Difficulties with Phone Conversations in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS

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Do 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.

Factors That Contribute to Phone Aversion

So why is this? It hasn’t been studied, but several factors could contribute to this problem:

Foggy brains

When you’re on the phone, you don’t get any of the non-verbal cues that come with face-to-face conversation. Communication experts agree that most of communication is non-verbal, and when you remove all those verbal cues, your brain has to work harder to comprehend what’s being said. Foggy brains may not be able to muster that level of focus.

Environments full of distraction

We’re often in environments that are full of distraction. You hear a lot about “multitasking,” which doesn’t really mean that the brain is doing multiple things at once. Even in healthy people, according to experts, the brain is actually switching from one task to another. FMS and ME/CFS brains often have a hard time with multitasking.

The language problems

The language problems common in fibromyalgia and ME/CFS which includes word recall can complicate conversation and make it stressful. If you’re afraid of forgetting common words or losing your train of thought, it may make your symptoms worse.


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Thermal allodynia

Holding the phone can be really painful for the hand, arm, shoulder, neck or even ear. Some phones get really hot, which can bother those who have thermal allodynia (pain from temperatures that wouldn’t normally cause pain). Fortunately, speakerphones and headsets can alleviate a lot of 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.”

Try to eliminate all the distractions

When you do have to use the phone, try to eliminate all the distractions you can. Go into a quiet room and shut the door, maybe even turn out the light. If you need to relay specific information, make notes ahead of time and keep them with you. To help you remember information, take notes. That prevents frustrations like making a doctor’s appointment or plans with a friend and then forgetting the details the moment you hang up.

Fix limit on the length of phone calls

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.”

Encourage them to send you texts or emails

If you have problems communicating via telephone, it can help to let the people who speak with frequently know about it. Let them know that when you ask him to repeat something, it’s not because you were ignoring them. You may also want to encourage them to send you texts or emails instead of calling, especially if they know you haven’t been feeling well. It might be worth exploring Skype, especially for long distance calls or conversations you expect to be lengthy.

Educating others about the your limits

Deciding on limits is one part of the solution. The rest is educating others about the your 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.”


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Reference: Mastering the Phone with CFS & FM By Bruce Campbell via cfids selfhelp

  • Attree EA, Dancey CP, Pope AL. Cyberpsychology and Behavior. 2009 Aug;12(4):379-85. An assessment of prospective memory retrieval in woman with chronic fatigue syndrome using a virtual-reality environment; an initial study.
  • Leavitt F, Katz RS. Journal of Clinical Rheumatology. 2008 Sug;14(4):214-8. Speed of mental operations in fibromyalgia: a selective naming speed deficit.
  • Nunes L, Recarte MA. Science Direct. June 2002 5(2):133-144. Cognitive demands of hands-free-phone conversation while driving.
  • National Safety Council. How cell phone distracted driving affects the brain. All rights reserved.

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