Childhood Trauma, Life Stress, and Risk Factors for Chronic Fatigue

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a common health problem, especially in cancer survivors. To provide better care and prevention for patients with fatigue, it is important to understand the risk factors for this health problem.

Studies have linked childhood stress and life stress with fatigue in cancer survivors. In a recent investigation, the exposure to stress among breast cancer survivors was evaluated using the Stress and Adversity Inventory for more than 90 types of acute and chronic stressors (Bower et al., 2014). The study found that increased levels of stress exposure in a long period were associated with continuous fatigue among breast cancer survivors, in comparison with those non-fatigued survivors. Such stressful events included those during both childhood and adulthood. Such discovery may be helpful for finding the risk factors for chronic fatigue among cancer survivors.

In another study, 43 patients with CFS were compared with 60 non-fatigued control subjects (Heim et al., 2006). The study analyzed self-reported childhood stress and trauma such as emotional and physical neglect, as well as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The evaluation also included the analyses of the psychopathological disorders including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study found that increased levels of childhood trauma and psychopathology were connected to the chronic fatigue cases (Heim et al., 2006).

Specifically, among all of the trauma types, those who had childhood trauma showed a 3- to 8-fold higher risk for developing chronic fatigue (Heim et al., 2006). In addition, a graded association was established between the degree of trauma exposure and the risks for the development of CFS. Those who suffered childhood trauma showed higher CFS symptom severity. Furthermore, the chronic fatigue risks associated with childhood trauma were even higher with the existence of psychopathological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD (Heim et al., 2006).

These studies have indicated that childhood trauma and lifetime stress are critical risk factors for the occurrence of CFS, especially in cancer survivors. Such risk factors may be linked to abnormal emotional states and psychopathological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. The identification of the risk factors for chronic fatigue and the understanding of the patho-psychological mechanisms underlying childhood and life stress may enable the design of strategies for both prevention and treatment of chronic fatigue.


Bower JE, Crosswell AD, Slavich GM. Childhood Adversity and Cumulative Life Stress: Risk Factors for Cancer-Related Fatigue. Clin Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan;2(1). doi: 10.1177/2167702613496243.

Heim C, Wagner D, Maloney E, Papanicolaou DA, Solomon L, Jones JF, Unger ER, Reeves WC. Early adverse experience and risk for chronic fatigue syndrome: results from a population-based study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Nov;63(11):1258-66.

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