solution to fatigue. A physical solution to a physical problem. Even for healthy people, however, I doubt that’s always true. Call it stress, emotional overload, or burnout, the impulse to push through when you actually should stop and recover can result in significant psychological and physical problems. Our general preoccupation with work and productivity encourages unhelpful mindsets like perfectionism, shame, anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem. In turn, these feelings and beliefs can cause us to double down and work even harder in order to measure up (Psychology Today). It’s very difficult to stop and listen to what your mind or body need when you’ve learned to routinely override those signals.

I’ve read countless tweets and blogs from people living with chronic illness who are frustrated with themselves for overdoing it on a good day and causing a flare-up. I’ve wondered why it seems so hard for me to pace myself, to proactively rest, to achieve balance between activity and relaxation. Over time I’ve realized these problems occur because resting is not just a habit. When the fatigue settles in it can often feel like a gate slamming shut.

Fatigue, along with pain, are the primary restrictions that have been placed on my abilities. The resulting frustration or sense of helplessness is a manifestation of the sadness and anger over the ‘infinite losses’ caused by chronic illness. Coping with these feelings is difficult. In this context, it’s a lot easier to say “just go and lie down” than it is to actually do it.

Behind the decision to stop and nap is a whole set of thoughts, feelings and beliefs about how you relate to work and productivity. If I’m writing an article and I feel brain fog and fatigue setting in, my first reaction is to feel frustrated with my body and tell myself to “tough it out.” Even when I take the reasonable step of stopping and lying down for awhile, there is a part of me that feels a creeping sense of guilt or self-blame. In a world where people with disabilities are applauded for “overcoming their limitations,” as if disability is a failure to move past, it’s hard not to worry if taking breaks is some kind of character flaw. I believe that it’s this mindset, this negative self-talk, that sabotages our attempts at pacing.

Becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to take better care of ourselves – many people find that regularly practicing mindfulness meditation, journaling, or cognitive behavioural therapy techniques very helpful for developing greater self-awareness. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I think it’s important that we talk openly about the social and emotional impacts of valuing work and productivity over balance and acceptance. We need to prioritize healing the psychological as well as the physical. Because, ultimately, resting is an act of self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance, not just a solution for being tired.

Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay Off: Listening to Your Fatigue Instead of Fighting Through It

References:

Jackson, Kate. (2014). ‘Grieving Chronic Illness and Injury: Infinite Losses. Social Work. http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/070714p18.shtml

Kromberg, Jen. (2015). ‘4 Difficulties of Being a Perfectionist.’ Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/inside-out/201311/4-difficulties-being-perfectionist

Orenstein, Beth.(2010). ‘The Emotional Side of Chronic Fatigue.’ Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/authors/beth-orenstein/

Winch, Guy. (2014). https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene

 

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