Ah, the festive season. So much fun to be had. So little energy. So much to get done before the fun can be had. So many loved ones to catch up with after so much pandemic-time.
What if I'm too tired to be my best self for them? What if I'm too tired to even get to the event where they'll be? What if I get sick again?! It's been a big year folks. A big few years.
Many of us are struggling with fatigue and brain-fog, and it's been getting attention in the media. I'd like to share some ideas that I'm hoping to carry with me as I navigate this festive season.
These ideas come from my experience as a music therapist with a love of connecting with others, a tendency to get easily overwhelmed, and a few years living with chronic fatigue syndrome (See Appendix 1).
If it's all in Your Head, it's Still Real
Tiredness and brain-fog can lure us into mind-games. We might look to other tired, seemingly-coping people and think "I should be functioning like them". Or we might expect ourself to snap out of our fog, getting more and more annoyed when we can't. And of course, if fatigue lingers, we need to look into it with a doctor (see Appendix 2). Personally, I've searched for physical explanations for my fatigue, partly as a way of trying to validate it to myself. Like I'm trying to say, I'm not just tired - I'm sick. Calling it chronic fatigue somehow lets me treat tiredness with more respect. But I feel that tiredness deserves that respect, whatever the reason.
Many of us have been raised in a society that values things like "soldiering on", "pushing through", "no-pain-no-gain", and generally ignoring needs and messages from our body that might try to slow us down. The ability to push through is useful. It helps us get those difficult-yet-necessary things done. Importantly though, pushing-through should only ever be used temporarily, not as a permanent mindset.
When we build muscles, we work them hard and wear them out a little bit, then we need to stop and let them repair. That's how muscles strengthen. The rest of our body needs this recovery too. Our brains, nervous-system, emotions - it all needs a nice balance of fun, challenge, and rest. Most of us kind of know this about ourselves. But society hasn't been good at teaching us how to rest and recover. Many of us also simply don't have the time and space for rest.
I believe that we all need a personalised tool-kit to help us carve out time and space for rest, and to craft that rest so that it actually helps when we get it. For me, learning to treat rest like a valuable art-form is giving me the courage to make time and space for it. In a way, I was lucky that illness forced me to practise rest. The biggest luck was in the social and financial support that I had when that happened. I know not everyone gets these opportunities. I hope some of my learnings can provide some short-cuts and/or validation for those who are feeling the fatigue, or who fear it may be tipped over the edge by the plethora of social times ahead.
The Art of Resting
Resting, in the world we live in, is not easy. We live stressful lives, and often our bodies feel that rest is not possible - there's still too much to do. Or that ridiculous thing happens where we feel too tired to sleep - lying in bed wide awake, or scrolling through social media instead of closing our eyes.
We might push through until we finally can't push anymore, and then we're so tired that we need to stop for longer than we planned to. So we learn to fear that if we stop, we won't be able to start back up again. I'm learning not to fall for that fear, because it's a vicious cycle. I tell myself that taking a break is, surprise surprise, not actually giving up. If the break turns out to be longer and more flattening than I hoped for, I rest assured that I will rise again when I'm ready. And I go gently with that process. I ease through, rather than snap out of tiredness. The key to that has been listening. To music, to my body, and to one particularly helpful piece of advice.
"Stop to Rest Before you Reach Your Limit."
A wise and progressive doctor told me this, in relation to anything that uses energy. It stands in stark contrast to popular culture that tells us to work muscles until they burn, to dance the night away, to follow your dreams no matter what. It also stood in contrast to previous doctors that had advised me to exercise my way back to health and to stay fully engaged with my work and social life (which of course made me feel like a failure). But when I'm able to pause before realising I'm tired, rather than just conking out. This leaves me with energy to actually listen to what that tiredness needs.
Listen to Music, Listen to Your Needs
We need lots of different types of rest. Sleep, fun, day-dreaming. Sometimes, resting might even look like going for a run (you're letting your brain wander, you're freeing your body from stillness or stiffness). I've found it pretty counter-intuitive to stop while on a roll, and to break that pattern of going until I drop. This is where my music therapy training really helps.
