Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia:

Anxiety and the Stress Spiral

how to beat fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome


Stress and anxiety are an unfortunate, but common and inevitable feature of modern life. 

As with diet, obesity, alcohol and smoking I am afraid that the news is simple. They have to be addressed as part of a holistic approach to coping with Fibromyalgia and CFS.

Learning to deal with stress is something that can be consciously learned and practiced and new techniques have proven very effective.

A higher than average percentage of sufferers undergoing Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue treatment are, or were, engaged in high stress environments and/or suffer from anxiety.

This may be or have been at home, as carers of relatives or young children. It may have been in work detail or during a divorce or home move. 

Whatever the cause a significant increase in stress and anxiety is frequently cited at the time of onset of the sufferers Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome symptoms.

As well as being implicated pre-onset of the Syndrome, stress reactions are involved in the maintenance and exacerbation of the Syndrome post-onset.

Blood pressure, heart rate, the entire endocrine system which controls hormone production are all implicated and involved during stress reactions and unfortunately the system that directly controls all these systems, the Autonomic Nervous System, in particular the Sympathetic Nervous Systems or "day nerve" remain malfunctional post-onset.

The result, unfortunately will be an exacerbated negative reaction of your Fatigue and Fibromyalgia symptoms to stress and anxiety producing situations.

To make matters worse there is evidence that once activated the stress reaction lasts abnormally longer in individuals afflicted with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Is CFS more common in stressed or anxious people

Let me first give a very broad outline of how general medical advice is presented to healthcare providers in diagnosing Fibromyalgia and CFS sufferers:

"frequently seen characteristics of CFS and Fibromyalgia sufferers

 People who through their own personal attitudes and anxieties tend to make their own lives mores stressful.

 People who are highly ambitious and buy into the Western obsession with wealth and status. They are always active physically and mentally.

People whose lives are fully absorbed coping with the needs and requirements of others.

People who avoid taking the time they need for themselves to rest, relax and recuperate and build supportive relationships that are entirely their own.

People who have difficulty finding others to confide in, so bottling up years of emotions and pain at times of bereavement or loss.

People who have lost touch with the natural world.

In itself this is not an inaccurate description of frequently seen characteristics of Fibromyalgia and CFS sufferers. However it is so broad that it can describe sufferers with a multitude of other conditions.

The human body is a remarkably resilient organism, able to accommodate fantastic pressures and stresses, but as with all machines and organisms there comes a breaking point.

Stress and anxiety appear to be a very large facilitating factor for people who become the unlucky few to develop CFS and Fibromyalgia after a "trigger" infection or trauma.

A lesser but analogous example of stress related conditions are those referred to as “burnout", or simply stress and I quote.

"A series of personal life circumstances combine to create a “breaking point”, for example; death of a close family member, chronic pain, moving house, bullying at work, divorce, separation,  financial loss or redundancy have all been linked to detrimental changes in health"



How stress and anxiety can become a causal factor in Fibromyalgia and CFS

The initial trauma that was the notable “trigger” of your CFS or Fibromyalgia is usually cited as a bacterial/viral or chemically invasive attack of some kind, but it has been noted that in some sufferers extreme acute stress and anxiety, such as bereavement, divorce, bullying, extremes of overwork may also be a trigger for CFS symptoms in the absence of a notable infection or exposure.

This makes sense in that scientific evidence has shown conclusively that stress lowers our immune defenses against infection as witnessed by white blood cell and lymphocyte counts.

Also, stress and anxiety have been shown to directly affect the body in the short to medium term causing extreme fatigue and more disabling problems such as migraine, impairment of concentration and memory, interrupted sleep patterns and depression.

Fortunately, as a society we have been woken up to the negative effects of stress and anxiety.

As is often the case it has taken the negative economic implications of excess anxiety and stress to spur employers and healthcare providers into action.

