I’ve not long recovered from a nasty bout of sinusitis, and I know from experience that whenever infection goes anywhere near my sinuses I’m in for the long haul. So I hunkered down and let myself properly rest, taking all the time I needed to fully recover. And in the end it was one of the most restorative periods of illness I can remember experiencing in a long time.
But it’s not always been this way. Like so many of us juggling busy jobs, families or other commitments, periods of illness can often be inconveniences to be pushed out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to get back on with the business of life. As a therapist I am also aware that illness can be a time many people struggle to maintain emotional wellbeing. One of the things I found myself thinking about while I was poorly, therefore, was how we can look after the whole of ourselves during periods of ill health.
Emotional wellbeing covers many areas – a compass of valued domains, if you will. These include our intimate, familial and broader social and community relationships, our occupations, study and personal development, our spiritual lives if we believe, and our recreation and downtime. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy also believes that emotional health is maintained through balancing both thought and action, and that there are links between physical and emotional health, too. Of course many of these areas are compromised during illness, however there are small things we can do to look after our mental health even when we are not at our physical best.
The first and most important thing, I think, is preparedness. Whenever I finish a piece of therapeutic work with a client, we create a relapse prevention blueprint; a reminder of all the tools they can use should they start to experience difficulties again, and a list of early warning signs to alert them to the fact that they may be struggling. The idea is to catch things early, while there are still plenty of resources to hand. The principle can be applied here, too. While we are well we are much more able to think about the sorts of things that might help when we are not. Think of it as stocking up our mental health first aid kits just as we would those for our physical health. What might we need if we were struggling? What is important to us when we are well, and how could we engage with those things in small ways if we were ill? And it goes without saying that we remember things better if we write them down.
The first stages of illness can of course feel quite overwhelming. We’re often feverish or in pain or simply needing to sleep for much of the time. This is often the most challenging time for maintaining emotional health, too. Mindfulness and self-compassion can help enormously here, and not least because their practice allows us to focus away from the negative thoughts that so often accompany ill health. How would we treat our best friend if they were ill in this way? What can we see from our bedroom windows, and how does this change throughout the day? The pattern of the hours, their weather, the changing light and the sounds from outside, and giving ourselves permission to experience these, can help locate and soothe us at a time that we might otherwise feel very dislocated and alone.
Which brings us on to relationships and community. We know that at least 13% of us live alone, and this can make any period of illness even more of a struggle. But it’s worth thinking about the people we have in our lives who we can reach out to when we are ill, and gently challenging the beliefs and fears we have that may make us reluctant to do so. It can often help to turn things around and imagine what we might do if someone we knew and cared about were poorly – most of us wouldn’t think twice about picking up a prescription, dropping off some shopping or simply checking in by text or phone, and there’s no reason to suggest the same isn’t true of how our friends and family think about us. And while social media can be unhelpful at times, it can also help maintain vital social connections when we aren’t able to do so face to face.
Periods of illness also allow time for us to revisit the relationship we have with ourselves. In many ways they are enforced retreats, and if we let them they can provide opportunities for review, recalibration and resolution. Along with the mindfulness discussed above, occupying ourselves with forward thinking and planning provides a structure and focus that can help us avoid unhelpful negative thoughts and rumination. But more than this, there are few similar opportunities in our busy lives for extended pauses, and the new ideas, plans and dreams those pauses often give rise to.
But a word, here, about pacing. I can be terribly impatient when I am ill, and will often try and get back on with things at the first sign of returning health, particularly if I have found myself planning lots of exciting things I want to do when I am better. But this of course runs the risk of keeping us sicker for longer. That said, we know that mood is linked to activity levels, and so as we start to feel well again it can help to reintroduce small day-to-day tasks – a shower, making the bed or doing the washing up not only create environments of health, they also reassure us that things are improving. But it’s important to match every chore with a pleasurable reward and time to rest.
And we can think of rewards more broadly, too. Something I have been trying to do more of is treating myself at the end of a period of ill health. If we’ve spent a long time in bed it can be enormously refreshing for example to buy a new pair of pyjamas, if we can afford to, once we are better – even just changing the sheets will help. My recent period of illness included my birthday, and although I wasn’t well enough to do anything to celebrate on the day itself, it was incredibly comforting to spend some of the day planning belated birthday treats I could weave through the rest of the year. Practically it can also help to replenish supplies of tissues, pain-killers and other medical items as soon as we are better again (and don’t forget to refresh the mental health first aid kit if necessary, too).
In many ways, this is the point at which we realise the gift of health, isn’t it? Emerging, blinking, into the bright fresh air for the first time after a period in bed can be one of the most delicious experiences, with all of our senses heightened, energised and more fully aware. Because it’s at these points that we realise what really matters in life. Which isn’t about rushing forward into busyness, but is instead about pausing and gratefully, healthfully, experiencing this moment, and this moment, and this moment, now.