Stress: Time - and only time - is on your side

Experts suggest that it could take years to get back on your feet after burning out. That’s a reality the healthcare system in Denmark has trouble dealing with.

Lethargy. Sleeplessness. Trouble thinking clearly. Memory loss. For a Swedish doctor, those are all tell-tale symptoms of the illness people in that country call utmattningssyndrom. Literally translated, it means “exhaustion syndrome”. It has yet to be officially recognised in Denmark, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here, according to Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, a professor at the Institute of Stress Medicine at Gothenburg University.

Jónsdóttir recently took part in a study that followed Swedes with utmattningssyndrom over a 10-year period. By the time the study ended, a quarter of them were still showing symptoms related to the condition (read more below).

Jónsdóttir’s previous research has shown that 60% of those diagnosed with utmattningssyndrom are still out of work a year later. Three out of four can be expected to return to work after 18 months, but many of them report still being affected. Jónsdóttir’s study found that, after seven years, nearly everyone had returned to work, though for some it was in a new job or only part-time.

Similar pattern amongst Danes

Ligaya Dalgaard, a psychologist with Arbejdsmedicin Herning, an occupational health agency in the Mid-Jutland region, says the findings are in line with a similar study she helped conduct here in Denmark.

“Our study didn’t follow patients for as long as the Swedish study, but our material shows the same pattern. Some of those involved in our study report not being back on their feet after a year. Some are still affected after four years, even though they have gone back to work,” Dalgaard says. 

The people involved in the Danish study were diagnosed with milder cases of stress, which, according to Dalgaard, is reflected in the findings. 

“Most of the people in our study got better, and some within six months or less. But there were also some who report not feeling better even after several years.”

Only time heals this wound

According to Bjarne Toftegård, whose firm, Forebyg Stress, helps people learn how to avoid stress, udmattelsessydrom – the Danish term for the condition – is gradually coming into use here as the description for those most affected by stress. 

“The diagnosis is the same as for people who are suffering from a case of serious, long-term stress: their cognitive functions slow down, which makes it hard focus on more than one thing at a time, and they remain fatigued long after you would assume they would have been back on their feet,” he says. 

For now, though, udmattelsessydrom remains an unofficial diagnosis here. Anyone suffering from its symptoms, according to Toftegård, is likely to be diagnosed with depression. 

“They are similar, but the problem is that they aren’t depressed. Treating them like they are won’t have any effect. They don’t need therapy or medicine,” he says. 

Like others who work with people suffering from stress, he finds time is the only reliable treatment.

“That and preventing their condition from getting worse; keeping them out of stressful situations,” he says. “If they don’t get the time they need to get better – no matter how long that takes – things will just go back to being the way they were, or even get worse. They may face pressure from their employer to go back to work, or ‘the system’ might try to force them into job retraining, but the only thing that is going to do is keep them from getting better.”

For Jónsdóttir, the situation is comparable to having a broken leg.

“The body has experienced something and the healing process takes time,” she says. “If you broke your leg, you would wait until it was totally healed until you started walking on it again. That’s my opinion, but there is still more research that needs to be done.”

Stress test

In order to be diagnosed with udmattelsessyndrom in Sweden, you need to be able to answer "yes" to all the questions below:

Question 1: Your primary symptom is a significant lack of mental energy, which you experience as reduced initiative, reduced endurance or prolonged recovery time after mental strain. 

Question 2: You experience all of the following symptoms most days during the same two-week period:

  • Concentration difficulties or memory problems
  • Markedly reduced ability to manage demands or to perform under time pressure
  • Emotional instability or irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical symptoms such as pain, chest pain, palpitations, stomach aches, dizziness or sensitivity to sound

Question 3: Your symptoms cause clinically significant suffering or reduced ability to function at work, socially or in other important situations.

Question 4: You do not have a major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder or generalised anxiety disorder.

Question 5: Your symptoms are not related to direct physiological effects of a substance (such as drug abuse or medication) or somatic disease/injury (such as hypothyroidism, diabetes or infectious disease).

Source: stress.se

This article is published by Djøfbladet, It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk