(The cognitive problems typically found in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia (slowed processing speed, shorter working memory, reduced executive functioning) suggest problems with distraction and focus are probably common. In this blog Johannes suggests ways to use one of the biggest potential mental energy hogs around – the internet – with more ease and focus…..Cort)
A couple of weeks ago, a participant in my internet-based free e-course asked, “I like the content of your course, but I have trouble reading it because it’s all on the computer.”
If consuming content from the internet worsens our Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia symptoms, it can be a major handicap. Not being able to use your computer can diminish our ability to
- connect with our friends via email and Facebook
- access all the good information from forums and blogs
- make a bit of money doing internet-based work with the limited energy we have.
I don’t have the magical pill that will turn you, as soon as you are in front of your computer, iPad, or smartphone into a perfectly healthy person, but I can offer some help for using the internet without aggravating your symptoms. I’ve tried many things, and some of them have helped me to not only increase the time I can spend on the computer each day, but also to do so without exacerbating my symptoms.
Why Computers Can Aggravate Our Symptoms
Let’s take a look at some of the problems that cause people trouble when they interact with their computer.
- Body position. Many of us sit at our desk or a table when we use a computer. The reason for why this can be a problem is that it is common for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia to function better when they lie down.
- The lighting is wrong. Other than commonly believed, it’s usually not the flicker of the screen that strains our eyes when we work on the computer. The real problem is that many computer screens are not set up in a way that provides ideal light conditions.
- We skim information, instead of reading it. Skimming articles on the internet is like listening to a radio station where, every few seconds, the narrator’s voice is interrupted by static, which makes it very hard to consume the information that’s being presented. As a result, it’s very hard to consume the information that’s being presented, and our brains get as frizzled as the bad connection. In my experience, when I skim, my brain has to work harder to fully comprehend what I’m reading, and this in turn makes me more tired.
- We don’t take breaks when we should. Even when we use all the energy-maximizing techniques in the world, we can only spend so much time on the computer before we reach our activity limit and aggravate our symptoms. Where it gets difficult is that it’s so hard to stop once we’ve immersed ourselves into reading that informative article or writing that heart-felt email to a friend. Not stopping when it’s time to stop can exacerbate our symptoms for days to come.
There are other issues, but I’ve found these to be the most common. Let’s look at how to help with them.
How to Increase Your Internet Time While Reducing Your Symptoms
So how do we solve the above problems? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some of the things that have worked for me and my clients:
Enabling Your Environment
- Print out the articles that you’d normally read on the screen. Although this is not the “greenest” solution to screen reading fatigue, it does work. If you don’t like printing everything and don’t like all those sheets of paper flying around in your room, technique number two, “Transfer it to a kindle e-reader,” might do the trick for you.
- Transfer it to a kindle E-Reader. Reading on a kindle is much easier for me than reading on my computer screen. I suspect that this is so for three reasons: First, reading on my kindle enables me to read lying down, which is when my brain works best; second, I can position the kindle at a perfect distance to my eyes; third–because of the fiction novels I read on my kindle—I associate humor, love, and bravery with this reading device, which causes me be more relaxed regardless of what I read. Read here how to use your kindle to revolutionize the way you consume content from the internet.
- Remove bright sources of light from behind and from the sides and of your screen. Implementing this advice, which I just discovered recently through working with a client, made an incredible difference for me. Previously, my computer screen was positioned in front of a window, which forced my eyes to work extra hard on focusing on the screen while filtering out the outside light from the window behind it. Now, I’ve rearranged my room so that my desk faces a wall with the only sources of light located behind and above me. The difference is stunning.
If you’ve had ME/CFS for a little while, you may already have discovered that taking breaks can help you make the most of your limited energy. A break as short as thirty seconds—just enough to take in a slow, deep breath—can often be enough to relax your mind and renew your energy.
One problem with taking short breaks is that we easily forget to take them. Therefore I suggest that you let your computer help you with remembering.
- Stillness Buddy - Enable your computer to remind you by installing a piece of software called Stillness Buddy. Once you’ve installed Stillness Buddy it will ask you every forty-five minutes (or however often you specify in the settings) to take a short break. I had previously introduced Stillness Buddy in this article, and people have written me emails just to rave about how helpful it has been for them—it’s that powerful.
- LeechBlock – Just like taking breaks, stopping when we need to stop, unfortunately, isn’t that easy. When we’ve just immersed ourselves in an activity, we want to continue. Plus, if we stopped now, we’d have to face all of the CFS-symptoms we were just successfully avoiding by burying our minds in whatever we were just doing on the computer.The only reliable way that I’ve found to make me stop is, again, with the help of a software tool. This tool blocks access to the internet after a specified amount of time or at the push of a button. Before I knew about this tool, called Leechblock, I would work on the internet way beyond my limits. Now that I have installed Leechblock, I just press a couple of keys when I realize that it’s time for me to stop, and it then blocks access to all websites for thirty-five minutes. This gives me enough time for a deep and energy-renewing rest or meditation. I now feel much better each day and far more in control of my time.The tool is free! If you are using the Firefox web browser you can use Leechblock, like me; if you are using Google Chrome, you can use a similar program called Stayfocusd.
A Less Stressful, More Peaceful Computer Experience
- Read out loud, speaking with a happy and relaxed voice. What? Yes, I mean it. Read like you were reading to a little child.Reading out loud, reminds us to not skim an article, which prevents our brains from getting frizzled (see bullet no. 3 in the previous section for further explanation). In addition, pretending that we read to a little child, makes us read in a happy and relaxed way, just like that cute little face of the imaginary baby in front of us.But what will people think of you when you start reading out loud like you were talking to a happy child? In my case, it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. Erin shut the door to my office to not be bothered by the noise, but never made any negative comments. I believe she’s happy that I’ve found yet another way to reduce my symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The perfect time for you to try this simple technique is right now: First, imagine a happy, relaxed baby. Then, read to the imaginary baby the rest of this article out loud. Read in a way that reflects the happiness of the baby, or even amplifies it.
When you reach the end of this article, judge for yourself how this technique is working for you!
- Type with your eyes closed. When I leave a comment beneath a blog post or write an email, I often type with my eyes closed. Aside from giving my eyes and brain a bit of a rest, this is a great concentration exercise. Typing blindly encourages me to be 100% focused, which in turn centers my often frizzled CFS mind.Quick check-in: Are you still reading to your imaginary listener?
If you try some of these techniques, I hope that for you, too, the amount of time you can spend on the computer will increase while your CFS symptoms will decrease. May your computer never aggravate your symptoms again!
Over to you
What did reading this article out loud in a happy and relaxed way do for you? What techniques have you discovered that help you with benefiting from the upsides of the internet without aggravating your symptoms? Please share by leaving a comment below.
Johannes Starke is a therapist and life coach for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia who has come a long way in recovering from the illness himself and has been coaching clients for over three years. He is the founder of the CFS Recovery Project, where he supports people with ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia in regaining their health and happiness.