How to Be Mentally Healthy While You’re Sick

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I know how to stay strong during a tough workout, how to work long hours to meet a deadline, and how to eat well when I’m surrounded by junk food — but when I’m sick or injured, my mental resolve crumbles.

Maybe it’s because I rarely get sick, but when illness or injury descends, I lose all my stoicism. This is especially true if I perceive that the illness is something out of the norm, difficult to explain, or lasts longer than a few days. In those cases, I fire up Google and within ten minutes come up with the most permanent and dire explanation. I’ve gone from “my hand is numb” to “I have an incurable, degenerative disease” in less than an hour.

Even when the illness is common and easily explained, like when I had the flu a few months ago, I panic.

It’s not my best quality (and it doesn’t help me get better).

Part of the panic is because I work as a freelancer and have two school-age kids. I don’t get “sick days.” I’m always strangely envious when I hear about people curled up in bed binge-watching Netflix while sick. But there is a downside to having that freedom to stay in bed, too. Once you’re there, it can be difficult to get out. And days spent in a dark room can lead to depression, which in turn can impede your recovery.

How to Be Mentally Healthy While You’re Sick

Even if you can’t do anything about your illness, you can improve your state of mind. Here are some tips for taking care of your mental health when your physical health is lagging.

1. Avoid Self-diagnosing

The internet has given us all the world’s medical knowledge at our fingertips, a mixed blessing to say the least. This access can sometimes be used to reassure us when we get sick, but just as often a little information is a dangerous thing.

If you’re really worried about something, or if you have a symptom that won’t go away, step away from Google and make the time to see a doctor. Talking to another human being about your concerns can sometimes be as healing as medicine, especially if that person has a medical degree and years of experience.

If your illness is minor and relatively common, there’s nothing wrong with checking online for home remedies or reassurance but keep the Googling to a minimum. And always seek medical advice if you have strange or unusual symptoms. It’s better to hear your doctor say, “You’re fine,” than, “You should have come to me sooner.”

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2. Live in the Moment

This may seem like strange advice when you’re living in a moment of illness, but often the worst thing about being sick is projecting ahead to all the things that will (or won’t) happen because you’re sick. The minute I get a sore throat, I start to think, “What if I’m sick this weekend? I have a trip planned I can’t cancel!” or “I have so much work to do, I can’t take any time off!”

No one, not even a doctor, can say for sure how long you will be sick. The only known is that you are sick in this moment, and your responsibility is to do everything you can to get better. Acknowledge your pain and discomfort, but don’t escalate and turn it into something it’s not.

3. Don’t Let Your Healthy Habits Slide

It’s tempting to give up on your good nutrition habits and abandon your exercise routine when sick. Sometimes when you’re sick the only thing that sounds good is junk food. Your body feels terrible, and ice cream will make your body feel good for a moment, so it seems like the right choice.

Unfortunately, the short-term happiness that comes from sugary sweets and junk food can lead to more unhappiness when you start to feel the effects of sugar and processed food. Veering too far off the healthy eating path will make you feel worse, not better. When you’re sick, you need all your energy and resources to get better, so it’s even more important to eat well when you aren’t feeling well.

How to Be Mentally Healthy While You’re Sick

I use exercise as a way to regulate my moods and calm my anxiety, so when illness prevents me from exercising it’s easy for me to become depressed. When I’m not able to surf or go to my CrossFit class, I still try to move my body in some way. Obviously if I’m bedridden with a fever I won’t force myself outside, but as soon as I can walk around I make sure to go for a short walk. Or, if I’m feeling better but not completely well, I’ll go to a yin yoga class — something gentle and restorative.

Note: If you think you might be contagious, stay away from the gym and group classes, and always consult with a doctor before exercising after surgery or a serious illness.

4. Take a Shower, Get Dressed, and Clean Your Room

Sitting around in ratty pajamas and dirty hair for days on end can make you feel hopeless, as if being sick has become part of your identity. Once the acute phase of your sickness is over, make an effort to take a shower and put on clean clothes. You might even try putting on nicer clothes than you normally wear, or at least a favorite outfit.

Another trick to improve your mood is to put on some upbeat music, set a timer for twenty minutes, and straighten up the house. When I’m sick, I lose all interest in picking up after myself, but after a few days I can’t stand looking at the Kleenex, thermometer, and cough drops strewn around the living room. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in twenty minutes, and how much better you’ll feel when your house is tidy.

How to Be Mentally Healthy While You’re Sick

5. Call a Friend

Suffering in silence is the absolute worst. Telling a friend about your symptoms instantly makes everything a tiny bit better. Be open to offers of help, especially if they involve companionship. Chatting with a friend will improve your mood and take your mind off your physical pain.

Friends can also give you a much-needed dose of reality. They’ll let you know if you really should go to the doctor right away, or tell you, “You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Love Yourself: in Sickness and in Health

The first thing to do when you’re sick, especially if it’s something serious or unexplained, is to go to the doctor. Get lots of rest and follow your doctor’s orders but also be sure to pay careful attention to your mental health while you’re recovering.

If you get sick in the middle of the Whole Life Challenge, don’t give up! That’s when it becomes more important than ever to hydrate, sleep, eat well, and take care of your well-being. Other than dialing back on intense workouts, the Whole Life Challenge is an ideal companion when you’re sick, and keeping up with the 7 Daily Habits during your recovery will improve your mood and might even help you feel better, faster.

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Hilary Achauer
Hilary Achauer is a freelance health and fitness writer. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Greatist, Racked, Men's Health, Today's Parent, San Diego Magazine, and the CrossFit Journal.

A former children's books editor, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but now spends her free time in a CrossFit gym or surfing. Find out more about her at HilaryAchauer.com.

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