Do you bristle at the term “self care”? It’s not cynical to admit that talk about self care can feel a little too fluffy – especially to those with chronic pain (affectionately, “spoonies”).
However, strategically recharging your body’s resources can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving. Sure, your limits are different than others’, but wouldn’t it be nice to flourish within those limits? That’s where self care can save a spoonie.
Who are spoonies? What’s The Spoon Theory?
Imagine you wake up in the morning, and realize you’re out of dish soap. You only have two clean spoons in the drawer, so you have to strategize how you’ll use them. You had planned to invite a friend over for ice cream this afternoon, but if you do that, then you’ll have no spoons left for your breakfast or dinner. Now you have to cancel your plans – not enough spoons to spare.
Limited resources force us to choose between what we must do and want to do: a relatable experience to those with chronic pain. Reflecting this concept, blogger Christine Miserandino coined “The Spoon Theory” and the term “spoonie” to help explain her chronic illness to healthy people. If spoons represent units of energy, then sick people must constantly choose how to spend their limited supply of spoons.
Say you, a spoonie, have three stamina “spoons,” total, on any given day. You might use one spoon to get dressed, another to make breakfast, and another to drive to work. If all goes exactly to plan, you can manage. But what if you get a migraine between getting dressed and making breakfast? What if you receive an emotional text on the way to work? How do you manage when your daily life requires you to spend more energy than you actually have?
Being a spoonie feels isolating, but others can relate
Many people with chronic illness self-identify as “spoonies” and share their experiences via social media with #Spoonie, #spooniechat, and #spoonieproblems.
Spoonie mental health depends on the knowledge that it’s okay for your body and mind to have different needs than others’. You’re not broken because you only have three spoons to work with, compared to healthy folks’ ten. But you may break yourself if you try to live as if you have those ten healthy-person spoons!
Self care = more spoons
Self care advice can feel so absurd, that it’s easy to dismiss the concept altogether. The advice to “treat yo’ self” is mentioned on Parks and Rec, Cosmopolitan, and Twitter. Memes about needing serotonin and grumpy Pingu are becoming more and more mainstream.
However, despite all the media fluff, self-care isn’t just for low-key depression and anxiety; it can help manage chronic physical pain, too.
Strategic self-care can give you more spoons. When you prioritize activities you truly enjoy, you replenish your “spoon” supply, and gain more energy to face the day. You might think that self-care is just for people with lots of free time, but once you begin practicing it, you will realize that self-care is essential to improve your regular functioning. Even just twenty minutes a day can help.
Remember, you’re not practicing self-care to please some outside expectation. This isn’t a “should” situation. But you deserve to freely address the needs of your body, and you will feel better doing so.
How can spending my energy on this give me more energy?
Self care activities might seem counter-intuitive, especially if you’re fatigued every day and feel pressure to spend all of your time and energy on tasks that need to get done. You’re working with limited internal resources, or “spoons,” after all.
However, strategic self care can help spoonies increase their stamina and live in less pain. If you have chronic pain or illness, self care can help you manage your symptoms by increasing resilience, reducing anxiety, and improving your overall bodily functioning.
A concrete, chemical mind-body connection
Cytokines are substances released by certain cells in the immune system, altering our bodies’ inflammatory responses. This concrete chemical process within our bodies has been shown to impact symptoms of chronic fatigue and pain.
The symptoms of increased pro-inflammatory cytokine levels include fatigue, achiness, fever, and nausea. The good news is that you can take steps to actively reduce your cytokine load by getting enough sleep, exercising, eating anti-inflammatory foods, and meditating. A release of tension may also help lessen excessive cytokine levels in your body.
When you take care of yourself, you help physically reduce inflammation in your body. This may improve feelings of fatigue, and in turn, your stamina or number of spoons.
Types of self care, and practical examples for spoonies
There are a variety of self-care activities you may wish to try. Many of them are inexpensive and can be done at home at your leisure. Choose a few from these lists and try to incorporate them into your routine. Note how you feel afterwards.
- Turn off your phone after 7 pm every night
- Set a bedtime around 10 pm and stick to it
- Designate time for a 20 minute nap every day
- Do an at-home yoga routine
- Go for a walk in nature
- Learn to deep breathe in an energizing way
- Throw away your scale
- Drink a glass of water every hour
- Plan out what you will eat before you get hungry
- Catch up face-to-face with a friend
- Own your spoonie identity
- Put your phone on do-not-disturb
- Delete social media apps from your phone
- Unfollow people who make you feel bad about yourself
- Leave a social event when you feel drained
- Cuddle with a pet
- Read a book
- Schedule five minutes to sit in silence
- Listen to a podcast
- Turn off news notifications on your cell phone
- Watch a movie or documentary
- Find small ways to tidy up your living space
- Bullet journal or doodle
- Read about fellow spoonie perspectives and emotional challenges
- Pick an affirmation and say it in your head every time you see a mirror
- Watch stand up comedy (check out Taylor Tomlinson and John Mulaney)
- Talk to a spiritual leader, life coach, or therapist
- Review your day from the end to the beginning, and note when you felt most fulfilled
- Spend time in nature
- Meditate, chant, or pray
- Create a vision board
- Visit a place of worship, such as a church for Mass
- Connect with a spiritual Facebook or local group
- Read a spiritual book, such as The Power of Now
Pacing is self-care
“Sometimes you can borrow against tomorrow’s ‘spoons,’ but just think how hard tomorrow will be with less ‘spoons’” – Christine Miserandino
To pace yourself is to prioritize what you most need or want to do, and to save the rest for later. With a limited number of “spoons”, you must choose your activities wisely – most of us, spoonies, have experienced this first-hand. When you overdo on good days, you set yourself up for trouble the next day. You may experiment with different forms of prioritizing to find what works for you, whether it be an online calendar, a journal, or a day planner.
But what if I feel guilty?
We often place value on ourselves based on how “productive” we are. Taking time for self-care might seem self-indulgent to you, like something you have to save for the weekends to feel okay about enjoying.
The truth is that your body has needs whether or not you acknowledge them. The more you meet your body’s needs, the better you will feel. And the better you feel, the more you will be able to accomplish in your work, relationships, and personal life.
The hardest part about starting a daily self-care routine is getting over the feeling that you’re wasting time or doing something wrong by caring for yourself. However, with practice, you will come to realize how essential self-care is to saving your spoons and achieving your goals.
Start small. Choose just one activity to complete once each day. Say, turning off your phone at 7 pm. If you are consistent, your body will thank you. All you have to do is listen.
Quotes about spoonie self care
- “Talk to yourself like you would someone you love.” – Brene Brown
- “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” – Maya Angelou
- “I am constantly torn between “I can’t let this illness ruin my life” and “I have to listen to my body and rest.” – Anon
- “Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean me first; it means me too.” – L.R. Knost
- “It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life story will develop.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf