This may seem a strange idea; chronic illness sufferers don’t very regularly have cause for excitement. But on the other hand, as exciting events can be rare, they can be even more exciting when they do happen!
I’m going on holiday next week, back to the idyllic Spanish village that I lived in for 8 years. I’m so excited about seeing all my friends again, excited to see the mountains again and the beautiful views. I’m also pretty excited about having a week off work and taking some time off writing. I’m going to take some ‘me time’! Unfortunately I’m so excited that there’s a possibility that I could burn out before I even get there and spend the whole week dealing with a crash.
Excitement has a very similar effect on the autonomic nervous system to that of anxiety or threat. It triggers the sympathetic nervous system preparing the body for action. It also takes resources away from digestion and immunity. An overactive sympathetic nervous system is a common feature of this illness and we need to avoid anything that might make it worse. I have a theory that overactive sympathetic activity is, in part, responsible for the levels of muscle pain some sufferers experience even with very low levels of physical activity. It seems to me, that muscles are kept in a work mode, even when they no longer need to work. The more we can engage our parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the body to relax and stand down and directs resources to digestion and immunity, the better chance we have of health.
Many people with ME/CFS suffer from an under-activity of the parasympathetic nervous system so we need to actively encourage it to work better. Things like deep breathing, relaxation, tai chi, yoga and meditation can all actively encourage the workings of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is why they are such an important part of my daily routine.
When I get excited, I become aware of the physical impact on my body: tension, a racing mind, rapid breathing and I recognise that I have to take action. I pay attention to a relaxed posture and to slowing down my breathing. I engage the skills learned in my tai chi and yoga practise to let go of the tension in my muscles. But I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of thinking about the exciting event. Instead I focus on a relaxed anticipation. I try to imagine myself enjoying the event in a relaxed and effortless manner. By paying all this attention to dealing with excitement I know that I’ll have more energy available to me to enjoy myself.
Often the anticipation of an exciting event can also be tinged with a little anxiety about what the preparations might involve or whether you’ll have enough energy to really enjoy it. Forward planning is extremely important in this respect. It helps to feel that you have enough time to do everything without rushing, taking into account the possibility of bad days too. I started preparing for my holiday over a week ago; I’ve made sure I only tackle one task each day. And I trust that by paying attention to my body in the here and now I will keep it in the most relaxed state possible and ensure that I optimise the energy available to me for my holiday.