When we get sick we don’t stop

The world will change for the better when people decide they are sick and tired of being sick and tired of the way the world is and decide to change themselves.

—Sydney Madwed

When we get sick, rarely do we stop to give ourselves the time we need to heal properly. Rather than seeing sickness as a message from our body that—literally—all is not well, sickness is treated as a frustrating delay, an annoying hinderance to our very important schedule. And any suggestion that we should stop and rest is usually dismissed outright. We get defensive, devalue our needs, and reframe the situation to focus on what we deem more important: “Rest?! Are you kidding me? I don’t have time for that! I’ve got multiple deadlines to meet and people who desperately need me! There’s so much I have to do!

Exhale. The notion that the world will stop turning and collapse in on itself if we stop and rest when we are sick is a fabrication of our ego (false self). Sickness is the clearest and loudest sign we are ever going to get from ourselves to stop, take a moment, reflect on what is happening, and rest. We just need to give ourselves permission.

Why we go to work when we get sick

The underlying reason we have difficulty stopping and staying home when we get sick is a lack of self-worth. Sure, we may have piles of work to get through, but this is only the superficial reason we can’t stop. The deeper reason is that we don’t believe we ‘deserve’ to rest and get better; we don’t believe we are good enough to be treated as a priority by others or ourselves.

This belief can lead to a number of unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours. For example, some people worry that if they are absent from their job or role for even the shortest amount of time, this will somehow trigger the riders of the apocalypse. Their lack of self-worth is coupled with control issues, and they have great difficulty in letting go of ‘what they do’. They would rather go to work when they are sick in order to maintain control, rather than experience a loss of control by looking after themselves. And if they are extroverted by nature, they may even take great dramatic pleasure in telling their colleagues all about their illness, wearing their martyrdom like a badge: “I’m so sick with gastro that I have to wear an adult nappy. But I’m still here!

Then there are other people who worry that if they don’t go to work, their boss will get angry and their colleagues will judge them. They think that by resting and looking after themselves they will be letting other people down. Subconsciously, they believe that other people’s emotions and potential workload are more important than their own health. “Everyone will hate me if I don’t go to work. I might even lose my job.”

Whenever a person has an underlying lack of self-worth, they will be incapable of valuing themselves enough to make their health the number one priority in their life. And, as a result, they will continue to go to work when they are sick—only leaving if their boss sends them home or they end up in hospital. Even then, some people will continue working from their hospital bed. As long as they have one good hand and one good eye, they can still check email on their smartphone!

Our health is worth prioritising

Human nature dictates that we focus our attention on any immediate threats (real or perceived). Therefore, we tend to prioritise the anxiety-inducing deadlines or the person yelling at us the loudest, and any periods of good health go unnoticed. We take our health completely for granted until it is gone. We abuse our body, fill our mind with negative thoughts, push ourselves to the limit physically and mentally, and prioritise other (relatively unimportant) things in our lives, like a work project or what our boss thinks of us.

But our health is worth prioritising because we are worth prioritising. And we don’t need to wait till we end up in hospital to learn this lesson the hard way: that without our health, we have nothing. Those who suffer from chronic pain or other crippling health issues know all too well that if your physical or mental health declines, life can quickly become a miserable burden. So choosing to prioritise our health now, can save us a lot of pain later on.

Psychosomatic theory and health

When we get sick, we also tend to treat our body like a seperate entity that had betrayed us. We might say things to ourselves like, “Doesn’t my body know that I’ve got so much work on right now and I don’t have time to be sick?!” 

This was the kind of self-talk I used to have when I got sick. That was until I studied a Certificate III in Psychosomatic Therapy in 2011. In this course, I learned that my mind and body were not (as I had previously imagined) two completely seperate entities, but two parts of the same unit called the ‘body-mind’. They were more like two instruments playing the same song—a guitar and piano working in harmony—than two opposing political parties fighting for supremacy. And, like a good jazz improvisation, these instruments had the ability to influence and even change the musical direction of the other. This concept was at the very core of psychosomatic theory. In particular, that the thoughts in our mind could influence the shape, form, tone, density and health of our body over a lifetime.

