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Exhaustion syndrome

Ill health related to stress is the most common cause of sick leave today. When stress goes too far, there is a risk of developing exhaustion syndrome, an illness that can take a long time for the body and soul to recover from and whose warning signals should be taken seriously.

What is exhaustion syndrome?

Exhaustion syndrome is the result of long-term chronic stress, which has gone on for at least six months without sufficient recovery. The condition was previously known as “burnout”, and means that the brain becomes overloaded and the stress becomes pathological.

Exhaustion syndrome can be described in three phases. The first is the prodromal phase, which may produce physical and mental stress symptoms but where the person is still functional in their daily life. Most people understand that the symptoms are due to excessive stress and change their lifestyle.

If nothing is done about the situation, a person risks entering the acute phase. This often happens quickly and suddenly, the source of the expression to “hit the wall”. The acute phase may last up to a few weeks when the person is not functional at all. It may be impossible to get out of bed, think clearly or concentrate. The ability to multitask disappears. Feelings of desperation and panic may arise, which can be misinterpreted as depression.

The third phase is the recovery phase, when the person gradually gets back on their feet but is still very tired, sensitive to stress and has difficulty with concentration and memory. The longer the recovery, the more normal a role the person can resume in their everyday life, although exhaustion syndrome always causes greater sensitivity to stress, even when other symptoms are gone.

How does this affect a person’s life?

80 percent of the people who develop exhaustion syndrome are women, and they are often not the ones other people thought would become ill. The person who develops the syndrome is often committed and good at their job, takes the greatest responsibility for their family and always puts the needs of others ahead of their own.

There are various symptoms of stress. It may manifest itself in physical symptoms such as backache, headache, gastrointestinal problems, heart palpitations and weakening of the immune system. A person may be tired but at the same time have a hard time relaxing and sleeping. They may feel anxious, depressed and have a harder time concentrating.

Why should a person seek help?

It’s important to pay attention to the body’s warning signs and seek help in time. Coming back after a bout of exhaustion is hard and can take a long time, but the earlier you seek care, the less harm the illness will be able to cause. No one will thank the exhausted person for how long they held out before they became ill.

If you or a relative is in the danger zone for ill health related to stress, you should seek help at a healthcare centre or occupational health services. Outpatient psychiatric care is recommended for acute symptoms. A doctor will perform a physical examination and listen as you explain your difficulties. A blood sample is often taken to rule out other illnesses.

Is it possible to feel better again?

Most people with exhaustion syndrome recover, although it may take a long time and they may have higher sensitivity to stress afterwards. Therefore there is also a risk of relapse. The sick person needs to take sick leave or reduce their workload to give their body a chance to recover. Relaxation exercises, exercise and good sleep can be helpful. Cut back on demands, allow yourself time with friends and family and do things you enjoy.

Treatment may consist of talk therapy, especially group therapy, or medication. It’s important to remember is that medication is not the solution, but an aid to address the real cause of the stress.