Spoon Theory Explained: Your Chronic Fatigue Survival Guide

Spoon theory is explained as a metaphor for units of energy by someone experiencing fatigue or chronic illness
Katarina Zulak
Written by
Katarina Zulak Chronic Warrior & Health Writer

If you were recently diagnosed with a chronic condition, you may have come across the term ‘spoon theory’ or ‘Spoonie’ online and felt confused. But don’t worry, the spoon theory is explained so you understand the connection between spoons and chronic fatigue! 

Spoon Theory Explained

Spoon theory is a metaphor for living with chronic fatigue. Blogger Christine Miserandino invented it while she was trying to explain the limits of life with chronic illness to a friend. The story goes something like this: 

The two were out at an empty diner. Christine gathered up some cutlery set out on nearby tables. She asked her friend to imagine that each spoon represented the amount of energy it took to complete one task—but the catch was that she only had a limit of 12 spoons per day. Then she got her friend to describe a typical day. 

The friend began by saying the first thing she did was make coffee. Christine laid down one spoon. Breakfast was a second spoon. By the time the friend had described her usual weekday morning activities—packing a lunch, showering, brushing her hair, getting dressed, etc., she had used up her entire daily energy quota of 12 spoons. 

Are you a Spoonie too?

Are you a Spoonie too?
Are you a Spoonie too?

This metaphor helped her friend understand the severe restrictions that fatigue causes, and the balancing act that people with chronic illness (spoonies) have to perform between getting things done and resting in order to avoid crashing from exhaustion. 

Invest in Rest Breaks To Balance Out Expended Energy

We all have the tendency, especially on a good day, to overdo it and then crash afterward. But if you can work out a sustainable equation of how many rest breaks (units of rest invested) you need to balance how many activities you do (spoons of energy expended) to prevent crashing, then you can begin to reclaim your day. This is sometimes referred to as pacing, or working within your ‘energy envelope’. For example, in order to do 2 hours of computer work, I take two half-hour rests, so that I can continue to write and work.

Resting isn’t always as easy as it may sound to someone without a chronic illness. Pain and other uncomfortable symptoms can make napping impossible, or you may feel too wired or agitated to sleep. The key is to elicit your ‘relaxation response’—a natural state that helps you to recover from chronic stress and conserve limited energy – in which your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and blood cortisol level drops (NCCIH). 

Guided Imagery for Fatigue 

This technique teaches you to focus on pleasant images, instead of stressful thoughts or feelings, either as a self-directed practice or using a recording. You enrich the experience by concentrating on all your senses. For example, you don’t just imagine walking along a beach, but smelling the salty air, hearing the surf and seagulls, and feeling the warm sand beneath your feet. Practicing guided imagery for 20 minutes daily has been found to significantly reduce fatigue in people with fibromyalgia, as well as pain and stress (Menzies et al., 2014).

Yogic Nap or Yoga Nidra

Proponents of yoga nidra, or the “yogic nap” say that 30 minutes of guided practice is equivalent to two hours of sleep, because it shifts your brain waves towards a state between wakefulness and sleep.

If you’ve done yoga before, you may be familiar with the final pose—lying on your back on the floor (in the Shavasana position). Adopting the same pose, you are invited to begin sensing your breathing and body in different ways during the practice. For example, you might be prompted to sense which parts of your body feel heavy, then which parts feel light. Yoga nidra can reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue because it promotes a relaxed, restorative mental and physical state (Health Rising).

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This mind-body involves voluntarily stretching or tensing a large group of muscles as you inhale, and then relaxing them as you exhale, gradually moving from head to toe.

Lying down on your back, you begin by clenching your hands as you breathe in, holding it for a few seconds, and then releasing the muscles as you breathe out. Physical relaxation induces mental relaxation, so this technique may be especially helpful when your mind feels agitated.

Studies have shown that progressive muscle relaxation decreases fatigue and improves sleep in people with chronic conditions when practiced once a day (Dayapoğlu et al., 2012).

Using the spoon theory to visualize your energy as a daily quota of spoons can help you change from an overdoing it/crash cycle to a sustainable rest/act/rest cycle, so you can live your best life every day, despite having a chronic illness.

How do you deal with fatigue?
Katarina Zulak
Written by
Katarina Zulak Chronic Warrior & Health Writer

I am a health blogger, health writer and all-around health nerd. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and endometriosis. On my health journey, I’ve learned the power of self-care skills to improve my health and wellbeing. As a writer I am excited to educate and inspire others to be skillfully well, even if they have a chronic condition. From medication to meditation, I started learning that living skillfully improved my wellbeing in all dimensions (mind, body and spirit). It also increased my agency again – the capacity to achieve change in my own life. My focus shifted from being a career-focused humanitarian to a self-care and wellbeing advocate in my own life, and the lives of others who live with chronic pain and illness. Read more at skillfullywell.com Instagram @skillfullywell Facebook @akatarinaz  Pinterest @akatarinaz

This article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your physician or health provider for your specific needs.