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Coping with Phone Issues When Illness Limits Energy

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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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7 thoughts on “Coping with Phone Issues When Illness Limits Energy”

  1. pamepie says:

    Having been diagnosed with FM 20 yrs ago, this is the first time I’ve seen telephone issues addressed. I had not realized that my aversion to talking on the telephone was really because it exhausts me. I am an admin. secretary and thankfully most calls are not lengthy but I really avoid talking on the phone at work and home as much as possible. I do use an answering machine at home. The suggestion of lying down comfortably(at home LOL) helps, but the phone needs to be resting say on a pillow. Holding the phone is so tiring, now I “have seen the light” as to why and the article’s suggestions will help me. Thanks, Dr. Campbell, for the ensightful strategies.

  2. Juloo says:

    This was so timely for me. I have two friends who are epic callers — there is no such thing as a ‘short’ call from either. The unfortunately part is that this is just the way these two communicate. They are phoners. Not emailers. I screen calls, and choose (rarely) to have a session with one or the other. The last time, one talked three hours! I reminded her at the 2 hour mark that I needed to get off, then she contradicted me about whether or not it had been two hours, then yacked another hour! Yes, I should have just hung up. The sad part is that, even with a headset, it took an entire day to recover. The funny part is that my husband didn’t even realize I was on the phone because I was so quiet (yes, she was ‘dumping’).

    So this was a definitely timely article for me, and I am so glad to see it addresses. These people wear me out in person as well, but I don’t live nearby, so I just suck it up and deal. But this is one issue in my life that I still am not controlling the situation by setting appropriate limits.

    More, please!

  3. spiketheartist says:

    Juloo, when your friend dumps on you for three hours, it’s not just the time that’s exhausting you, it’s the emotional stress she’s loading onto you – more stress=more fatigue. Sure, when a friend is deeply upset, I’ll listen at length to her, but if someone makes a habit of it, I’ll explain that I simply cannot cope with any form of additional stress and ask that she either get a professional therapist or some other friends to share with. If your “friend” doesn’t understand and accept that, then you have to learn to simply hang up on her after no more than 15 minutes, or accept the fact that someone who doesn’t understand and respect your health issues after you’ve explained them repeatedly IS NOT REALLY YOUR FRIEND, and dump her. In either case, and I’m sorry if I sound harsh, it’s up to you to take action to protect yourself since this selfish person is certainly not going to.

  4. LivinStateOHope says:

    I’ve been sick for 25+ yrs. I used to feel overwhelmed by the phone & screen my calls. But then an eye disease made my vision very poor & I’m stuck @ home by myself & very lonely. So I’m the one that needs to talk everyday for an hour or so (3 hrs is too much). But I’ve used a headset phone for 20 yrs now. I could not talk more than 1/2 hour w/ a handset.
    What I find interesting is the talk of friends “dumping” their problems on us. That seems a totally separate, but important issue. I didn’t have friends start just telling me their problems, until I was so sick I had to go on disability. Everytime they called. No good news, just bad. And then they didn’t want to hear what was happening to me at all. Busy working person. Had to go. Nice talking to you. Why? I look @ the humor in things, esp. my problems, so I didn’t think I was dumping; my mom said I wasn’t. So why? And then when my vision got bad & being w/ me required them to drive me & read small print menus to me, the last of my friends — my best friends, the ones that are supposed to stand by you thru thick & thin — disappeared. Why? Did I have only fair-weathered friends. Did they think CFS/FM was a light weight problem, but being legally blind was too major. I got an effective treatment for the eye disease (there is no cure), but they didn’t come back, because it will get worse again.
    But I wonder why do our healthy friends — whether by phone or in person — feel the need to tell us just their problems & none of their joys? Do they think we’ll get depressed knowing they’re having good things in their lives? It’s not like we can’t still find joy in our own lives. Do they not know this? Why do they just “dump” on us?

  5. lorreann says:

    I hate to talk on the phone and have screened my calls for years. I HATE calling people back and much prefer e mail. Holding the phone up to my ear really hurts my arm, too. It is really hard to explain to my family that I could be too tired to hold the phone to my ear. I’m thankful for this article.

  6. jskews says:

    I now take the phone off the hook so it can’t ring and they go to voice mail. My husband has a business and they can call his cell phone. It seems with all the telemarketing calls + business + family/friends it is way too much stimulation for me. It hurts my arm to be on the phone even 10 minutes and jaws. too.

    I will try the headset except for when I need to lay down and get my rest and wind back

  7. jofran408 says:

    I had a fairly high stress job that I felt I could handle, because they had people divided into groups that processed work, and another group that handled phone calls. I started in the processing group and after some time they decided we needed to do both, the processing work and the phone work. That’s when my real problems began to show. I tried to request a change back to just processing because I could not handle the phones ringing constantly and still think straight to try to answer questions and still work on processing files, and handling agent problems and requests in between. I thought I was losing my mind! I became frustrated, angry, panicky and even had moments when it seemed like I couldn’t remember where I was. Irritable bowel problems were almost an every day occurrence, and I became very depressed, had problems sleeping, or when I could sleep, (or maybe when I was totally worn out and depleted), I would stay in bed for several days. In practically all my reviews, my quality of work was exceeding, but then they always put the most emphasis on the fact that I avoided answering the phone, so no matter how good I was in any other area, they managed to make my reviews worse and worse due to the inability to cope with the barrage of phone calls that happened every day. I became less able to cope with it all, and sicker and sicker and finally lost that job. I had actually worked for that company for 25 years and had taken a career option to change departments and get into that last job, and I remember all too well that I specifically requested that I be able to work in the area that did not have to be on the phones. I was assured then, of course, that this would be the case, but they certainly didn’t honor that request or first assurance that I had been given.

    While I knew then, that the constantly ringing phone did not appeal to me, I really did not know that it was part of my health problem. I had never heard of anyone connecting that with the fibromyalgia, and even now, while I blamed my failing health on that situation, this is really the first I have heard of others having this same problem. Thank you for finally letting me realize I was not totally insane! To this day, I still become very frustrated, confused and irritable in my current job when the phone rings very much. At home, I never answer the phone unless I know who it is.

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