Learn a way to work around the handicap that results from your fatigued brain

Learn a way to work around the handicap that results from your fatigued brain

Do you ever feel resistant and overwhelmed in response to some everyday needs or tasks such as:

Part of it is that the flu-like symptoms and brain fog of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) or Fibromyalgia (FM) make any seemingly easy task more difficult. Another part of it—the part I want to offer some help for in this article—is that the brains of people with ME/CFS or FM work differently from those of healthy people.

Let me first share with you how scientific findings in ME/CFS and FM explain why we feel easily listless and overwhelmed. Then, in the next section, I will share with you a way of working around your brain handicaps.  This has worked for me and others.

The Inside Scoop into the Brains of People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

A couple of recent studies into ME/CFS give insight into what is causing us all the trouble.

  • A study conducted at Stanford University by Marcie Zinn, PhD, and Mark Zinn, MM, compared the brain waves of people with ME/CFS to those of healthy controls. They found decreased peak alpha frequencies in people with ME/CFS, and this is associated with “interruptions in goal-directed behavior and problems with alertness and attention.”  In simple words, “interruptions in goal-directed behavior means” that it’s difficult for us to get moving on a task we set out to do.  The study’s findings explain why we might feel resistance and overwhelmed in response to even simple everyday routines such as brushing our teeth. Click here for the report on the study’s presentation at the Stanford ME/CFS Symposium in March 2014 (Scroll down to the section titled “Quantitative EEG Studies Suggest Subcortical Pathology in ME/CFS” – Marcie Zinn, PhD, Mark Zinn, MM).
  • Brain studies provide a variety of reasons why people with ME/CFS and FM might battle overwhelm

    Brain studies provide a variety of reasons why people with ME/CFS and FM might battle overwhelm

    In another study, researchers found that neuroinflammation is higher in ME/CFS patients than in healthy people in a way that correlated with their symptoms. For instance, patients who reported impaired cognition tended to demonstrate neuroinflammation (source). Interestingly, some of the highest levels of inflammation were in the amygdala, a brain structure that plays a key role in the brain process that causes procrastination. With a sensitized amygdala we are more likely to experience emotions of dread, resistance, or being overwhelmed in response to a task.

  • A recent study suggested that the ‘reward center’ of the brain – the basal ganglia – is under-activated in ME/CFS. Reduced ‘reward’ was associated with increased fatigue and impaired cognition; all three appear to be the result of inflammation. People with Fibromyalgia appear to experience reduced reward as well. A reduced expectation of reward would make taking on tasks more difficult.

The bottom line of these findings is that the brain abnormalities found in ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia can cause increased feelings of dread, resistance, and being overwhelmed in response to almost anything we encounter during the day. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are ways to overcome or at least lessen the effect of our brain handicaps. Here is a three step technique that works for me:

Step 1: Stop Anticipatory Thoughts

Whenever I notice a thought or feeling of anticipatory dread, I try to let go of it and return to a calming thought or to the sensations of the present moment:

Beautiful-Woman-Doing-Smile a big smile (fake smile is OK!), take a slow, deep breath in, and then, as you breathe out calmly, try to let go of your stressful anticipatory thought.

Now, on your next breath in, continue to smile and focus on the the present moment. If you are reading a book, focus your attention entirely on the book; if you are meditating, return to the object of your meditation, such as your breath or a sensation in your body.

Repeat as necessary (which can be very often). There is no shame in letting go of stressful thoughts every ten to twenty seconds, if that’s what it takes to keep your mind and body free from dread and being overwhelmed.

This in itself might sound overwhelming, so I suggest that you just start with using this technique once, and only do more if it feels easy. Doing this one time is easy enough, isn’t it? (I will share more ideas for making it feel easy in Step 2.)

Step 2: Ask Yourself, “What is the Next Little Step That’s Easy?

I’m frequently amazed at the answers my subconscious can provide—if I only ask the right question.


