If you’re struggling to complete basic, daily tasks due to fibromyalgia, taking on an additional responsibility is perhaps the last thing you’d want to do. But, there’s a body of evidence to suggest that when you volunteer, you can change your own life for the better as well as benefitting others. In 2013, the UK charity Age UK1 reported that volunteering helps boosts both physical and mental wellbeing, although the reasons behind this remain unclear.
Since I’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and became unable to continue working in my former role in a high pressure environment, I’ve struggled periodically with a lack of routine and feeling as if my fibro-fogged brain was wasting away. I’d been volunteering on and off for over 20 years, having undertaken a variety of different roles and it was something that I had wanted to get back into, both to give something back to others but also to try and help myself out of the rut that I was falling into.
Knowing that it would be nigh on impossible for me to commit to getting to a given place at a given time due to the unpredictability of the fibro, I didn’t know if there would be much I could contribute. But when I began to look into what, if anything, I could become involved with, I was surprised that there were so many home based volunteering options. Of course in the future, I would love to be able to volunteer “in-person” but to avoid letting anyone down, it’s home based for me, for now.
Over the past few years, I’ve undertaken a range of volunteering roles including being a telephone befriender for an isolated person, reviewing information leaflets for a local health organisation, and being part of a project team to create volunteering procedures for a national charity. Some of these activities are ongoing, whilst others have been short term, with a finite life span. I’ve tried to find roles which are flexible – things I can pick up and put down as the fibro allows, or else if I do need to commit to an approximate timing, things which aren’t too taxing such as a friendly 30 minute chat on the phone with an older person.
So, what are some of the general benefits of volunteering?
Giving something back/ helping others – This is perhaps the first thing that people think about when they consider volunteering. Volunteers are vital in so many sectors these days and it is rewarding to know that you are giving a helping hand to someone else in need.
Skills, experience and confidence – Volunteers often make use of skills from their professional careers, even if this is in a different way as part of an unpaid role. At the same time, new skills can be acquired or developed depending on what you choose to do – maybe there’s something that you’ve always wanted to try such as coaching others or becoming involved in promoting fundraising events. Volunteering can be a way of getting to do it.
I’ve found that I’ve used existing skills as well as learnt new things and this, in turn, has boosted my confidence which was running low, partly as I’m no longer in paid employment.
I’d also add that as people with fibro, we have a lot to offer as volunteers. We understand what it’s like living with health issues and it’s likely that we can empathise with others in similar situations – I’ve found that this has certainly helped me in my work with older people. There are so many things that I would never have understood in my pre-fibro days!
Involvement in your passions – Volunteering offers the chance to become involved in things that you’re passionate and /or your hobbies and interests. Whether it’s marketing, the environment, literature or history, there will be volunteer roles to suit.
Meeting new people – As a volunteer, you can come into contact with different types of people outside of your normal social circle. It can be fascinating getting to know diverse and inspirational people who dedicate time to helping others.
Adding structure to your time – If you find that you have more time on your hands than in your pre-fibro days, then having a commitment at a given day and time can help stop the days from slipping by monotonously.
Shifting the focus from fibromyalgia – Having commitments to others can help to to shift the focus from fibromyalgia onto something, or someone else. This can also mean putting things in perspective, in part through talking to others who are dealing with challenges in their own lives. I find that having something else to think about helps to distract my mind from the myriad of fibro symptoms that I experience each day.
A few weeks back, I was going through a rough patch, struggling with insomnia and elevated pain levels and feeling generally rubbish. It was during the course of one of my calls as a telephone volunteer that the housebound, elderly lady I speak to each week told me that every Wednesday, she waits for the clock to tick around to 3pm when she knows that I will be calling, describing how the 30 minute chat breaks up her loneliness and the monotony of her days watching TV. In that moment, I felt incredibly humbled and valued and her comments helped me to feel that even in my broken, fibro state, I can still do something to help someone else.
Volunteers often say that they benefit from being a volunteer as much as others do from their volunteering actions and the buzz you get from knowing that you’re helping someone else definitely gives a boost. But as well as that, a volunteer role that is a good fit for you in terms of interests and time commitments can also enhance your skills, self-esteem and physical and mental wellbeing.