As part of my psychosomatic course, I learned how to observe this phenomenon. We practiced ‘reading’ other people’s bodies in order to gain insights into their beliefs and emotions. The manifestation of these beliefs and emotions were right there in plain sight—you just had to understand the language so you could translate it. 

When one of my course mates ‘read’ my body, not only did their insights resonate at a deep level, I felt like parts of me were being ‘seen’ for the very first time. It was liberating—and also a little terrifying. But, more importantly, the body-mind relationship was undeniable. And a lot of questions I’d had about myself were suddenly answered. If I’d had any skepticism about psychosomatic therapy going into the course, it vanished in that moment. Because I could see a lifetime of thoughts, beliefs, emotions and self-talk written all over my body.

An interdependent relationship

Over the duration of the course, I realised that the energy exchange of the body-mind was a two-way street. As well as our brain’s ability to influence our body, our body could also influence our brain. I didn’t need any hard evidence of this—I’d experienced it, but I’d never thought about it in this context before.

At some level I already knew that what I ate, what I drank (hello alcohol, caffeine, etc.), how much I exercised, and whether I treated my body with kindness and softness or punished and abused it, would have a flow-on affect to my mental state. But, before doing the course, I’d never realised just how integrated my body and mind were—that they were in an interdependent relationship that determined my health.

Why we get sick isn’t always simple

There are many and varied reasons why we get sick. But because of the interdependent relationship of our body-mind, it’s not always as simple as people tend to assert. For instance, “Someone sneezed on me”. We are exposed to plenty of bacteria and viruses on a daily basis, so our health isn’t just determined by the presence or absence of disease-causing entities, but the ability of our body-mind to protect us against them.

Your physical and mental state (which form the body-mind) are both determining factors in whether you get sick or not. Obviously, if a child rubs snot on you, this will increase your chances of getting sick due to sheer proximity. But, other factors also increase your chances of getting sick, such as: being tired, stressed, pushing on when you feel run down, bottling up your feelings, harbouring resentment, eating certain foods, not exercising—and having a self-loathing thought-track on loop in your head. There are physical and mental contributors to your overall health.

Your body and mind affect each other

If you take this concept a step further, you start to see how and why it’s possible for mental stress to lead to physical illness. Think about how your legs feel after a day of high anxiety at work. You can feel like you’ve run a marathon without even leaving your desk. Or, think about how you’ve felt before having a difficult conversation with someone. You might have been dreading it for days, imagining the scenario over and over in your head. You can end up feeling exhausted before the conversation has even happened. That jelly-like feeling you experienced in your body was a result of your mind.

Which brings me back to the musical metaphor of the body-mind. If your guitar starts playing out of time, or segue’s into another song altogether, this will have a dramatic affect on your piano and its ability to keep playing the song properly (as well as the overall sound of the song). If this happens to you—if the music of your body-mind starts to sound like a classroom full of kids learning to play the saxophone—you can be sure that you’ll notice it pretty quickly in the form of pain and sickness. So, in order for you to be healthy, your body-mind must also be healthy. Its parts need to make beautiful music together.

The sick culture of sickness

When we do get sick, and we’re contemplating whether to go to work or not, the culture of sickness is rarely supportive. It doesn’t advocate that we stop, rest, and look after ourselves. In fact, we’re encouraged not to alter our life in any way, shape or form. Take, for example, the the well-known TV advertising campaign that has been telling us to ‘soldier on’ in the face of sickness for decades.

The original commercial for Codral cold and flu medication first aired in 1989. And—wow—is it strange. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across a zombie musical.

Codral 1989 advertising campaign

The 1989 Codral TV ad sings to us in a spritely tone:  

Cold, flu, and there’s people depending on you. Soldier on. Soldier on. Soldier on with Codral, soldier on, soldier on. Soldier on with Codral, soldier on, soldier on. You know you’re winning the fight when things are going right. Soldier on with Codral, soldier on.”