Breaking a seemingly overwhelming task into little steps can be very helpful

When a task feels difficult, I ask myself, “What is the next little step I can take that is easy?” I nearly always get a satisfying answer.  Some examples:

  • When I wrote this article, the answer that emerged in my mind in response to the how-can-this-be-easy question was, “Just open a blank Word document and smile at it for one minute.”
  • When I noticed that it was time to stop writing on the article and meditate, the answer was, “Just turn off the screen for at least 20 seconds.”
  • When I needed to rest, the answer was, “Just smile and take one deep, slow breath in.”

Once I’ve taken that initial small step, I don’t have to abandon my larger intention. I can simply choose to ask myself again, “What is the next easy step now?” and then take the next small step toward my larger goal.

For example, after I had smiled at the blank screen in the first easy step of the writing example, it felt easy to take another small step, which was to just write the first paragraph, however imperfect it may be.

Of course, I could have also stopped after that initial small step, but tasks become so easy when I approach them with mini-steps that I am usually happy to continue. Fortunately, with most activities only the beginning is hard, and the activities become much easier as the activity progresses. After writing for five minutes, my initial resistance drops away, and I’m in the flow.

Step 3 – Get Pulled Toward the End Result

While steps one and two were about removing resistance to what we want to accomplish, step three is to get motivated to actually do it.

being pulled upwards

Getting pulled to your objective by the thought of the reward awaiting you can reduce overwhelm as well.

We’re talking about animal instincts here.  Just like we need rewards (treats) to teach a dog a new trick or a carrot to make a horse come to us, it helps tremendously if we can expect a reward (such as a pleasure or absence of pain) when we take action on our intention.

For example, I meditate because it gives me the reward of keeping my symptoms to a minimum and gives me feelings of peace and contentment.

I brush my teeth because I can expect the reward of avoiding the pain of having to go to the dentist.

To illustrate the importance of this step, let me share with you what happened the other day when I forgot about applying it.

My intention was to complete some client notes after a coaching call. Using step one and two, I had already

  1. let go of tension and anticipatory thoughts by taking a slow, deep breath in (step one)
  2. thought about the next little step that was easy (step two).

Even though step one and two were successful, I still didn’t get moving because I felt zero motivation.

When I remembered to use step three, I used it as follows:  To get in touch with the reward of taking action on my intention, I asked myself, “What pleasure would I get when I complete the client notes?”  The answers that emerged from my mind were:

  • “I will feel really good about myself at the end of the day because I used my gifts to help another person.”
  • “My client will be happy and continue to work with me.”
  • “I will continue to develop my coaching approach which can help so many people with ME/CFS and FM, including myself.”

Conversely, just like the horse pulls the cart when we dangle a whip within eyesight, you can also motivate yourself by thinking of what pain you can avoid by getting started.

  • “If I didn’t do a good job coaching people, my reputation would suffer. By keeping good client notes, I can ensure that my reputation stays intact.”
  • “I will avoid the ugly feeling of the day having passed without my using my gifts.”
  • “If I don’t do the client notes now, I’ll have to do them later.”

Just like you don’t need a treat to get a dog to go on a walk or a horse to move to a greener pasture, you don’t need step three for tasks that you feel motivated to do anyway.  In those cases, the task itself is enough of a reward to get you moving.  Therefore, feel free to skip step three whenever it seems enough to just use steps 1 and 2.

As Easy As 1, 2, 3 — Experience What This Simple Technique Can Do For You

I have been helped tremendously by the simple technique I just shared with you. Each day, it helps me switch from feeling a sense of being overwhelmed and feeling resistance to a sense of motivation and flow. By helping me overcome a sense of listlessness, it helps me succeed at practicing the daily healing exercises I need to live each day with optimum health and happiness.

Why not try the three simple steps right now to see what they can do for you?

Think for a moment what task you would like to accomplish or intention you would like to put into practice.

