Sarah Morris, founder and director of Brain Happy suffered from nausea, sore throats, muscle aches and fatigue for around 6 years before she realised that it was caused by burnout and stress. Here she outlines how she searched for a cure and finally found one where she least expected it.
I was 16 when I first started feeling sick. I had had a bout of gastro-enteritis where I was up in the night with a fever and vomiting. I got over it in a couple of days but in the weeks that followed I continued to feel nauseous on-and-off, with dizziness, ringing in the ears, muscle aches and feeling tired. Over the months that followed, I saw various NHS doctors, including a gastroenterologist, and had several tests. All tests came back absolutely normal. It was scary having an illness that no one could diagnose. After 6 months, during which time I had lost a stone in weight, had several weeks off school and missed two holidays, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS, then referred to as ME). My parents then sent me to a private doctor who had a personal interest in CFS, although none of the interventions he tried helped, except Myers injections of highly concentrated vitamins, which certainly did stop the muscle aches for a period of time (I now understand that magnesium deficiency is a common finding in CFS, and is also commonly depleted in times of stress).
I continued with school but was told to stop playing sport in order to conserve my energy. At age 18, I took some time to travel and felt quite a lot better, although I would have occasional symptoms. I was doing pretty well until age 21, I came down with a virus for a few days and didn’t feel better for about a year. I missed a lot of social occasions but managed to leave university with a First Class degree. I had (and have) always been studious and worked hard.
Recovery and relapse
After university, I went off travelling and working overseas for 18 months. I finally seemed to have gotten rid of my mystery illness and carried on with my life, not really looking back at all. I had always assumed it was caused by some sort of mystery virus. But then, aged 29 it struck again. I had moved to Nairobi, Kenya to start a new career in teaching at one of Kenya’s best schools. It was a school with high expectations of both teachers and students, and I pushed myself to achieve the best. Typically, I would be on my feet for around 9 hours a day, running up and down stairs and with about 10 jobs to do in every spare minute. In the evenings and on weekends, I filled my life with volunteer activities, online courses, sport, trips and so on.
I woke up with a sore throat one morning and assumed I had come down with a virus that was going around. But the sore throat just didn’t go away. My muscles started to ache all the time and I felt weak. I saw many doctors (so much so that Google Maps automatically allocated the doctors’ surgery as my ‘home address’). I had various diagnoses including pneumonitis and H. pylori, and numerous tests including CT scans, MRIs and barium x-rays. At one point, the doctor had suggested my new symptom of gastric reflux was caused by stress and my response was that I wasn’t stressed and that I was really happy with my life. I saw my GP during one holiday in England. I think I was in her room around 45 seconds in total, in which time, she told me I had post viral fatigue syndrome (more or less the same as CFS), and that it will go away soon.
How I discovered mental health caused my physical symptoms
Things changed around two years in. I had had a really stressful morning and was going to play tennis with a friend. I was feeling very nauseous and told my friend that I thought I was coming down with food poisoning and was unlikely to play very well. He suggested that I consider whether or not my symptoms were caused by stress. It sounds incredibly stupid now, but I honestly had never, ever considered stress to be a potential causal factor. He persuaded me to see a psychotherapist called Liz Hancock, who specialised in chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic pain and CFS. The food poisoning never arose. In fact, I felt better after our game of tennis.
Liz Hancock made me realise that I had a pattern of stress and that although I felt happy, my body was never allowed to rest. I never had ‘down time’ and was on the go all the time. I wouldn’t ever consider the idea of just lounging around for a while, even on holidays. If there was a gap in time between two commitments, I would fill it with something else. I was continually functioning at 100 miles an hour; I walked fast, ate fast and did everything with haste. My life, both at work and at home, involved a constant stream of tasks and absolutely no breaks. In fact, while I was at work, I could even feel the adrenaline running through my body. Furthermore, I was aware that I had never liked school and found university very stressful (because of exams and deadlines) so things started to add together. I realised that, in fact, I had spent much of my childhood in a state of stress, and this had only really gone away when I went off travelling aged 22. Starting this new career aged 29 had set it all off again.
My treatment for burnout
Liz suggested I start the Chyrsalis Effect programme for chronic fatigue. It is a holistic online coaching programme that helps you address various areas of your life. One of the recommendations on this course was to see the expert nutritionist (and former endocrinologist), Dr. Barry Peatfield, who recommended I have an Adrenal Stress Index (ASI) and in-depth thyroid test (much more in-depth that the standard thyroid test done by the GP). Finally, after years of symptoms, I had some tests back that showed abnormalities. My adrenal glands were exhausted and my thyroid was under-functioning: it was burnout. Some doctors call this adrenal fatigue; the depletion of your adrenal system because of your body being in a constant state of stress, in which adrenal hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released continually instead of only in ‘fight or flight’ mode. It seems simple and obvious, though many GPs haven’t heard of it and don’t believe in it.
Anyway, I started taking an adrenal and thyroid supplement, as recommended by Dr. Peatfield. Under the direction from Liz Hancock, my psychotherapist, I cut out some of my extra-curricular commitments (especially things I found more of a drain on my time than fun), drastically cut down laptop and phone screen time, and allocated 20 minutes each day immediately after work to sit down in silence. I also did mindfulness every day and slowed down my pace at work. I often spent Saturdays sitting in my garden in Nairobi just hanging out. On weekends away, for the first time ever, I would spend an afternoon on a sun lounger, just like everyone else. Six months later, I was more or less symptom-free.
Five years later, I am still symptom free, except when I go through particularly stressful events, in which case I tend to get muscle aches, a headache and/or nausea. The difference is that this time, I can clearly see the link and take action. I have to be on top of my ‘self-care’ and continue with mindfulness, down time and sometimes expressive writing. If I think I need a break, I take one. I recently discovered an app called Curable which is endorsed by the medical profession, and which is designed to treat chronic pain through mindfulness, expressive writing and brain training. I fully believe in it and hope that the medical system as a whole will soon realise that these sorts of interventions can treat a multitude of other symptoms and syndromes.
Read more on the link between chronic pain and mental health.
The World Health Organization recognised burnout in 2019 as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’