Background. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and depression share a number of common symptoms and the majority of CFS patients meet lifetime criteria for depression. While cognitive factors seem key to the maintenance of CFS and depression, little is known about how the cognitive characteristics differ in the two conditions.
Methods. Fifty-three CFS patients were compared with 20 depressed patients and 38 healthy controls on perceptions of their health, illness attributions, self-esteem, cognitive distortions of general and somatic events, symptoms of distress and coping. A 6 month follow-up was also conducted to determine the stability of these factors and to investigate whether CFS-related cognitions predict ongoing disability and fatigue in this disorder.
Results. Between-group analyses confirmed that the depressed group was distinguished by low self-esteem, the propensity to make cognitive distortions across all situations, and to attribute their illness to psychological factors. In contrast, the CFS patients were characterized by low ratings of their current health status, a strong illness identity, external attributions for their illness, and distortions in thinking that were specific to somatic experiences. They were also more likely than depressed patients to cope with their illness by limiting stress and activity levels. These CFS-related cognitions and behaviours were associated with disability and fatigue 6 months later.
Conclusions. CFS and depression can be distinguished by unique cognitive styles characteristic of each condition. The documented cognitive profile of the CFS patients provides support for the current cognitive behavioural models of the illness.