Last month a report on the possible biological mechanisms underlying Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) generated a lot of interest on social media so I thought I would follow that up with a new study that discusses the psychological and emotional processes of the disorder.
This study from researchers at King’s College London looked at the relationship between emotional suppression and fatigue in CFS. Patients recruited from two specialist CFS services (and healthy controls) were required to watch a distressing film clip. Half of the group were told that they could deal with the emotions from watching the film in any way that they liked and the other half were told that they had to suppress their emotional responses. All were monitored for signs of distress by video-tape and skin conductivity.
Before watching the video participants completed a questionnaire about their beliefs about emotions. This scale is designed to uncover whether people hold unhelpful beliefs, for example that showing emotions is a sign of weakness, that it is important to keep up a brave face or that others will think less of you for expressing your true feelings. Participants also completed a measure of depression and anxiety. After watching the clip participants were asked how fatigued the felt.
The results showed that participants with CFS experienced higher rates of distress but were less likely to express them, even when they were allowed to. This study indicates that this is partly due to self-held beliefs by the CFS group that expression of emotion is unacceptable. Interestingly, all participants in the suppression condition experienced higher levels of anxiety at the end of watching the film.
The researchers also showed an important relationship between emotional suppression and fatigue. When emotions were suppressed the distress didn’t go away but showed up in the body, and this increased physiological distress was associated with higher rates of fatigue. In short: the more suppression the more fatigue.
In addition, people in the CFS group were so efficient at hiding their feelings that observers found it difficult to tell if they were suffering. In the real world this makes it harder for individuals to access support and increases the likelihood of being overwhelmed and isolated.
This paper is important for individuals and professionals dealing with CFS. It highlights the importance of addressing the beliefs about emotions as a way of relieving the symptoms of the syndrome. Psychotherapy and mindfulness-based treatments are an effective way of helping people to stop supressing their emotions and learn how to accept, process and manage them providing hope for the 250,000 people with CFS in the UK.
Rimes, K. A., Ashcroft, J., Bryan, L., & Chalder, T. (2016). Emotional Suppression in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Experimental Study. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea000034