How do you build resilience back?
The key is to find the balance between pushing the edges of your capacity in a helpful way that does not overwhelm your symptoms and cause a major crash.
I find spoon theory very helpful as an introductory framework to this topic. A “spoon” is a metaphor for an energy unit. We all have a certain amount of spoons or an amount of energy per day. People with chronic illness generally have fewer “spoons” than the average person and have to be careful about where they put their energy.
The overflowing bucket is another helpful metaphor. Stressors can start to fill up our bucket, and we start experiencing a “flare” when the bucket overflows. In other words, we have our capacity to be resilient to stressors until we get overwhelmed. People with chronic illnesses generally have either a smaller bucket, or more water pouring into the bucket, or both, than the average person.
Lastly, people with chronic fatigue will often discuss “falling off the cliff”, where it is extremely hard to climb back up the cliff. The more energy they spend, the closer they get to the edge of the cliff. If they push too hard and fall off the cliff, recovery is very difficult and they will be in a “crash”.
The key is to push closer towards using your last spoon, to get closer to that full bucket, and to get nearer to the edge of the cliff as a mechanism to help EXPAND your window of tolerance and build more resilience.
What is the window of tolerance? This is the window of where our nervous system can actively manage its environment. On the low end of the window, we have a lack of stress. This is actually not optimal. Humans actually do better with some amount of manageable stress in life. Our nervous system does best when beneficially activated. It helps us gain more confidence, mastery, and capacity.
On the upper end, we can get into overwhelm. This is the using up the spoons, overflowing the bucket, and falling off the cliff. This is where you are experiencing more stress than you body can successfully manage or integrate.
In the middle of the window is a sweet spot. We are experiencing some stress or stimulation, but not so much that our system gets overwhelmed. For people with chronic illnesses, this window may be very small. You have to stay just perfectly in this sweet spot to maintain. Ideally, you maybe want to be in the middle or low end of this window while you are working on healing and repairing. But as you recover, you are going to want to push yourself into the middle to upper end of this window. The more you can find the EDGE of your window of tolerance, the more you can actually INCREASE your window of tolerance. This means that next time, you will have MORE capacity and resilience.
An example of this would be a gentle and slow increase in your length of walks or hikes. As you start to stabilize, increase your length of walk by 1/4 mile, or less. Don’t do this any more than once a week.
If you try something new, and you have a reaction, don’t let it mean that you can’t do that thing anymore. As long as the reaction is manageable, just tell you body that it is okay, there is nothing to worry about, and try it again in a few days. Very likely you will be able to do it now with no reactions. And you have just successfully increase your window of tolerance!
This must be SLOW and INTENTIONAL. It does not work to have big jumps in your activity levels- even if in the moment you feel like you could do more. Your nervous system must feel safe enough to increase this window of tolerance. And happens best in small, digestible bites!