Example: I know I could really benefit from a meditation, but somehow I feel resistance to meditating right now.

Then use the technique to let go of any resistance and feel excited about accomplishing your task:

Apply Step One to Your Situation

Smile at any resistance you might be feeling when you think of your task. Still smiling, take in a slow deep breath in…  and let it go.

Example: When I think of meditating, I think, “I don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing right now.”  Along with that thought I feel some discomfort (feeling of resistance) in my chest.I smile at my thought and the feeling in my chest. Still smiling, I take in a slow, deep breath in…  and let go.I already feel a bit better.

Apply Step Two to Your Situation

Ask, “What is the next little step that feels easy?”

Taking the 'easy route' can get you back into the game sometimes

Taking the ‘easy route’ can get you back into the game sometimes

Just stop writing on this article for a few seconds and take another slow, deep breath in. Repeat this step as often as you like until you have pursued your task for as long as you think is ideal for you.

Example: For me, 20 minutes feels like the right duration for my meditation right now.Therefore, whenever I feel resistance during my meditation, I take a slow deep breath and repeat the question, “What feels easy now?”  A common answer is, “Just enjoy three more breaths of meditation.” Or, “Just give 100% focus for three more breaths.”Often, 3 to 10 minutes into my meditation I don’t even have to ask anymore because I’ve already begun to enjoy my meditation.

Apply Step Three to Your Situation

If, after completing steps one and two, you have let go of resistance but still don’t feel anything pulling you toward working on your task—you feel zero motivation—ask, “What pleasure will I gain and what pain will I avoid by taking action on my task right now?”


  • If I meditate, this slight sense of being overwhelmed will go away.
  • I will be able to fully enjoy the 90 minutes that follow my meditation.
  • I can meditate on my smile, which might actually be quite pleasant.
  • After only 3 to 5 minutes, I usually love my meditation.
  • I love when I notice how any tensions in my body begin to soften and my mind returns to its natural state of calm contentment.
  • I won’t have to make dinner in a state of being flustered and overwhelmed.
  • My mind will be calm, which will allow me to fully take in the beauty of everything around me.
  • Who knows? Maybe this will even help me return to full health.

I’d love for you to share your three steps in the comments. Also, please share any thoughts or questions you may have, including your insights on what helps you overcome feelings of listlessness, resistance, and being overwhelmed.

Bonus Tip: Experience the Flow That Comes From Doing This in a Community With People Like You

There’s something about being witnessed when we set an intention and set out to accomplish it.

Take a yoga class as an example: doing yoga seems to become easier when we do it in a group because the people around us are doing it with us. It’s that sense of going with the flow and not wanting to let others down that comes from doing an activity in a group setting.

Therefore, if you notice that doing this technique on your own helps you a bit, but it is not yet giving you the motivation and ease you were hoping for, consider joining forces with a buddy.

Here is what it could look like:  When I work on completing client notes or refilling my pills, I schedule a short phone call every 10 to 15 minutes during which I share my “three steps”, listen to my buddy’s “three steps,” and then go off and do what I had set out to do. After I’ve done it, I check back in and repeat the process for the next 10-15 minutes as often as necessary.

In my experience, buddying up with someone can easily double the power of these “three steps.” If you don’t have a healing buddy and don’t want to find one on your own, we’re happy to help you find one. Join the CFS Recovery Project Healing Community, where we’ll set you up with a healing buddy and give you lots of other support for living each day as healthy and happy as possible. To find out more about this healing community, click here.

About the Author

Johannes-Starke-CFS-RecoverJohannes Starke is a health coach for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia who has come a long way in recovering from the illness. He is the founder of the CFS Recovery Project, where he supports people with ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia in regaining their health and happiness. To benefit from more of his work, sign up for his free CFS Recovery Tips Newsletter or join over 130 participants in his free ME/CFS Health and Happiness Fundamentals email course.

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