How I Lessen Stress
By Elena Rosen
Note: Elena Rosen is a CFS patient from Vermont and a course leader in the CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help Program.
Stress took a big toll on me when I was first sick with CFS; it overwhelmed me and made all my symptoms worse. But over several years I gained some control over the stressors in my life and this control has been a primary factor in my improvement from about 30% in 2008 to 60% three years later.
Pacing to Reduce Stress
To reduce the amount of stress in my life, my most essential tool is pacing, especially in the form of routine. Following a regular plan every day, I schedule activities and rest in time periods that correspond to my natural energy fluctuations.
This has led me to living within my energy envelope and reliably feeling better. While it may seem limiting to live on a schedule, it has brought much needed consistency and balance to my life.
Having structured protocols and practices for my daily life, as well as for various events, means I can live my life with less anxiety about overdoing it, because I don't have to put energy into figuring out when I'm going to rest, how I'm going to break a task down into manageable chunks or how I'm going to pace myself.
Once I had formed a good understanding of my energy envelope I was able to start to develop these routines. I used target setting to introduce new elements into my life one at a time.
I tracked how these changes were working using daily logs. (I also reviewed them weekly to see how my symptoms were reacting long term). It's taken me a bit of trial and error to find these routines but they are the foundation of the improvement in the last three years.
A good example of a healthy habit I developed through target setting was stretching. I had wanted to make gentle stretching part of my daily routine but was struggling with doing it consistently. I experimented through a series of targets aimed at finding the time of day that was most conducive to doing my stretches with the thought that if it's easier to do it, I'd be more likely to do it regularly.
I tried stretching when I first woke up, but it didn't work because I was too groggy. Then I tried stretching after my walk, but that didn't work because it was too much activity in one go. After lunch didn't work because it made me nauseous. Then I finally found the sweet spot: stretching before I began to get ready for bed. (As a bonus it even improved the quality of my sleep.)
I've found that it's also important to build flexibility into my routines. I try to have contingency plans in case of an unexpected event (a disastrous night's sleep, for example) and not question my body if it says it's not up for the full schedule for whatever reason.
Stress from Socializing
Since becoming ill, I've noticed that I struggle being in stressful situations, like large parties or crowded gatherings. Such situations can take a huge toll on my health. The stimulation of being around other people can be very draining. Some part of it is simply the sensory overload of following conversations, especially trying to keep up with more than one at a time.
Another part of it is my tendency towards being an emotional sponge and soaking up what people around me are feeling. This vulnerability became more pronounced when I got CFS. Being around people who are stressed or tense can be especially difficult for me and often leaves me with the awful feeling of being anxious for no reason at all. I call it the effects of "second-hand stress."
The simplest way for me to deal with people or situations that are stressful is to avoid them as much as possible. While it is difficult for me to say no to people who I care about, my health is my first priority.
Remembering what I felt like in the past when I've overdone it and crashed helps lend me the strength to say "no" to situations and people that I know will overwhelm me. While this often means limiting myself to quiet alone time or small social gatherings, it is worth the difference it makes in my health.
It was a difficult transition from being a highly social person who was almost never alone, to needing to spend a large portion of my day alone. While solitude is not something that has come naturally to me I've learned to love and embrace it. When I have plenty of time to myself I'm better connected to my body and less likely to push myself outside of my energy envelope.
On the occasions when I have gotten stuck at a stressful event I go into "survival mode." I try to find a quiet place to sneak off and take a rest every hour or so (sometimes I have to get creative; a bathroom or the back seat of a car are always good options).
I also try to bring my own food, so I don't end up eating something off of my diet that will make me sick. If I have advance warning about the event I take extra rest the day before the event and plan on having a several lower activity days afterwards.
Keeping up with a mediation practice is another tool in my arsenal for dealing with stress.
I often meditate while I'm laying down doing my daily rest. Most of the time I simply bring my awareness to my breath and try to keep it there. If my mind wanders I gently bring it back to watching my breathing.
If my mind is particularly restless or I'm under a lot of stress I'll listen to a guided mediation using headphones. Sometimes I just need the extra guidance of an outside voice talking me down and tell me exactly what to do to relax.
While meditating helps me when I'm feeling particularly anxious, I feel I get the most benefit from doing it consistently, even when I'm not stressed. I think that my regular mediation practice has retrained my mind so that going to a peaceful, centered place is my mind's default setting when I'm faced with negative thoughts.
When all else fails I've found that sometimes a little escapism can help alleviate stress. A good novel, TV show or movie allows me step outside of my life for a little while and every now and then that's exactly what I need. I keep a running list of books I want from the library and movies I'd like to rent, so if I'm really frazzled I don't have to put energy into trying to find something good.
Using routine, stress avoidance, meditation and other strategies has made a big difference. Reducing the stress in my life has reduced my symptoms and given my body the chance to heal.