I use music listening to carve out time and space for rest, to structure my activities accordingly, and to help me recognise where my energy is at. I find that spending just a couple of minutes listening to music helps me tune in (hehe) to what it is that I need. And as I've begun treating my instincts and cravings with more respect, my body has grown better at telling me what it needs.
Listening to music gives helps me to gather all the pieces of my brain, and perform a kind of gear-shift. This is so helpful in navigating transitions between doing and resting. I use specific music for concentration, motivation, exercise and winding down. Making my own playlists using this music has allowed me to structure my time so that I'm less prone to overdoing things.
My concentration playlists involve 20-40 minutes of steady, unobtrusive music, then movement breaks with lively rhythms that help me get up and move about to give my brain and body a break. After that little body-break, I'm better able to listen to what I need. Am I still on a roll? Or do I need a lie-down? Or a walk?
My winding down playlists begin with music that captures my interest, guiding my brain away from whatever it may be fixating on, before growing more soothing and gentle. I plan on using these a lot when I need to recover from stimulating social times.
Self-Care is Sharable
So for me, this is the trickiest part: balancing an ability to tune into and tend to our needs, while also being there for, and with, all the special people in our life.
As we enter this festive season, with an emphasis on giving and connecting with loved ones, we can lose sight of the importance of self-care. We can overlook the fact that those who truly love us, and who are truly deserving of our love, will want us to do the things that allow us to thrive. Self-care is not selfish. It has a flowon effect to those around us. Feelings are generally pretty contagious, so if we're feeling well and centred, we're likely to put those around us at ease too.
If you haven't already, please read Megan's blog post from September, where she discusses self-care, how it looks different for everyone, and how to look into what might work for you. She also features a beautiful quote that reads "self-care is giving the best of you, instead of what's left of you". I think that complements these ideas perfectly.
This festive season, I'm going to prioritise quality over quantity when it comes to spending time with loved ones. I'm going to try:
Making Peace With FOMO
and accepting the guilt and disappointment that will naturally arise when I need to say no to some things, or leave some events early. I'll make some plans to cope with those difficult feelings, like:
voicing them to supportive people
listening to music that helps me process and move through the feelings congratulating myself on tuning into my needs
reminding myself that this event is not the only opportunity for me to connect with/convey care for these people
about where my energy is at and what I need
Setting General Time-Frames
Deciding roughly how long I'm willing and able to spend at a given social event, and putting systems in place to help me stick to that limit, such as communicating with others, and setting a (gentle, friendly-toned!) alarm on my phone.
Advocating on behalf of your own tiredness can feel really icky. It's really hard to accept it when you're too tired to go to a beautiful gathering with loved ones you dearly care about. Or when you need to go home to bed because you're hitting your sleepy wave, even though the night's going so well and you wish you could make the most of this rare occasion that you get to be together.
It can be hard to explain to others that you can't go out to dinner because you're still recovering from having gone out last week. Or because by 8pm you actually need to be drinking chamomile tea and staring out the window, rather than using precious energy trying to follow a group conversation in a loud room while also carrying a background fear of catching covid again.
But I'm learning that many people really appreciate when you talk openly about this. A lot of them struggle with similar stuff too, and feel encouraged to voice their needs when they see you owning yours. Yes, spending quality time together is an important way to strengthen relationships, but not if it's at the expense of your own wellbeing and authenticity. And quality time, when it happens, is to be relished, no matter how short or infrequent it is.
Clara is a Sounding Board Registered Music Therapist (RMT) based in Melbourne.
She has worked in a range of contexts, including individual and group work with diverse NDIS participants, acute mental health care, and residential care for people with lived experience of homelessness.
Clara cherishes the connections she forms with people through music therapy, seeking respectful and meaningful collaboration with everyone she works with. She particularly enjoys seeing people's unique strengths and personalities emerge through their music.
For very helpful information on chronic fatigue syndrome, please visit Emerge Australia at https://www.emerge.org.au/. Experiences of the condition vary widely, and I identify as someone with a mild form of the illness, with occasional flare-ups of moderate severity.
Fatigue is a symptom of many illnesses, so it is important to look into it thoroughly with a GP.