What does thyroid fatigue feel like?

Rachael Kraus, Maurice Beer M.D.
January 30th, 2022 · 12 min read
Medically Verified
Work and stress go hand-in-hand. In some ways, work wouldn’t be work without an element of stress.
Although stress gets a bad rap, it’s not totally a bad thing. We actually need healthy levels of stress to avoid boredom and depression and to stay motivated and mentally stimulated.
Of course, with modern work culture, it’s all too easy to experience more stress than is healthy on account of your job. And while work stressors may feel like a fact of life, chronic stress and anxiety can result in harmful short- and long-term physical and mental health effects.
But no matter the cause of your work-related stress, there are coping strategies that can help you manage whatever comes up. 

How work stress can affect the rest of your life

Work stress can originate from a wide variety of sources, and is a common affliction in the modern workplace. These are some frequent causes:
  • An excessive workload or lack of company support
  • Low pay
  • Unclear expectations or conflicting demands
  • Lack of control
  • Conflicts with coworkers
Unfortunately, what happens at work doesn’t stay at work. When you experience stress at your job, that carries over into the other parts of your life as well.

Relationship troubles

First, it can interfere with your relationships. Work stress can make it difficult to devote time and energy toward familial, romantic, and platonic relationships alike.
If dealing with job anxiety takes up a significant portion of your mental energy, then it directly detracts from how much you’re able to focus on your non-work relationships. Additionally, fixating on your stress can bring undue negativity into your relationships, which can be very difficult on the other person (and yourself). 

Decreased productivity and job satisfaction

Furthermore, high stress jobs can actually lead to decreased performance, productivity, and satisfaction. Continuing at a job that doesn’t bring you satisfaction can drain your energy, causing you to lose interest and motivation, potentially making it more difficult to motivate to find a new position.

Poor mental health

Work stress, like any stress, affects your mental health. It can lead to a variety of adverse effects on mental health, including anxiety, depression, burnout, and substance abuse disorders. Beyond that, workers who feel stressed are more likely to develop unhealthy behaviors, including smoking cigarettes, poor diet, and alcohol or drug abuse. 

Physical health issues

Beyond the mental and emotional effects, anxiety from work may negatively affect your physical health. Chronic stress can raise your cortisol beyond healthy levels, which can lead to bodily effects like sleep disturbance, weight gain, digestive issues, more frequent illness, blood sugar fluctuation, headaches, and high blood pressure. It can also lead to long-term health issues like autoimmune conditions, heart disease, chronic pain, and diabetes.

Tools and tips for reducing stress from work

Even if you’re in a stressful job situation that you’re unable to leave, there are ways that you can prioritize your health and reduce stress from work. These tactics involve deescalation during moments of duress as well as general lifestyle practices that can help you better manage a high-stress work environment.

Be aware of stress when it happens

The first step toward reducing stress is knowing when it’s happening. When you’re feeling a sense of overwhelm at work, it can be difficult to slow down and take the time to actually identify what feelings you may be feeling. However, increasing your self-awareness and checking in with yourself are the first steps toward managing stress, because you need to recognize it in order to regulate it.

Keep track of stressors

Every person has their own tipping point, and your experience of stressors depends on a variety of factors. That’s why it’s helpful to keep track of the situations and events that bring up anxious reactions --- so you know what exactly causes stress for you.
Try keeping a journal for a few weeks to note down experiences of stress, the situations in which they occurred, and how you responded to them. Useful information might include details about your physical environment, your thoughts/feelings during the event, the people involved, and your reactions after the fact. This can help you gain a better overall understanding of any patterns, which can then help you to identify suitable coping mechanisms and boundaries.

Identify unhealthy responses

When it comes to dealing with work stress, coping mechanisms are critical. Unfortunately, stress can too easily lead to unhealthy adaptive strategies, like eating poorly, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or using drugs. While these can offer a quick reprieve from negative feelings, the long-term effects of these behaviors are dangerous.
It can be difficult to break the cycle of these defense mechanisms, but taking steps toward healthier stress responses can significantly improve how you feel. These are some positive stress relievers to consider:
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity increases your brain’s production of endorphins and can generally help your body manage its fight or flight response. Don’t overdo it --- too much or too intense exercise can actually increase cortisol levels --- but a consistent, moderate workout routine improves your mental health as well as your physical health. Yoga, martial arts, and other practices that combine mindfulness with physical activity might be a good place to start.
  • Meditate. Practicing meditation can help you deal with stress. This practice emphasizes mindfulness and relaxation, and it’s very accessible: with the help of an app or an online video, you can learn to meditate at home. It can also help you improve your sleep quality, which can, in turn, lower your cortisol levels.
  • Prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation can make it harder to cope with stressors and can lead to increased cortisol production. This can create a vicious cycle if stress itself is disrupting your sleep. Small changes like cutting down on caffeine and restricting the use of screens before bed can make a significant difference in sleep quality.

