What I wish I knew when I first got sick
I am so saddened to hear of the number of people that are struggling with post viral symptoms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a devastating experience not to recover in the way you always expect to recover from an illness. When I first got ill with ME/CFS (following a virus) I really didn’t understand what was happening and my response was to fight. It seems obvious right? You meet a challenge and you fight it. What I didn’t understand at the time was the harm that fight was doing to me. If you’re where I was back then at the start of the illness, I want to make sure that you stop doing that unwitting harm to yourself.
Having the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the more I fought, the worse I got. I’m pretty sure that if I’d been given better advice, I would have experienced much milder symptoms and possibly even recovered fully before it became a long-term illness. (You are much more likely to reach a full recovery within the first 2 years of a post-viral illness)
Here’s the advice I wish I had received at the start of my illness:
Don’t push yourself
The single most important thing to avoid further harm is to not use more energy than you have easily available to you. Your body is using a huge amount of energy trying to heal you, but if you push yourself into emergency energy production or your sympathetic nervous system (stress response) is engaged to get you primed for action, that energy stops being available for healing and your body enters a vicious cycle of increasing imbalance.
In practise it’s really hard to know how much energy you actually have because it’s likely you’ll have good days and bad days. What really helped me, was to slow myself down and aim to do everything I did with relaxed effortlessness. Whenever I noticed that I had to push to get something done, I knew I was stretching my energy, so I would either stop or see if I could do what I was doing in a different way, without pushing.
About 6 months into my illness I did get one useful piece of advice, which was to aim to do things at only 50% effort. If something takes more than 50% of your effort don’t do it.
Another thing which is a massive help with not using too much energy, is to break up what you’re doing into small chunks and rest in between. The molecules in our cells that contribute to the release of energy need to be recycled. Resting between short burst of activity means you’ll be able to make the most of your cells’ energy packs by giving them a change to recycle those essential molecules. One thing that is a big challenge is to avoid the completion compulsion, it’s important to remember not to push to finish what you’re doing.
Learn to be peaceful about resting a lot
Getting what may seem like ridiculous amounts of rest, is extremely important, especially in the first 3-6 months of the illness, if you want to avoid it turning into a chronic illness. Unfortunately, rest will only be really effective if you can allow yourself to be at peace while you are resting. When I first got ill, rest was something I’d never really done before, I really didn’t know how to do it. Instead it was like I was constantly on edge waiting for when I could start doing something again. One of the things that helped me when I was learning how to rest properly, was to see resting as a positive action, something that made a vital contribution to my healing, it wasn’t just mere passivity. Set yourself the challenge of getting really good at finding peace in a resting state.
Accept where you’re at for the moment
Resisting the urge to fight involves acceptance, and acceptance involves allowing yourself to grieve. The way I faced acceptance was to tell myself ‘life is going to have to be lived differently for a while’. It meant allowing myself to be sad for all that I could no longer do (for now). The acceptance that resulted from appropriate grieving allowed me to be more pragmatic about the best way to deal with the illness on a moment to moment, day to day basis. Once I let go of desperately trying to get back what I had before the illness, I was much better able to do what was needed to improve.
In summary, although it’s probably not at all what you want to hear, approaching where you’re at with peace and patience is going to get you a lot further than fighting the illness. Please take care of your energy, please don’t push yourself, please, please, please, learn how to be at peace with resting. Your body needs your energy to put itself right!
Since I started writing this article, I came across this one, which offers lots of detailed information about how best to optimise your chances of a swifter recovery
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