Receiving a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) diagnosis can be scary. Learning to manage your first CFS crash will help shorten your recovery time and learn to avoid future crashes.
No two CFS cases are exactly the same. CFS exists along a spectrum of severity, triggers, symptoms, and causes. There are many different strategies you can use to manage and prevent symptoms. The key is finding out what works best for you specifically!
One of the hardest things to adjust to after being diagnosed is your first CFS crash. Understanding what causes a crash and how to deal with it will make coping much easier.
What are the Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
- 1 What are the Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
- 2 How Does a CFS Crash Work?
- 3 How to Cope With a CFS Crash
In order to receive a diagnosis for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), you need to demonstrate these three “core” symptoms.
Core Symptom One: Fatigue
The first core symptom is a significantly reduced ability to do activities that were previously normal for you. Usually, this occurs as a result of fatigue. To qualify for a CFS diagnosis, this symptom must last six months or longer.
The fatigue that accompanies ME/CFS is different from normal tiredness. Unlike regular exhaustion, ME/CFS fatigue isn’t a result of doing difficult activities.
This type of fatigue cannot be relieved by sleep or rest, and it can be very severe. Rather than being a condition you’ve struggled with all your life, ME/CFS fatigue starts after illness or stress.
Core Symptom Two: Post-Exertional Malaise (PEM)
If you have ME/CFS, then you experience a significant worsening of your symptoms after participating in physical or mental activity. This is often described as a “crash.”
When you experience PEM, you may experience new symptoms. These include brain fog, headaches, sore throat, and difficulty sleeping, along with extreme tiredness.
A CFS crash can be caused by lots of different things. Unfortunately, it can take days or even weeks to recover from a crash.
Core Symptom Three: Sleep Disorders
ME/CFS is also accompanied by a range of sleep disorders that contribute to your fatigue. In spite of your physical and mental exhaustion, you might be unable to sleep. Some people also wake up still feeling exhausted. Beyond that, some people with CFS experience vivid dreams, restless legs, or even sleep apnea.
In addition to those three core symptoms, many people with ME/CFS also struggle with thinking and memory. You may have trouble thinking quickly, paying attention to details, and remembering things. This is commonly referred to as “brain fog.”
Another common issue is orthostatic intolerance. This is when your symptoms get worse when you are standing or sitting upright. You may experience lightheadedness or even fainting when moving from a seated to standing position.
How Does a CFS Crash Work?
Most people with ME/CFS or fibromyalgia have experienced the frustrating loop of pushing and crashing. When your symptoms are low, it can be tempting to push and do as much as possible while feeling good.
Unfortunately, the overexertion from the push leads to a crash. During a crash, you are essentially forced to rest because you don’t have the energy to do anything else.
What does a CFS crash feel like? It can feel like the flu, with pain, brain fog, and sensitivity to light and sound. It also worsens your regular symptoms.
The main symptom of a CFS crash is overwhelming fatigue. When you’re in a crash, you may not be able to do many activities at all. Simple tasks, like showering or cooking, can seem insurmountable.
It’s important to know that the crashes don’t necessarily immediately follow the triggering event or activity. It can take up to several days before setting in, making it difficult to identify what activities caused it.
Is It Possible to Avoid a Crash?
Although you cannot totally avoid a crash, focusing on pacing can help!
Your symptoms may feel random, but they’re actually due to variations in your activity level. If you do more than your body is able to, you’re likely to experience a CFS crash in response.
Pacing yourself is critical for taking back control of your life. Creating a plan that works for you allows you to be proactive instead of constantly responding to symptoms.
Using pacing, you can control your illness, instead of being controlled by it.
Some benefits of pacing are:
- Lower frequency of symptoms
- More stability and predictability in life
- Sense of control
- Less time resting
- More productive time
Pacing is often described through the Energy Envelope theory. You can think of the Energy Envelope as the boundaries of the limits that ME/CFS imposes. This theory has three parts to help you manage your symptoms better.
Find Your Envelope
The reality is that a ME/CFS or fibromyalgia diagnosis comes with limits.
You can’t spend as much time and effort on physical activities, socializing, or mental activities as you used to. The first step in preventing a CFS crash is honestly identifying your limits.
Adapt to Your Envelope
Once you’ve recognized the limits of your ‘envelope,’ you need to adjust your lifestyle so that you’re living within it.
This is a process. It can take a long time to fully adjust to life within your new boundaries.
Expand Your Envelope
Pace yourself consistently and live within your envelope. This helps you slowly expand your envelope over time by adding activities (without making your symptoms worse).
How to Cope With a CFS Crash
Understanding a crash is only the first step to coping with your new CFS diagnosis. Here are some tips for coping with and overcoming a CFS crash!
When you know that you may need to spend extra time resting, you can prepare ahead of time to make the experience as easy as possible.
Although you might be tempted to reach for easy snacks with low nutritional value, you need to eat healthy foods that support your body. Learn more about why raw foods make a huge difference in improving CFS syndrome!
Keep your freezer filled with pre-made healthy meals that are easy to reheat. You can do some batch cooking on days when you have the energy. Here’s a list of 22 healthy freezer meals!
You can also stock your house with healthy snacks. When your body is already struggling to produce enough energy, you don’t want to eat sugar or unhealthy fats. These will add to the crash!
Reduce the Stimuli In Your Environment
Many people who are in the middle of a CFS crash find that it can be easy to become overstimulated by light and sound.
You can create an environment that allows you to rest by turning off your phone and computer and turning the lights down low.
The best thing you can do is lie down in a warm, darkened, and quiet room. We recommend using a heating pad (this one is our favorite!) on any parts of your body that are sore. This is a great time to practice mindfulness/meditation to calm your mind and body.
Focus On Rest
It can be hard to designate time just for resting, but when your body has used up all of its energy and is in an energy deficit, that’s all you can do. Plan to settle down someplace comfortable and just relax.
If you try to fight the fatigue, you’ll make things worse. Giving into the rest period can shorten your recovery period. Remind yourself: you’re not being lazy, and you’re not just tired. You’re dealing with an illness and need to rest!
You may need to rest for a day, a week, or even longer in order to recover from the crash.
Remember that this isn’t your fault and you’re not doing anything wrong. By acknowledging that you have an illness, you can prepare yourself mentally to care for yourself properly.
It’s common to feel anxious when you feel a crash coming on.
Do what you can to relax, even though it can be difficult. Don’t beat yourself up. The best thing you can do for your body is use this time to rest.
A CFS crash can be brought on by mental activity just as much as physical activity, so it’s important to give your brain a break too. Take a break from your digital devices as much as possible to avoid overstimulation.
Dealing with a CFS crash can be difficult, but remember to be kind to yourself. Learning to pace yourself can help reduce the frequency of your crashes. Plus, over time, pacing will help you increase your activity levels without triggering symptoms. You can do this—things will get better!