Establish healthy boundaries

In our increasingly digital world, it’s easy for the lines between work and personal life to become blurred. This is even more true in the recent years of increased working from home. Feeling like you need to be available 24/7 might make it impossible to truly relax.
However you can, try to establish work/life boundaries for yourself that will help you actually have time for yourself. This might include:
  • A daily cut-off time for checking emails or an email-free policy for weekends
  • Taking time to consider and set realistic deadlines before you accept new projects
  • Asking for a project’s timeline before you determine whether you can take it on
  • Delegating tasks to coworkers

Talk to your supervisor

This can seem daunting, but keep in mind that your boss wants you to be as productive and effective as possible at work, and you can’t do that if you’re dealing with chronic stress or burnout. When talking to a supervisor, aim to avoid complaining, and instead work together to lay out your job priorities and strategize an effective plan for managing work stressors.
Before you start this discussion, think about what you might need, whether that’s guidance on time management, a better understanding of expectations, or another workplace resource. 

Take time for yourself

Being able to completely disengage from work from time to time is critical for wellbeing. You need time for yourself, whether that’s spent relaxing and recharging alone, enjoying quality time with family or friends, or pursuing one of your hobbies or interests.
Turn your phone off and focus on something completely unrelated from work. Take vacation days and leave your laptop at home. As often as you can, do whatever feels best to recharge and recenter.

Use relaxation techniques at work and outside of work

Deep breathing is a simple yet effective relaxation technique that you can employ during moments of stress, but also as a general daily practice. The great thing about breath focus is that you can do it literally any time, and it can counteract the feeling of the fight-or-flight response, which speeds up your breathing and heart rate.
Additionally, you can incorporate regular body scans where you mentally focus on one part of the body at a time, starting with your toes and finishing at your head, relaxing your muscles along the way. This can help you address the physical manifestations of the stress response.

Identify support

It’s critical to identify a support network as you deal with anxiety. This can include friends and family who you trust, but can also include a therapist, councilor, or any support resources that your employer may offer.

Monitor your health

Chronic stress can negatively impact your wellbeing, which is why managing workplace stress also means checking in on your underlying health. Stress is related directly to cortisol, but your cortisol levels can also affect a variety of other hormones and bodily processes, and hormonal or nutrient imbalances can snowball into serious health effects down the road.
For monitoring your health, you might consider a service like Base: it offers an easy way to check your stress-related biomarkers at home, then it provides specific suggestions for lifestyle changes and supplements that are tailored to your specific needs. This type of service also makes it easy and accessible to track your health over time, which can help you gain a better understanding of what stress management techniques work best for you.
Chronic stress can feel impossible to escape from --- especially if it’s happening as a result of your job, which makes up a huge portion of your life. But there are plenty of small steps you can take to relieve yourself of stress and introduce more calm into your life.In this article:
  • The connection between thyroid levels and fatigue
  • What does thyroid fatigue feel like?
  • Can people without clinical thyroid disease still have thyroid problems?
  • Is it possible to cure thyroid fatigue?
  • How to know if thyroid levels are the cause of your fatigue
A small gland found at the base of the neck, the thyroid may be integral to everything from your metabolism to your sleep quality, but it isn’t always given the credit it deserves. When your thyroid produces too many hormones - or not enough of them - this has some pretty far-reaching consequences for your health, and especially for your energy levels.
  • For many people with unexplained energy problems, a thyroid disorder is the root cause.
  • Even without a clinical diagnosis of thyroid disease, it’s still possible to experience fatigue as a result of a thyroid hormone imbalance. 
  • You can learn a lot about the state of your thyroid by looking for key symptoms, but lab testing is the only way to know exactly what’s going on. 

The connection between thyroid levels and fatigue

For a lot of people, feeling tired and run-down is pretty much the norm. They might try to deal with it by drinking more coffee, taking the occasional nap, or even cutting down on junk food in the hopes that it’ll help somehow. If the cause of their fatigue is a thyroid disorder, though, none of that will do much good. They might as well try to patch a flat tire with a band-aid - it’ll fall off before they’ve even had the chance to turn around.
Plus, you can’t simply talk about “thyroid levels and fatigue” without specifying the nature of the imbalance. Some people suffer from low levels of thyroid hormones, a condition known as “hypothyroidism”. Others experience high levels of thyroid hormones, known as “hyperthyroidism”. Guess which symptom they both share in common, though? You guessed it: fatigue. 
  • Hypothyroidism and fatigue

The sheer number of functions performed by thyroid hormones could occupy a much longer article than this one. That being the case, when your thyroid isn’t able to produce enough hormones, you’re in trouble. Your metabolism will slow down, resulting in lower energy levels.
When you read “metabolism”, don’t think “the ability to eat burgers and pizza every day and not gain weight”; think “impaired mitochondrial function, leading to a decrease in energy production”. If the technical lingo is a bit much, here’s the layman’s version: hypothyroidism results in a lack of hormones that are necessary for producing energy, so fewer thyroid hormones = less energy.
  • ​​Hyperthyroidism and fatigue

