6 Tips to Understanding and Changing Your Extreme Reaction to Being Sick
Being sick sucks. No one likes being sick. It is uncomfortable or painful, we don’t sleep well, we leak fluids and are generally pretty gross. Not fun. However, there are some of us who really struggle being sick. Why are some of us just unpleasant when sick, and some of us angry, hopeless, distraught and/or rigid? Are we destined to be like this forever? Keep reading to explore reasons for our extreme reactions for when we don't feel good, and what we can do to reduce them.
When you think back in life, do you have a clear image of being nurtured? Was there someone in your life who would take care of you when you were not feeling well? What did sick days look like for you as a kid? Were you alone or was someone with you? Were you even allowed to take sick days? How did other people in your life act when they were sick?
If it is a struggle to come up with memories or feelings of being nurtured, if sickness was looked down upon or minimized, if you were isolated when you were sick, it may be difficult for you to acknowledge and accept being taken care of. Which we all need, by the by.
Practice- Nurture someone or something else. Many of us find it easier to nurture others. If people aren’t your jam, start with a pet, or a plant. Just take care of something. Then remember that if we value helping and nurturing others, we are not the exception to the rule and we also need care and nurturing in return. Focus on small acts of nurturing that you can provide yourself- rubbing your hand through your hair, putting lotion on your skin, giving yourself a scalp, hand, foot massage. It feels good, right? Notice the pleasure that can come from comfort. Next step, practice receiving nurturing from others in whatever ways you are both comfortable with.
People who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse when they were younger can feel really triggered when feeling unwell. You may have learned that you need to protect yourself and be on guard at all times, which is much more difficult to do when you are weak and vulnerable (these are not BAD feelings, but universal ones). Sickness can start to equate to feeling unsafe and be seen as a threat to your survival. Your nervous system goes into overdrive.
Practice- Doing the work on healing past traumas. One of the profoundly unfair things in life is the imbalance that someone else’s bad action then leads to a ton of work for YOU. Shouldn’t they be doing the work? Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, and while it is unfair it also gives you some power and control for movement in your life. You are not stuck in this trauma. Start by cultivating awareness on how your body feels when you are sick and how your body felt when you were abused. Talk to trauma specialists. Attend support groups for survivors of childhood abuse. Make your environment feel safe- maybe position where you are resting so you can see the door or ask people to announce themselves before coming into your room. Try safety visualization exercises to calm down your nervous system.
Remember- If your environment is safe for you when you are healthy then you are safe now.
We really take stock of who is in our life when we are sick. For people who live alone, this can be really challenging, and the hamster wheel of worry starts spinning. Who will help care for me? What if I can’t go to work, will I lose my job? And my house? Will I have to move in with my parents? Will this wreck my world?
On the other hand, some people are surrounded by a ton of people but those people have proven themselves to be unreliable, insensitive, and unhelpful. People may feel extraordinarily alone when confronted with the fact that those closest to them are not actually there for them.
Practice- Ask for help. We get really stuck in the mindset that if others really care they will just offer. Yet, people’s caring for you cannot always be measured in how much initiative they take. Some people are out of practice. Some people are just sort of bad at it (yours truly). So let me, I mean them, know what you need! It will be uncomfortable. You may have to ask for time off of work, for people to come check in on you, for people to cook for you, drive you etc.
Also, reality check yourself. If you get sick, lose your job and your house and have to move back in with your parents, you’ll be okay. It also probably won’t happen, but if it does and you are lucky enough to have parents you can live with and people who can help support you through this unexpected hurdle, you'll be okay. Say it out loud "I will be okay".
And on the other hand, are the people in your life unreliable, insensitive, and unhelpful because they are narcissists or sociopaths, or because you typically take care of everything, and they are just not used to having to step up? If you come to the conclusion they have serious personality disorders that make them incapable of empathizing with others, then expand your social circle until you can think of someone connected to you who is reliable, sensitive and helpful. (And maybe revisit this issue when you are feeling better, this is something that should probably be dealt with)! If they are just out of practice, give them this opportunity to practice compassion and nurturing others by asking very directly for what you need. This can benefit them too!