Sufferers no longer have to fight against the labeling that was common with previous generations which took the basic premise that stress, depression and anxiety are all in the mind and are a sign of weakness

How stress and anxiety can maintain and exacerbate CFS and Fibromyalgia

Stress, depression and anxiety are known to slow down and in severe cases prevent recovery from infectious illnesses, and this is partly where the confusion and malpractice surrounding the CFS/depression arena was instigated and fed by general practice and psychologists over the last few decades.

The dividing line between the two conditions can appear very fine to the untrained eye, but on closer inspection CFS and Fibromyalgia do in fact have a totally unique subset of features when compared to depressions of all types

To further muddy the waters both CFS and depression cause physical symptoms which can be similar to each other on initial presentation and also there is definitive crossovers of the symptoms of various infectious illnesses of the rheumatic and auto-immune spectrum.

Unfortunately, establishment apathy and nonchalance regarding the true nature of CFS and Fibromyalgia have lead to it being sidelined as a subdivision of psychology and particularly depression.

Historically, when help is sought, sufferers are sometimes left feeling isolated and misunderstood to the extent that they will begin to hide their symptoms, living in denial, worried about other peoples reactions, and press on regardless while understating their illness.

But this time, the body is not playing! These typical reactions only serve to heighten overall stress and anxiety levels which is precisely the opposite of the reaction we are seeking to promote - recuperation. And so the sufferer experiences a further exacerbation and worsening of symptoms.

A lot of sufferers understandably avoid further professional help.

In the early stage, sufferers work very hard to find a cure and convince people that CFS/ME/Fibromyalgia is a real illness. This leads to sufferers experiencing a desperate urgency to recover and find the magic bullet which does not exist.

All this while sufferers are feeling threatened, scared, angry, stigmatized and generally ill.

The stress and anxiety cycle goes even higher, and the result, sufferers sink even lower.

There are times in a person life, (most all of it), when it may simply be too difficult to actually be ill at all.

For example as a carer of an ill relative, or a baby or young children, during a period of house renovation or construction, the demands of work as primary source of income.

In the absence of people that can help practically and emotionally in these life scenarios it can be very difficult to actually say “STOP”

Traditional medicine understood the importance of recuperation, rest, relaxation and contemplation as an important therapeutical facet of overcoming serious illnesses and infections.

Hitorically, in the presence of a frightening array of diseases which are now largely purged from modern society, and the absence of powerful antibiotics and antivirals, painkillers and analgesics, the body was largely left to its own devices.

In Traditional medicine sufferers were often treated with herbal tonics and natural cures, a lot of these were incidentally quite effective but have now been largely forgotten, dismissed or banned from the shelves, to be reproduced in synthetic form to provide the basis of 75% of modern pharmaceuticals.

However the primary strategy of the era involved long periods of rest and recuperation.

By contrast, modern medicine and society place more importance on masking the symptoms, "keeping a stiff upper lip", "knocking it on the head" and "getting back on the job" as quickly as possible. 

A "get well quick" mentality which unfortunately is completely at odds with a recuperative strategy for illnesses such as CFS and Fibromyalgia.

Learning to control and reduce stress and anxiety is an important and essential adjunct to any CFS and Fibromyalgia recovery strategy.

You will need to learn how to recognize stress and anxiety patterns and how to short circuit the sequence of events that lead to a "stress spiral".

Techniques of physical and psychological relaxation are essential and very effective.

Learning when to say NO is essential and avoiding all events and activities that place you under unnecessary stress or anxiety are essential in the short to medium term.

In my next article on this subject I will be talking about techniques that can be used effectively to short circuit and alleviate stress and anxiety at home, in the car and at the workplace.







                  Clive L. Haslam, (B.A, M.Sc, PgDip)

                     CFS/ Fibromyalgia Research

CFS/ Fibromyalgia Sufferer




Fibromyalgia/ Chronic Fatigue Articles     Frequently Asked Questions

The Autonomic Nervous System


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