Applying Spoon Theory to Living with Mental Illness

illustration of spoon theory and number of spoons needed for daily tasks
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One of the many things I’ve learned about through blogging is Christine Miserandino‘s spoon theory. In a 2003 essay, she described using the metaphor to explain to a friend what it felt like to have a chronic invisible illness (in her case, lupus). She and her friend were in a restaurant, and spoons were easily available to use as a metaphor representing the limited resources available for doing things.

Spoon theory has since become quite popular to describe living with a variety of physical conditions, including ME/CFS (chronic fatigue), and chronic pain. Spoon theory is also a great fit for mental health conditions.

Available spoons

The supply of spoons that’s available at the start of each day is not static; it varies depending on both environmental demands and what’s currently going on with the illness. When you’re at the lowest point in your depression, you might only have a third of the spoons you have available when your illness is more under control. When you run out of spoons, it takes a combination of time and rest in order to generate more. You might be able to keep going for a little while on borrowed spoons,

The graphic above shows how some activities may only take one spoon, while others will take more. The number of spoons required for each activity varies depending on the individual and the particular day. Something that only requires one spoon today may require 10 next week during an illness flare.

It’s important not to judge the 10-spoon state based on the ability to do a task at 1 spoon when feeling better. If a task requires 10 spoons and you manage to do it anyway, that may be a greater accomplishment than when you’re feeling better and the same task is easy.

Spoon requirements and mental illness

Mental illness can increase the spoon requirements for all kinds of tasks that you normally wouldn’t give a second thought to. Even just getting out of bed to start the day can be a gargantuan task.

Hygiene

Difficulty showering might as well be in the DSM’s list of symptoms for a major depressive episode, because it’s super-common. Showering really can start to feel like climbing a mountain. If you’re short physical energy and motivation spoons and you’re only showering once or twice a week, you might end up having to expend spoons on mental tasks like worrying if others think you smell bad or feeling guilty for not functioning better.

Even more basic tasks like brushing your teeth that seem to take no energy when you’re well can start using up spoons when you’re unwell.

Adulting

Depending on your living situation, you may be solely responsible for paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and doing other household tasks. All of these require spoons.

The tasks that are most difficult may vary depending on which of your symptoms are acting up. If your appetite is lousy, cooking may feel like it’s just not worth the spoon requirement. If being around people is hard, grocery shopping is going to require a lot more energy than usual. If illness is affecting your thinking, taking care of bills is probably going to require more cognitive spoons.

Social activities

Mental illness can make it much more challenging to be around people, and it may be hard to find the energy for peopling. Context matters, including details like where, with whom, and how many people are involved. Introversion can mean socialization is likely to use up more spoons, while extroverts may be able to gain some spoons from socializing in the right circumstances.

If social anxiety is an issue, the lead-up to social interactions may be exhausting. If you get easily over-stimulated, crowded environments are going to require spoon expenditure. If you have cognitive slowing because of depression, coming up with responses when conversing with others can be exhausting.

Mental tasks

It’s not just behavioural tasks that require spoons; mental tasks can also use up spoons. If illness is impairing your concentration, tasks that require focus are going to take more mental energy. Yes, reading can use up spoons!

Dealing with stressors can be a massive drain on your spoon supply. Even the illness symptoms themselves can be exhausting; things like paranoia, hypervigilance, rumination, and worry take a lot of mental spoons.

Things that are supposed to be good for you

Just because something is good for your mental health in the long run (or at least is supposed to be good) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require spoons.

Exercise is good for you, but it can use up spoons in terms of physical energy, as well as social energy spoons if you’re doing something like a yoga class.

Therapy is an important part of managing mental illness for a lot of people, but a rough therapy session that digs deep into difficult things can use up a whole lot of spoons and leave you totally wiped out afterwards.

Benefits of spoon theory

One of the things I really like about this metaphor is that it’s very self-forgiving. It’s not a question of whether you tried hard enough to do something; rather, it’s a matter of scarcity of resources. It also calls for a realistic assessment of what’s available and the true cost associated with an activity. It recognizes the cumulative effect of multiple draining tasks occurring within a short time frame.

I also like how individualized spoon theory is. There’s no standard that applies to everyone, and it’s just as easily applied to physical and/or mental illnesses. What’s most important is that we be realistic in evaluating both our daily spoon allotment and the spoon requirements of different tasks. We need to challenge the “shoulds” that hold us to unreasonable standards, whether those standards involve comparisons to others or comparisons to ourselves when we are feeling well.

Another good thing about this metaphor is that it’s easy to understand even for people without a chronic illness. It can be hard for people to wrap their heads around what it’s like to live with an invisible illness, and this metaphor presents the illness experience in concrete terms without oversimplifying.

How spoon theory is helpful for me

In terms of my own depression, I don’t think in terms of specific numbers of spoons, but I find spoon theory very useful in conceptualizing how resources are finite and requirements and resources are not static. If I have a task one day that I know is going to require a lot of spoons, I recognize that for the rest of that day, I need to minimize spoon-requiring activities. Overall, I feel like spoon theory is a good fit for my own chronic illness experience.

