Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients are more anxious and distressed than people without the condition, and they tend to hide these emotions. Lead author Katharine Rimes explained, “We hope that this research will contribute to a greater understanding of the needs of people with chronic fatigue syndrome, some of whom may tend not to communicate their experiences of symptoms or stress to other people. Others may be unaware of the difficulties experienced by chronic fatigue syndrome patients and therefore not provide appropriate support.”
Participants who felt that expressing emotions was socially unacceptable were more likely to keep their feelings bottled in. This was seen in both chronic fatigue patients and healthy individuals.
The study observed 160 participants from the U.K. Physiological responses were collected before and after watching a distressing film. Half of the participants were diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and the rest of them were deemed healthy
Half of the participants in each group were asked to suppress their emotions while the other half were allowed to express their feelings. Reactions were filmed, and skin conductance was measured. Skin conductance increases with greater sweating, which is indicative of the fight-or-flight response.
Regardless of the instructions, those with chronic fatigue syndrome were more likely to experience anxiety and sadness, compared to the control group. However, they were less likely to display those emotions. Rimes explained, “Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome often tell us that stress worsens their symptoms, but this study demonstrates a possible biological mechanism underlying this effect.”
Rimes concluded, “These findings may help us understand why some chronic fatigue syndrome patients don’t seek out social support at times of stress. Patients’ families may benefit from information about how to best support patients who tend to hide their emotions.”
Additional research has to be conducted on larger groups with greater diversity, as the present study mainly involved white participants who were being treated at a chronic fatigue clinic.