Some of us grew up in a parenting role. We were the caregivers, the planners, the organizers. Yes, this may make us a tad anxious and controlling in our every day lives, but what do you think happens when we have to take care of everything and everyone?! So, what happens to your role and identity when you are no longer in control? That can feel very disconcerting. And possibly make us A-holes when someone is trying to nurture us...
Practice- Your mission should you choose to accept it is to relinquish control. Say yes when someone asks if you need something. Let someone fluff your pillow and give you medicine and adjust the lighting and temperature and make you soup. Release some control and allow some acceptance and gratitude in. You will probably feel better, but your loved ones definitely will!
Speaking of control, sometimes control can lead into feeling like we should be able to control our health…
Health as Morality:
Someone, somewhere, assigned a hierarchy of sicknesses. Who gets what, as well as who gets sympathy and who gets blame. (Cough, ahem, Capitalism. Cough, Patriarchy. Cough cough). People with breast cancer get sympathy while people with lung cancer get blamed. People with an acute health concern are given sympathy, but chronic issues are told they aren’t doing enough about it. Physical illnesses that we can see are sympathetic, but mental illnesses are an individual weakness. We blame people for their struggles with being over or underweight and assign a number on a scale to equate to health, although it is not quite that simple. Goodness, let’s look at some of our biases around people who got covid at the beginning of the pandemic as compared to our thoughts toward people who got it a year later.
Somehow, somewhere, Health became “good” while Not Healthy became “bad”. And some of us take that very literally- if I am eating right and exercising and getting vaccines and taking care of myself and still get sick then I am doing something wrong, or I have failed. (Again, being sick sucks. We don't like to be sick. But if we do get sick this is not a character defect. This is also not to say that we have no control over our health, or that we shouldn’t try to take care of our health, but perhaps we don’t have quite as much control as we think?)
Maybe there is a existential component to being sick? A recognition on the limits of our own agency in our world, on our own BODY. Maybe we are so focused on the cause-and-effect way of looking at life “If I do (healthy behavior), then I will get (desired outcome)”. However, that is not always true. Maybe we can flip the narrative? “I want (desired outcome) because it is connected to (Value). One way I work toward my (Value) is by (healthy behavior)”.
Example- “If I do jumping jacks then I will get strong and live forever. Or… “I want strength and to live forever because it is connected to my value of being around for my family. I won’t live forever, but I want to keep prioritizing my time with my family. One way I work toward this is by jumping jacks, here are other ways I also connect with my value of family”. That feels like less pressure building, less binary. Still something in our control but also a recognition that other things happen in life too. And we can still connect with what is important to us regardless of those other things that happen in life.
Practice- Work on identifying your biases toward health and sickness. Explore your Values underneath your goals. Most of us want to be healthy, but why? And what are other ways you can go about connecting with this value? What does health even mean to you?
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:
I was thinking about the term “grind culture” last night. Ahh, the power of language. Whoever started using that terminology didn’t use words like “abundant ambition culture” or “energizer bunny stamina culture”. They said GRIND. Like, think of the noise gears make when they are grinding. Of teeth grinding. It physically causes me pain just thinking about it. So, grind culture isn’t just about working long and hard, but about working until things are grinding, screeching, rubbing, stuck, falling apart or broken.
If you value Grind Culture, as we are taught to do, it will be very emotional for you to get to a place of such exhaustion that you literally can grind no more. You will worry about who you are letting down by calling into work, how they will survive without you, of all the things you could be doing while you instead are stuck lying in bed...
Practice- Contemplate any of these three magic words instead while laying in bed: Take a nap. Read a book. Have an orgasm. Watch a movie. Do something that is not on a to-do list, is not considered productive, but that will help you FEEL BETTER. Also, maybe check out Tricia Hersey’s book Rest as Resistance while you are at it.
Being sick sucks. And this is just talking about colds and stomach flus and such, chronic illness is a whole other really complicated topic! But if you are wanting to bring down your emotional reaction from an 11 to a much more moderate level, then I encourage you to evaluate your beliefs around health, revisit some memories about being nurtured, connect with your body, find safety, accept help, and rest. Some chicken soup for the soul, if you will. Hmm, that would make a good book title!
Stay tuned for next up in the Mental Health and the Everyday Series: Mental Health and Money!