Is the spoon theory something that resonates with you? How do you apply it to your life/illness?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

40 thoughts on “Applying Spoon Theory to Living with Mental Illness”

  1. I have never heard of the “Spoon Theory” before, until now. I find this very fascinating, to say the least.
    Because this is a new theory to me, I guess it somewhat goes along with accomplishing a list that I have constructed the night before for the following day. Say I have 5 chores I want to accomplish, as I check them off upon finishing each one, I do in fact feel gratified.
    I enjoyed reading this post! Thank you for sharing! ๐Ÿ˜Š

  2. I like spoon theory as an idea, I think it’s a very visual concept and makes it easy to explain to others as well as to allow yourself some slack

  3. The infographic is pretty cool at showing the types of things spoons are used up for, and you’re right, the amount required can vary a lot and when struggling say with depression heaps more spoons are needed.xx

  4. I like the concept, having first heard of it in cancer-land. I’ve not used it as the effort of deciding how many spoons an activity takes would probably use too many of my spoons… joking aside, sometimes I feel all out of spoons before I’ve even done anything.
    What’s the answer? How do we get more spoons?

  5. That’s utterly fascinating! I know several people who would benefit from this, so I’m reblogging you on my site AND sharing that meme on FB for friends over there who suffer from invisible illnesses, but get weary of having to explain, again and again, why they ‘can’t’ do things that others seem to take for granted… Thanks Ashleyleia!

  6. I have heard of spoon theory, but not of “spoonie” – not sure I like that. I don’t want to be defined by my health issues and just the word… maybe it sounds too much like some kind of cult!

    For me the real difficulty with spoon theory is how much the amount of spoons needed can vary over time. Some tasks take more energy the more tired you are e.g. walking home from the station. When the depression is not so bad, I can have a lot more spoons than on days when it’s bad. Then there can be a spoon deficit over time, if I use a lot of energy, sleep may not restore me back to normal amounts of energy, even accounting for the fact that depressed normal is not the same as non-depressed normal. (I am possibly being autistic and focusing too much on the details here.) But it is a useful metaphor.

    Interesting how dealing with colleagues is more draining for you than dealing with clients. For me it’s the other way around. When I was in a student-facing library role, I found dealing with students (even the well-behaved ones) much harder than dealing with colleagues, although dealing with my boss was probably the hardest thing.

    1. I agree, spoon availability and requirements can vary a lot as the illness fluctuates. I think for me it works better as a general metaphor rather than actually trying to specify spoon counts.

      1. Yes, I’ve been trying to monitor my energy levels over time for the last few weeks and I’m not sure it’s possible, or at least easy. The same tasks can require vastly different units of energy on different days.

  7. Never heard of it before and I liked the metaphor! So thank you for sharing this! I guess that according to Spoon theory, some days I need 10 spoons to get up from bed ๐Ÿ™‚ As you mentioned “itโ€™s a matter of scarcity of resources.”…”Taking a shower might take a lot of spoons for energy reasons, or it might take more spoons due to limited motivation”
    It’s very informative, thank you

  8. I have found spoon theory so helpful in explaining how I feel to my husband. If I say that I don’t have enough spoons for a certain task, trip or activity he totally gets it. We don’t don’t need to use it quite so much these days as I’ve found other ways to evaluate my energy levels.
    Great post, thanks Ashley xxx

  9. I wish that I this was more widely known. It would be really helpful in talking with coworkers and friends about how mental health can affect my day to day. I hate when people just say, “get out of bed.” Sometimes it’s just truly impossible.

  10. aguycalledbloke

    This is awesome Ashley – l have never heard of this ‘theory’, but find it really informative – l had a similar experience, bar the spoon at my last consultant appointment when he asked if l had to rate certain tasks of functionality out of 10 as in 1 being easy and 10 being virtually impossible, how would l thus so rate them. I explained things in a similar fashion to the above image.

    That since this thing with my shoulder began, l have noticed significant deterioration levels with regards functionality – as an example – initially walking Scrappy with my right hand as a right handed person in say June 2018, was at that point about a 1 spoon, however since an incident last year, l find l can only hold the lead now with said right hand, but can not physically walk her with that hand anymore without experiencing serious pain, so now l walk her with my left, as the right is now a 5.

    Walking in March of last year was a 1, but we live on a hill, and with the slow to eventual collapse of the acromion, my arm and neck responds so viciously now as in a 5, my nerve reacts to any uphill movement.

    Brilliant post.

    1. Thanks! I’ve seen spoon theory referred to often with respect to fibromyalgia, and it seems like something that would be relevant to any sort of pain condition.

      1. aguycalledbloke

        Very much so Ashley, l think also quite significantly is something like this was adopted professionally into the medical side of life, as in, when a doctor asks you out of 10 what is? But you know everyone experiences pain on a different level to the next person, but it would l feel act as more of a stabiliser. This is really excellent.

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