The Little Envelopes
(From the series Pacing: What It Is and How To Do It.)
The last article focused on the idea of overall limits, which we often call the Energy Envelope. That’s a good place to start to understand limits, but you can gain further insight by looking at your life on a more granular level, analyzing each part of your life. By doing so, you can gain further control over your illness.
We have found it helpful to focus on seven areas that we call the Little Envelopes:
We have limits for activities such as bathing and dressing, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, gardening, shopping, walking, driving and, for those who are able, work.
In the next article, I’ll describe how you can determine your envelope for each by focusing on one activity at a time and experimenting with different lengths of time. And after that, we’ll explore strategies for reducing the toll taken by physical activity as we look at pacing strategies.
This area refers to activities that require concentration, such as reading and working on the computer. People with ME/CFS and fibro have different limits on the total amount of mental activity they can do in a day without worsening symptoms and also limits on the amount in an individual session. The next article will describe how you can use experimentation to find this set of limits.
The third area is the time you spend interacting with other people, either in person, on the phone or via email. Your social limit may depend on the specific people involved and the situation. (Some people are more draining than others.) Also, the setting may be important.
Meeting in public or with a large group may be stressful, but meeting privately or with a small group may be OK. By noting your reactions to different types of socializing and different situations, you can get a picture of this envelope.
In addition to the limits just described, there are four other kinds of limits you’ll likely find it helpful to track, the first of which is vulnerability to sensory overload, which can take several forms: sensitivity to food and other substances (including medications), vulnerability to noise and light, and sensitivity to weather and the seasons.
Sensory overload is a significant part of many people's experience of ME/CFS and FM. When we ask our groups to tell us what things make their symptoms worse, sense overload usually ranks in the top four.
Stress is increased and its effects intensified by long-term illness. Finances can be great sources of stress due to loss of income, worries about disability payments or feeling forced to work even when symptoms are intense. Long-term illness changes relationships, creating new obligations and also new strains and frustrations.
Family and friends may not understand. Analyzing the sources of stress is important, as is honing strategies for managing stress. We rate managing stress as second in importance, behind only pacing, for reducing symptoms and regaining control.
Strong feelings, such as sadness, worry, frustration and guilt, are common and understandable reactions to all the changes and uncertainties brought by illness. Some situations may trigger stronger reactions in us now than when we were healthy.
These reactions may intensify symptoms because emotionally charged events – both stressful and joyful-- can trigger the release of adrenaline, which often worsens symptoms. As noted earlier, energy spent on emotions are not available for other purposes.
Example of Limits
As I mentioned in the previous article, I used the idea of the Energy Envelope and found it very helpful. After a year of so, I thought I could gain greater control if I understood my limits in different areas of my life. I began by asking myself a series of questions in order to get a fix on my limits, such as:
Over time, I ended up with a list of about a dozen items, most related to the categories described above. I included activity limits (how long I could do various activities like driving, housework, reading, and spending time with people), stressors in my life, food sensitivities, sensitivity to light and noise, and emotions.
It took me at least a year to develop this more detailed understanding, but I felt rewarded all along the way because every limit I defined helped me gain more control.
Here's a sample of my detailed Energy Envelope from 1998, when I had been ill for about a year and a half.
Later I added a section to the end of my definition, in which I noted my major limits and my greatest vulnerabilities. This section was a helpful summary of my current situation and also suggested where work might give the biggest payoff in reduction of symptoms.
I learned a lot from studying my detailed envelope. One surprising realization was that my limits were more restrictive in some areas than in others. For example, when my overall functional level had returned to about 75% of normal, I could do only about 35% as much exercise.
I found it very helpful to share my envelope definition with selected others. Getting outsiders' views of my situation helped me to be more realistic in my self-assessment and also helped educate others about ME/CFS.
We use this approach in our program and formalized it by developing the Energy Envelope worksheet, available for downloading and printing on our Logs, Forms and Worksheets page.
In addition to areas for the Little Envelopes mentioned above, the worksheet has space for describing illness severity and other illnesses, needs for sleep and rest, plus three other categories: