It’s really easy to justify not moving when you have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I would do it all the time. I’d tell myself that it wasn’t worth getting up because I would feel tired after and then I’d just have to lie down again, so why bother getting up in the first place? It seemed like a valid argument to me, but the problem with this mindset was that because I’d remained static for so long my muscles had contracted, because they weren’t being used, and this in turn made it harder to get up and move around, because now it hurt when I tried. My muscles were fighting against me, instead of doing what they naturally wanted to do, which was to move. I found that I’d got myself stuck in a viscous cycle where I didn’t want to move because it was too tiring, and now I couldn’t move because it was too painful, and also tiring.
So what was the solution?
Well, the thing that really worked for me was stretching, and I would suggest you give it a try, even if you don’t feel like it.
Just like smiling in the morning made it possible for me to get out of bed, stretching made it possible for me to get moving again. I started out by doing it 3 times a week for abbot 15-20 minutes. In order to force myself to do it I scheduled it in by writing it on the calendar. That way I was accountable, because my girl friend, now wife, could see it and ask me about it. I started out by just doing the standard stuff, calf, hamstring, groin, back, shoulders, and neck. And yes, it hurt like hell at first, because my muscles had shrunk from lack of use, and it was also tiring. There were many times when I skipped a session, or 3, because I couldn’t face it. But over time I built stretching into a habit. It didn’t happen quickly, I’d say it probably took between 3 and 4 months before I’d made it a regular thing, but I’m glad I did it.
One of the side effects of my CFS was debilitating headaches. They were so bad that I couldn’t even be touched. Pain medication would have no effect, and even light would trigger intense, searing pain behind my eyes. The only thing that helped would be a steaming hot bath and then passing out due to the pain. Why did these things work? Well, the hot water warmed the muscles, which allowed them to relax just enough to loosen themselves from the tight knot they had contracted into. This relieved some of the tension that was being stored, in fact it relieved just enough so that my body could get a break and put itself into a sleep phase, where it was able to fully relax.
I’ve been through some periods of intense pain before, most notably when I had my shoulder reconstruction, where they had to shave off the end of my clavicle so that it could refuse with the cartilage in my shoulder joint, but that was nothing compared to these headaches.
At the time I couldn’t work out why they were happening, but now that I look back on it the reason is obvious.
I spent a lot of time on the couch in those early days of my cCFS. I would watch a lot of TV, which meant that I sat/lay in the same position for long periods of time. I would watch back to back to back episodes of whatever series I was into, which was The Sopranos, The Shield and The X-Files. All quite intense shows that probably had my shoulders and back tensed as I wondered what would happen next. Tensed muscles can trigger the bodies flight or fight mode if it’s prolonged. Try it now, tense the muscles in your back and upper body. When I do it, I instantly feel on edge. It’s not a massive feeling, but I notice the difference.
Added to this is that I was staring at the TV screen for too long, which meant that I was blinking less than I should have been. I also had my eyes fixed on one spot, which is also unhealthy, because it causes strain on the muscles around the eye. I thought I was doing the right thing by ‘relaxing’ on the couch and giving myself a chance to rest, but the thing is that those prolonged ‘relaxation’ periods were not just bad for my body, they were also bad for my mind.
If you think about it, smiling is stretching for the face. It forces the muscles around your mouth and eyes into positions that are not their default position. Muscles that are tight get stuck into a contracted position. The contracted position for the facial muscles is a frown. Essentially I was spending large parts of the day frowning.
So, therefore, lying on the couch didn’t make me happier, or healthier. In fact I’d say it probably made me less happy, and slowed down my recovery, because it not only screwed with my bodies ability to move, but it also clouded my mind with doubt. I had become convinced that I couldn’t move, that I couldn’t go for a walk.
But obviously this wasn’t true. Walking was a skill that I’d mastered before I turned 2, so deep down I knew it was something I could do, I simply had to retrain my body and brain to do it. I knew I would have to start out by making small adjustments to my life, the first of which was stretching. It was the best thing I did in those darkest of days because it allowed me to get moving again. It also it gave me the confidence and self belief that had been missing from my life. Once I started to see the results I felt like I had control of my life again.
My advice today, no matter where you are on your journey with CFS, make sure you stay limber. If you have just been diagnosed it will definitely aid in your recovery, and if you’ve been suffering for years, then make it the start of a process/journey. Most of the stretches can be down whilst your sitting or lying down, so what’s the difference to what you’re currently doing.
As I often say, is your current action plan making your life better? If it’s not then what have you got to lose? Give stretching a try.