I can almost feel the earth tremble in anger at the very mention of psychology being mentioned in relation to chronic illnesses, CFS/ME especially. I am not surprised given the past ignorance of medical professionals passing us off as it being ‘all in our heads’ as if we, on some level, want to live our lives stuck with our limitations. We don’t have a psychological illness so how can psychology help us? I hear you cry…
Well in the case of Chronic Fatigue, the NHS * splits our energy types into 4 groups: Physical; Cognitive; Emotional and Homeostatic (energy through our bodies natural processes). Each one of these is impacted by our psychological wellbeing or in other words our mind and thus our behaviour:
- Physical – When we are stressed or worried, we can tense our muscles up and begin to ache in our neck or shoulders for example. This makes it harder and more uncomfortable to move and can use up our energy quicker.
- Cognitive – When we use our brains to think of a quiz answer, when we learn a new topic or try to remember something, these all use our cognitive energy. It’s why you feel tired after studying or after a day at work as you have been focused and concentrating.
- Emotional – When we hear or watch something sad, we can cry or laugh if it is something funny. We use our muscles in our face to smile and our voices to laugh. Our shoulders may bounce up and down with laughter too. This all uses our energy.
- Homeostatic – This is when our bodies naturally use food to maintain a balanced energy system. It includes the nervous system, immune system and endocrine system (our hormones)**. This gets wordy to describe, but basically examples are when we are upset it can disrupt our digestive system and we may get indigestion or if we’re run-down we can more easily pick up a bug as our immune system is weakened.
Psychological therapies aim to find and control our mind’s functions to reduce our triggers of stress, anxiety and low mood, which in turn can impact on how our bodies function.
I often read posts on social media stating people feel ignored as their doctor has referred them for therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) as if their symptoms are all in their minds. To date there is no treatment for Chronic Fatigue other than ‘Pacing’ which is largely provided by Occupational Therapists and is more of a management tool than a treatment as such. These psychological therapies help in a different way. They can offer ways to cope and accept what is happening to you. These therapies are all about discovering your individual style of thinking, the patterns and the way you react to situations. They can help us change the way we think so we make better, more positive decisions. Practised every day we can help reduce our stress and boost our mood which in turn can lessen our symptoms. They can be a huge help in our everyday lives.
Of course, these types of therapies don’t work for everyone. It is about finding which one suits you and you must have the determination to work at it and help change your mindset. I have read books and often refer to techniques to keep my mind in check. For me, they really do help.
*Marks, D. F (2021). ME/CFS as a Breakdown in Homeostasis. Science, Behaviour, Homeostasis. WordPress.com.
**NHS (2020). Supporting Health and Wellbeing. Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust.