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Spoon theory, MS and managing my energy levels

Amy Thompson

Around this time of year you see, read and hear lots about people making big lifestyle changes. Or charting paths to achieve their goals. It can feel like a lot of pressure.

On 1 January I made some resolutions of my own. I wanted to get fit, start running again, start a new hobby, and just generally get healthier. But of course, life happened. I got COVID-19 over the Christmas period and am still trying to get back on my feet.

This completely threw my ‘new year, new me’ plans out of the window. But it also got me thinking – as someone living with MS, how easy is it to stick to these types of ambitious goals? It can feel like I’m setting myself up for failure. Now that sounds quite negative and pessimistic, but let me explain.

Thinking of units of energy as spoons

Living with MS means I never really know how I’m going to feel when I wake up. I never know how much energy I’ll have or how much I’m able to do that day.

A way of understanding this is ‘spoon theory’. The spoon theory is a metaphor created by Christine Miserandino to help people explain how it feels to live with a chronic condition. Simply put – spoons equal units of energy.

The idea is that people living with health conditions like MS start each day with a limited amount of spoons. These vary from person to person and from day to day.

How much can I do with 12 spoons?

So let’s say I wake up and I have 12 spoons. And what I’d like to do during my day is to get up, make my bed, shower, brush my teeth, get ready, eat breakfast, go outside, exercise, work, socialise, make dinner, clean up and get ready for bed. Each activity will use a different amount of spoons.

A smaller task like brushing my teeth may only use 1 spoon, whereas showering may use 3 and exercising may use 5. When you start to add it all up, 12 spoons isn’t very much. And some days I’ll wake up with even less.

This means, every detail of every day needs to be considered, and that’s hard.

A cycle of overdoing it

I’ll also often need to do more than my daily spoons allow me to. If this happens I can opt to ‘borrow’ spoons from the next day’s allowance. But that will mean I’ll start the next day in deficit.

I’ve always been the type of person to push myself to the very max, to set myself crazy goals, and to keep myself busy with lots of different projects.

I hate having to say no, to cancel, to let people down, and the guilt associated with this is a heavy burden to bear. So it's very easy to get stuck in a cycle of overdoing it and exhausting myself, from not managing my spoons well enough.

Finding a balance

But, I’ve been living with MS for almost 4 years now and I’m learning - slowly but surely. At first when I got COVID-19, I didn’t rest, and give myself the time I needed to recover. This meant my body was struggling.

I had to force myself to take a step back, cut down my hours at work, and put all the things I wanted to do on hold. And guess what? It was the right thing to do. I now feel healthier physically and happier mentally and I’m now (almost) ready to start 2022 in the right way.

I won’t be setting any unrealistic resolutions, instead I’ll be making goals which are small but meaningful and hopeful but realistic.

So this year my top tips are be careful with your spoons and be kind to yourself. And focus on simple changes that can make it easier to manage your condition and improve your quality of life.