Coping with Phone Issues When Illness Limits Energy

Dr. Bruce Campbell directs the educational CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help website (, and online self-help group discussion courses focused on practical ways to deal with the daily challenges of chronic illness – such as the following.

Mastering the Phone with CFS & FM
Do you feel you have to answer the phone even when you would prefer not to? Do you have trouble limiting the length of phone calls or feel guilty if you don’t talk to people?

If you experience any of these things, you’re not alone. We recently had a discussion of phone etiquette and strategies, and were surprised at how many people had conflicts about the use of their phone, or who experience phone use as something that intensifies their symptoms.

But the discussion also identified strategies people use to overcome these problems.

Screening Calls

The most commonly mentioned strategy for limiting time on the phone was to screen calls, using either an answering machine or Caller ID.

• Some people reported picking up the phone for calls from some people but not for others,

• Or answering during parts of the day but not at others,

• While other people said they allow all their calls to be taken on a machine or voice mail.

One person said, “I screen calls and only answer if I’m up to it,” while another reported “I let the answering machine take all my calls, so I can call back at my own convenience.” A third said, “I screen all my calls and rarely answer the home phone. All the school, business, political, and telemarketing calls go there, as well as the wrong numbers. Then I listen to the messages and heed any that have info I need, and delete the rest.”  

Some people reported responding to phone calls via email or text messages and also setting up appointments for phone calls.

One said, “If I’m not up for talking, I will send some people a quick text or email. That way, they know I’m just not up for a phone call and not ignoring or avoiding them.”

Another reported, “Among family, I text a lot; it’s not nearly as disruptive as a phone call. Long phone calls are usually planned in advance.”

Setting Limits

People reported setting limits of various kinds around their use of the phone.

• Perhaps the most common was a limit on the length of phone calls (10 to 15 minutes was the most common range).

• Limits also included the number of calls in a day, time of day (for example no calls in the evening), and limits by person (talk to some people but not to others).

A number of people said that they had struggled with themselves about setting limits, feeling guilty if they didn’t answer calls or if they put limits on the length or content of their calls.

A person who limits calls to 15 minutes and lost some relationships because of it, said, “I went through a grieving process as I implemented this. It was not easy to put myself and my own health first.”

Another said, “I am learning to set firm boundaries so I can take care of myself. I’ve learned that I am easily affected by people dumping their problems on me. That may make them feel better but I am wired and feel worse. It is not worth it and so I am learning not to let others take my precious energy.”

Educating Others & Communicating Limits

Deciding on limits is one part of the solution. The rest is educating others about the limits and enforcing limits.

Some people reported educating others by referring them to articles about CFS and FM, such as those in our Library. “I’ve sent people links to this program’s website explaining FM and CFS, and this has helped tremendously.”

Others wrote about how they explained their limits to others, in some cases describing in detail both their limits and the cost of not honoring them. “I mentioned [to one friend] how important it is for me to stick to my schedule each day as far as my exercise times, rest periods, meal preps, etc. and how even small interruptions can have negative outcomes.”

Another strategy is to tell people about limits at the start of a call or even before the call begins.

One person wrote, “I usually tell people in advance how long I can talk. I might say something like ‘I’m struggling today, so I’ll only be able to talk for 20 minutes.'”

For many people, communicating limits is the biggest challenge. With many years of being a listener and focusing on the needs of others, they have trouble acting in their own best interest, but the rewards are real. As one said, “It’s hard to set limits with others, but when you do, it’s empowering.”

Posture, Movement & Comfort

A final set of strategies for phone use dealt with posture, movement and physical comfort.

A number of people mentioned using a headset or speakerphone. One person said, “When I was first ill, I had extreme, unmedicated pain, and holding a phone to my ear became sheer agony. I bought a headphone to attach to my home phone and that made a huge difference.”

Another said, “I can do better on the phone if I can get up and move around.” And a third reported, “I make myself comfortable by lying down on the bed or couch, propped up by pillows, and I make sure to change positions frequently.”

Note: This article is reproduced with kind permission from – which offers a large resource library on all aspects of coping with chronic illness.

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