Living with chronic illness often means learning to navigate a new normal when it comes to energy, ability, and productivity. The standards that non-spoonies hold themselves simply aren’t sustainable or even possible when dealing with chronic conditions. Pushing our bodies beyond their limits can lead to crashes, flares, and setbacks that only exacerbate symptoms and derail any progress made. That’s where the concept of pacing when you have chronic illness comes into play.
Pacing when you have chronic illness involves aligning activity with available energy in order to avoid overexertion. It aims to help you function optimally without causing a post-exertional malaise crash. The ultimate goal is to establish a sustainable baseline routine that provides enough rest, engagement, variety, and productivity to support mental and physical wellbeing.
This is easier said than done, of course. Finding that sweet spot between overdoing it and underutilizing your capabilities takes time, experimentation, and plenty of trial and error.
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But the payoff can be huge in terms of stabilized symptoms, stamina building, reduced flares, and an overall higher quality of life. Here are some tips to get started:
Listen to Your Body
Tuning into your body’s signals is key for effective pacing when you have chronic illness. Learn to recognize your unique cues for tiredness, such as muscle soreness, increased pain, brain fog, irritability, etc. Try rating your energy and exhaustion levels throughout the day on a scale of 1-10, and adjust activities as needed to keep within a comfortable range. It takes practice, but you’ll get better at reading your limits over time.
Schedule Rest Periods
Plan short 5-15 minute breaks regularly throughout your day, even if you feel fine. Take this time to sit, stretch, breathe deeply, or do a restorative activity like gentle yoga, if applicable. Scheduling mandatory rests helps prevent overexertion and replenishes your energy bank, helping you restore some capacity before you completely run out.
As you schedule your day, whether in a paper or digital planner or in your head, try to switch between higher and lower energy tasks in turn. For example, follow a standing task like cooking with a seated task like paying bills. Be sure to alternate mental and physical exertion as well. Doing a task like laundry after an hour of work feels easier than two hours of work straight. Mixing it up prevents you from overtaxing any one part of your body or mind.
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Prioritize What Matters
Focus your limited time and energy on what brings you joy, purpose, or income, and let go of tasks that drain you without meaningful payoff. Delegate or outsource obligations when possible. Perhaps most importantly, set boundaries around activities you find fulfilling but may overdo if not paced appropriately.
Establish a Routine
A consistent daily routine provides needed structure while preventing overscheduling. Keep a simple, pared down schedule that includes rest periods, essential tasks, and some fun. Stick to this baseline as much as possible, but stay flexible as needed. We spoonies, of all people, know just how necessary that flexibility can be!
Listen to Feedback
Pay attention to how your body responds after an activity. If you feel bad hours or days later, it likely exceeded your limits and requires adjustment. Keep notes on activities and their effects to better understand your tolerances, and consider bringing these up at your next relevant appointment.
Don’t let others pressure you into overexertion. Politely decline or suggest alternatives if a social invitation would throw off pacing when you have chronic illness. Protecting your health comes first. Rather than trying to do it all (something I know I’m guilty of!), say yes only to what aligns with your goals and current energy budget.
The drain of stress can significantly reduce your activity capacity. Make time for relaxation through yoga, meditation, massage or whatever nurtures you. Maintain perspective through journaling, therapy, or support groups.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, consider utilizing Talkspace online therapy.
Honor Your Limits
Remember that pacing when you have chronic illness is meant to help you work within your limits, not push beyond them. It’s ok to shift goals and standards to align with your current capacity. Let go of comparisons and shame when you can’t do as much. Honor rest as a radical act of self care.
Gradually Increase Activity
If you consistently find yourself finishing your daily routine with energy left to spare, you may be able to gently increase stamina. Add 5-15 minutes at a time to an existing activity or start a new low-energy hobby. Listen closely and pull back if symptoms flare. Move slowly and incrementally as you find your unique balance of pacing when you have chronic illness.
Pacing alone can be challenging. Enlist help from supportive friends and family to delegate tasks or provide practical help. Join online groups to connect with others who understand the struggle of pacing when you have chronic illness for motivation and problem solving ideas.
Therapy and coaching can also help build essential pacing skills like self-awareness, boundary setting, and self-compassion. An occupational therapist can teach energy conservation techniques. A physical therapist can develop an individualized activity plan.
While rest is critical, too much isolation can lead to negative mental health effects. Retain social connection through scheduled phone calls, video chats or small visits spaced out well. Limit interactions to your most supportive, understanding people.
Nurture your spirit through relaxing hobbies, connection with loved ones, nutrition, nature time and anything else that recharges you. Prioritize sleep and treat any underlying issues intensifying fatigue. Prioritizing self-care can be as simple as listening more closely to your mind and body’s needs.
Remember that pacing is a process requiring ongoing adaptation as your capacity changes. Don’t get down on yourself for missteps. Progress may feel painfully slow, but small gains add up. Focus on overall trajectory vs day to day fluctuations.
Shift Your Mindset
Rather than viewing limits as setbacks, embrace them as teachers showing you how to live fully within your current truth. Each day offers opportunities for meaning and joy on your own unique terms. Appreciate small accomplishments. Savor restorative moments. Keep your inner spark glowing.
Pacing when you have chronic illness takes time, compassion and some trial and error to get right. But it allows you to remain actively engaged in life in a sustainable way. You can maintain a sense of purpose, balance and empowerment – while also honoring your body’s needs. With practice, you’ll find the rhythm that’s right for you.