What Fibromyalgia Taught Me About Writing & Productivity

Rose Ernst
May 27 · 6 min read

All about your energy envelopes.

We’ve all been there.

A week of socializing, stressful work situations, a minor family emergency, and late nights.

OK, you tell yourself. I overdid it. And I will pay this weekend. So you rest.

But what kind of energy use put you over the top? Sure, it can be cumulative.

We’ve also had weeks, however, where we felt exhausted, but cannot pinpoint why, exactly, that was the case (and I’m not talking about depression).

As someone with fibromyalgia and other autoimmune conditions, I’ve had to learn the hard way to maintain my energy.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I considered different kinds of energy.

Through Dr. Bruce Campbell’s CFIDS & Fibromyalgia Self-Help Program’s Introductory Text, I learned about different energy envelopes.

Energy envelope theory (developed by Dr. Leonard Jason) is similar to spoon theory.

Instead of using up precious spoons, energy envelope theory says we use up our different energy envelopes.

Energy envelope theory applies to everyone, not just those of us who have chronic health conditions. People who have chronic conditions will suffer greater consequences if we push our individual envelopes too far.

That is why these envelopes are so valuable in planning your day, your week, and your life.

Here are the relevant envelopes:

1. Sensory

It also helps to determine if you have sensitivity to food and other substances, vulnerability to noise and light, and sensitivity to weather and weather changes. — Bruce Campbell

When I was first diagnosed, I began to notice how my beloved cafe was making me exhausted. I thought it was my mental activity that was draining, but after some testing, I found that noise, light, music, and general background stimulation was the cause of the fatigue.

Your sensory envelope is the most sneaky. Especially if you don’t have any obvious sensitivities.

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· Notice how you feel after writing in different workspaces.

· Notice how you feel after writing with loud music (which I love!).

2. Physical

The amount of activity that can be done without intensifying symptoms may be dependent on time of day (some people do better in the morning, others in the afternoon or evening). The effects of activity are often delayed and may be cumulative over several days. — Bruce Campbell

As writers, physical activity is crucial, not only over the long haul but in between writing sessions as well.

Americans in particular, however, never talk about getting too much exercise.

Even if you’re not pushing yourself to the point of injury, getting too much exercise before writing can tire you out! It can also be invigorating. The trick is to find your sweet spot.

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· Notice how your writing productivity changes after different levels of exercise.

· Stretch often!

3. Mental

This category refers to activities requiring concentration, such as reading or working on the computer. — Bruce Campbell

I often confuse this with the physical envelope. Your eyes become gritty, your shoulders are around your ears, and your whole body is stiff from sitting at the desk.

But the actual problem is that I’ve tapped out mentally a long time ago.

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· Take a nap. Close your eyes. Meditate. Notice if you have more mental energy.

· Pay attention to the kinds of mental activities that tire you. For example, notice if editing is more taxing than writing a first draft.

4. Social

Your social limit may depend on the specific people involved and the situation. (Some people are more draining than others.) Also, the setting may be important. Meeting in public or with a large group may intensify symptoms, but meeting privately or with a small group may be OK. — Bruce Campbell

I’ve had the hardest time coming to terms with this envelope. Yes, I am an introvert, but I’ve really never understood the way this energy drain works until recently. I don’t actually feel tired immediately after talking to people in person or on the phone. In fact, I’m overstimulated (wired and tired). It’s only after a few hours, or even the next day, that I realize what’s happened.

It’s worth experimenting to see how this envelope works for you.

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· Space out socializing to the degree that’s possible.

· Avoid people who suck away your energy.

· Say, “I have to go,” when you’ve been on the phone for an hour with a friend.

5. Sleep and Rest

Questions to ask in this area include how many hours of sleep do I need? What is the best time to go to bed and to get up? Can I reduce symptoms by taking daytime rests? If so, how many rest periods and how long? — Bruce Campbell

Adequate sleep is a fairly obvious need for us to all function normally.

In our quest to get just the right amount of sleep, we sometimes overlook the importance of rest during the day (check out Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less).

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· For those of us who have trouble meditating, it’s worth just closing your eyes for 10–15 minutes. Don’t worry about meditating. Just close your eyes.

· Take a short nap, if possible. See if it makes a difference. Don’t feel bad about taking that time to sleep. You know we all spend at least 15 minutes a day scrolling through email and/or social media.

6. Stress & Emotions

Strong feelings, such as sadness, worry, frustration and guilt, are common and understandable reactions to all the changes and uncertainties brought by illness. — Bruce Campbell

Again, we’re all familiar with the effects of stress and emotions. But for empaths (take the test here) or highly sensitive people (take the test here), you may not realize how much you’re affected by other people’s emotions and stress levels. Do you know the signs?

Imagine you receive a mildly irritating email first thing in the morning. Do you have trouble focusing and have less writing stamina?

Ways to protect this envelope (that are under your control):

· Limit time you consume news or social media. Preferably after writing.

· Check your email after you’ve finished writing.

· Stay away from what Dr. Judith Orloff terms “energy vampires.”

Bottom line: Test and experiment with your different envelopes. You may be amazed at what you discover. No two energy envelopes are alike.

Dr. Rose Ernst is an academic editor and consultant who loves to support scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net.

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Rose Ernst

Written by

Academic editor and writing consultant. Former tenured professor and chair of political science. Happy fiction author. Find her at roseernst.net.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +469K people. Follow to join our community.