If fewer thyroid hormones result in less energy, surely higher thyroid hormones would result in more energy, right? Sorry, but no; you’ll probably still feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. It’s confusing, but the explanation is actually pretty simple.
Think about what happens when you drink too much coffee. The caffeine provides an energy boost, but if you drink it all day long, you’ll feel wired and jittery. You won’t be able to relax, much less sleep, and your energy levels will tank even with all that caffeine. Thyroid hormones don’t work the same way coffee does, but in excess, they can have much the same effect on your energy - even to the point of causing anxiety and chronic insomnia. You don’t have to look at cellular dynamics to learn why hyperthyroidism causes fatigue; it simply happens because you can’t sleep properly anymore!
If you were hoping for a quick fix for your thyroid fatigue, you’re going to be disappointed. Thyroid problems don’t develop overnight, so they won’t go away if you start practicing yoga or decide to try mixing sleep aids (don’t do that, by the way). What you can do, though, is understand the problem - because that’s the first step to finding the solution.

What does thyroid fatigue feel like?

Have you ever tried to sleep on an old air mattress, only to wake up in the middle of the night wallowing in a half-deflated pile of suede-covered plastic? Well, that sad, leaky air mattress is a visual representation of what thyroid fatigue feels like. No matter how much you want to stay full of energy, you always end up feeling wilty and crumpled.
If you’re at the level of clinical thyroid dysfunction, “fatigue” could seem like a misnomer - “exhaustion” might be a more accurate description. You might not be able to sleep at night, but your body will be begging for a nap all day long. And if you do manage to get in an afternoon snooze, you could find it nearly impossible to wake up and function afterwards - it’s like sleep just makes your fatigue worse.
While both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism share fatigue as a symptom, that isn’t the only thing you might experience with both kinds of thyroid disorder. You could also see symptoms like:

Can people without clinical thyroid disease still have thyroid problems?

Just like many other hormone imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, you could start seeing the signs that something’s off way before a doctor could diagnose you with anything official. Your thyroid doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to go haywire; for most people, the changes will occur over a period of several years. This is true even for Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that targets the thyroid as if it’s a foreign object in the body. The progression can be so slow that it often takes up to 10 years to be diagnosed; meanwhile, the patient has to deal with daily exhaustion, brain fog, and more until their blood tests show a specific result.
Unfortunately, the medical community is not in agreement on how to treat subclinical thyroid disorders. Some say that clear hormonal imbalances should be treated whether or not they’ve reached the level of a diagnosable disease, while others point out the subclinical hypothyroid patients who have gotten treatment, only to pendulum-swing into hyperthyroidism as a result.
This leaves people with subclinical thyroid disorders in a bit of an awkward position. According to some experts (possibly including their own doctors, in some cases), their only option is to essentially let the disease progress until they finally meet the standard parameters for treatment.
However, if you have the lab tests (and the fatigue!) to prove a definite hormonal imbalance, you don’t necessarily have to wait for a particular medical professional to green-light your treatment. For instance, you could go to an endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in hormonal disorders and functions). Don’t take this as advice to go doctor-shopping, obviously; it’s just that it’s possible for one doctor to miss something that another (particularly a specialist) could identify.

Is it possible to cure thyroid fatigue?

If you’re talking about clinical hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, then no, there isn’t a cure. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution, though! For hypothyroidism, you can take prescription medications like levothyroxine, a synthetic thyroid hormone; it essentially replaces the thyroid hormones that your body isn’t making, so you can work towards regaining normal energy levels. Hyperthyroid patients can take radioactive iodine to suppress thyroid function, among other treatment options.
In other words, while fatigue caused by thyroid hormone imbalances isn’t curable, it is fixable. If you find out that you’ve been living with fatigue due to messed-up thyroid hormones, there are absolutely steps you can take to change that.  

How to know if thyroid levels are the cause of your fatigue

Let’s zoom out for a minute. You’ve been reading about how thyroid disorders can cause fatigue - very severe fatigue, in some cases. Maybe you suspect that your thyroid might be causing the same problem for you, and maybe you’re right. That being said, even if a dysfunctional thyroid is getting you down, your energy problems may not stem from just one cause. If you’re like most people, in fact, there are probably several reasons why you’ve been feeling sluggish.
How can you tell for sure, though? In most cases, the culprits would be other hormonal imbalances, or even nutrient deficiencies. If your levels of cortisol, testosterone, B12, or Vitamin D are off, for example, there’s basically no chance you’ll have decent energy. And the kicker is, you could get your thyroid hormone levels looking absolutely pristine, but still feel like a squashed bug because of other untreated imbalances. Looking for relevant symptoms can tell you a lot, but for accurate information, you’d have to get some lab tests done. And you don’t even have to visit a doctor; you could do some simple finger-prick lab tests at home. You could measure key biomarkers, and maybe even rule out a few things that are an issue for many people, but not for you.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that before you can find a solution, you have to identify the problem. Thyroid fatigue can be a tough nut to crack, but wherever you are on the “messed-up thyroid” scale, you still have options that can make your life better. And remember - if you start showing your thyroid some love, chances are it’ll start loving you right back.
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