Pain & the Mind-Body Connection: Chronic fatigue syndrome

By Joseph Gustaitis

Pain & the Mind-Body Connection: Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is, for doctors, a puzzling condition to treat. CFS is characterized by extreme tiredness; other symptoms include muscle pain, insomnia, weakness, and poor memory and concentration. What makes it exasperating is that there is no readily apparent underlying medical cause.

In other words, experts have not been able to determine where CFS comes from. Many theories have been put forth—it might be caused by stress, depression, or even a virus—but an answer remains elusive.

However, studies of CFS have pointed to the importance of an individual’s personality. That is, certain personality traits seem to predispose a person to CFS. Those traits include perfectionism, high personal standards, self-criticism, and achievement orientation. Some people who tend to be highly critical of themselves will push themselves too hard—beyond the point of exhaustion—and that can result in fatigue. Experts call their actions “maladaptive coping strategies,” which are linked to “maladaptive perfectionism.”

Knowing that such harmful strategies can affect a person’s likelihood of developing CFS, researchers in Canada recently decided to look into the question of whether they might also play a role in how people deal with two other chronic conditions—irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia/arthritis. They recruited many subjects who had been diagnosed with CFS, IBS, or fibromyalgia/arthritis and also selected a control group of healthy individuals; in total, 980 people participated. The subjects were asked to complete surveys and questionnaires on personality and health that included such statements as “My best just never seems to be good enough for me” and “I set very high standards for myself.”

The results showed that CFS patients were more likely to use “maladaptive” strategies such as self-blame, and to display perfectionism. But the researchers also noted that maladaptive perfectionism was associated with maladaptive coping in IBS and in fibromyalgia/arthritis. Obviously, arthritis is not something that’s “all in your head,” but studies like this underline the importance of the mind-body connection and serve as a reminder that therapy-based psychological coping mechanisms can help someone who is dealing with a medical condition that causes pain.

Last Reviewed August 18, 2015

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This column is written by Joseph Gustaitis, a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago area.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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