With ME/CFS, we have finite energy. If our tank reaches 0, we crash, and that sucks.

To this problem pacing is your bread and butter, your sword and shield, your hat and monocle (Alright, I’ll stop). It’s likely that if you have done any research on ME/CFS that you have heard of pacing and that it’s pretty essential to symptom management. And I am here to tell you that yes, that is absolutely 100% correct.

Well, why is it important?

  1. It’s a way of avoiding crashes (a worsening of symptoms after over-exerting yourself)
  2. It’s a way of building up stamina over time

So… What is it?

It’s balancing your activity level with rest so that you limit the number of crashes, while still being able to do as much as you can within your limits.

Well that’s all good and dandy, but it’s hard to make sense of when you’re standing at your door and, say, deciding whether or not to walk to the florist and you’re feeling a little sapped.

So, below are some more relatable/helpful ways of thinking about pacing so that you get your energy management just right.

Useful ways to think about your energy

Not knowing if or when you’re going to crash, or where your energy boundaries are is a truly horrifying feeling. Even those veterans out there trip up sometimes.

Using metaphors and analogies to visualise your energy and your boundaries can be a useful way of thinking about your activity levels, so that you stay within your limits.

A cow in a field

Think of yourself as a cow in a field, surrounded by a ring of electrified fence. You can move around within the ring, but if you try to go beyond the ring you get electrocuted and then feel crappy for a while. 

The electric fence is your energy boundary. You need to stay within it. You need to be aware of where it is at all times, so that you make sure you don’t accidentally try and run through it to get to a new patch of grass (or whatever cows eat) and over-do it. 

Visualising your life as literally having an invisible boundary is a good way of thinking about your movement & activity over distance, e.g. how far is too much to walk. This way it makes it easier for you to decide what to commit to and what not to. Maybe a stroll to the florist is within my little force-field. Maybe I’ll go get some peonies.

It also allows you to track improvement in energy levels over a period of time. You will notice when the invisible ring is bigger and you can move around more.

How many spoons?

Well-known and widely applied, Spoon Theory is a useful way of thinking about your energy resources and how much you have left in the tank.

Each spoon is a unit of energy. You have a limited number of spoons. Each activity in your day will use up a spoon or two. When you only have one spoon left it’s time to rest and recharge your number of spoons.

So, being mindful of how many spoons you have at a given point in your day provides a clear sense of how much more you can do without resting. It’s a framework through which to plan your daily activity, a guide for when to ration and when to conserve your energy.

A cow in a field with a set of spoons?

Try using both ways of visualising your energy together, or even come up with your own. For me, the more ways I could think about my boundaries and resources the more control I had over myself and the smaller the risk was that I would do too much and crash. The point is that having a yardstick for your energy use, and which makes sense to you, will make pacing much much easier. So be creative. Find whatever works for you.

Building up stamina

Once you become confident with pacing you can begin to work up to those boundaries with some deftness, like stopping to rest when you’re ten steps away from a crash.  

With this level of control, you start to ‘bounce’ your boundaries as a form of exercise and build up your stamina: Walk 15m one day and you may find you will be able to walk 20m the next, and so on. Think of it as training for a marathon, but on a slightly different scale.

With smartphones and fitness trackers, you really can get scientific. Some people even monitor their heart rate when doing activity, making sure it doesn’t go above certain BPM for example.

What happens when I do too much?

You will get it wrong. It will happen.

But, when it does, learn from it. Make a note of what you were doing when it happened. Make note of the warning signs – did you feel light-headed or spaced out just before? Compare how much you did to what you thought your limit was. Make a note of the internal thoughts and feelings you were having and how they may have contributed.

A setback is hard to take. But if you learn from it, it’s a bit of wisdom gained for next time you are out and about and testing your boundaries. And so after a little tumble, you can tell yourself, “I now know what I won’t do again. I will come back stronger”

What ways do you find helpful in thinking about your energy? How have you gone about pacing? Please comment below


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