Codral 2010 advertising campaign

The 2010 remake of the campaign doesn’t disappoint either, continuing the undead mise en scène. But this time the Codral team get even more histrionic, likening colds and flus to thieves committing a crime:

“Don’t let colds or flus steal your day away from you. With Codral you can soldier on!”

The message in these campaigns (in case it wasn’t blindingly obvious) is that, when you get sick, you should soldier on because there are people depending on you. To which I say…seriously, the people can wait. What about the fact that your body is depending on you to give it some rest so you can get better?

The ‘soldier on’ mentality is counter-productive

Obviously, life is complex; and sometimes when you get sick it might not be possible to stay home and rest. For example, you might not have any sick leave left. Or perhaps your financial situation and part-time job dictate that, if you don’t go to work you won’t be able to pay rent or feed your family. There are many cases where stopping and resting is a difficult option or not possible. But, if you do get sick, and have the ability to choose how you respond, just consider that ‘soldiering on’ in the short term might be counter-productive for your health in the medium and long term.

By contrast, if you respond by stopping and resting as soon as you get sick, you can often shorten the length and severity of your sickness. You might even prevent yourself from getting serious complications, like pneumonia, and being forced to take weeks or months off work. These are fairly obvious observations, but rarely are we reminded of them. I mean, resting certainly won’t boost the sales of cold and flu medication, so who is going to remind us if not ourselves?

Who wants some pharmaceutical speed? 

Next time you’re feeling sick and decide you want to soldier on with some cold and flu medication, you might want to think about the active ingredients first. For example, in Codral Original Formula, which at one point was the highest-selling cold and flu medication in Australia, the active ingredient is pseudoephedrine.

I find this pretty amusing—mainly because, with a bit of tinkering in a lab, pseudoephedrine can be reduced to methamphetamine. And methamphetamine is used to make ice, crystal meth and speed. This is why you may have heard people (like me) joke about pseudoephedrine being ‘pharmaceutical speed’. And why many chemists have signs in their shop-front windows that say, “No drugs containing pseudoephedrine are kept on premises after hours“.

In recent years, drug companies have started offering alternative active ingredients in their cold and flu products. Because, as you can imagine, it wasn’t just people with colds and flus who were keen to get their hands on this medication. Codral released its ‘new formula’, replacing pseudoephedrine with phenylephrine (which can’t readily be converted to methamphetamine). But you can still purchase various cold and flu medication over the counter that contain pseudoephedrine.

Codral’s health advice

So let’s recap the logic of Codral’s health advice for a moment: when you get sick and feel like you need to rest, you should take a stimulant and soldier on. Sure, pseudoephedrine might be an effective decongestant if you have blocked sinuses, but so are many other products that aren’t easily converted to speed—like nasal sprays. Despite this, countless people who wouldn’t even consider taking illegal stimulants (and who have never set foot inside a rave) opt to take pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine when they get sick. Why? So they don’t have to stop; so their life can continue on exactly as it is, unaltered. And by doing so, they avoid any threat to the continuum of their pathological doing. 

Listen to your body

When you get sick, try to listen to what your body needs (rather than any anxiety in your mind telling you that you have to go work). Because your body is trying to tell you something. Sickness isn’t an annoying setback to your busy life that should be combatted with cold and flu medication and a soldier-on mentality. It’s a gentle reminder to slow down, stop your pathological doing and start paying attention to your being.

At a deeper, energetic level, sickness is a sign that you need to reconnect with yourself. It’s showing you that a disconnect has occurred in your body-mind that has lead to dysfunction. And if you choose to ignore minor illnesses like colds and flus, it’s worth remembering that your body has far more ruthless ways to get your attention if it needs to.

So, if you experience sickness, think of it as an opportunity to value yourself by prioritising your health and giving yourself permission to rest. And while you’re resting, take a good look at how you’re living your life. There are changes you can make and lessons you can learn. Sickness can be a great teacher if you are willing to open yourself to its messages. And its very first message is to stop. 

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