Originally published on Medium.com on February 21, 2020
Anxiety + Illness: An Awful Combination
It’s almost eleven o’clock. You were out late with friends last night, so you weren’t able to get up at your normal time. The drinks were enticing at the bar, but now you wish you hadn’t indulged so hard. Your head throbs, your stomach aches, and your mind won’t stop racing. What was a carefree night just a few hours ago has quickly turned into a bout of “hangxiety.”
Or, maybe you don’t drink. Instead, let’s say it’s the same morning, with the same feelings, yet you’re stuck in bed with a fever and a cough. This time, you didn’t bring this malady upon yourself — you actually picked it up from someone in the office. Moreover, not only do you not feel well, but you also haven’t seen your doctor yet, so you’re not sure if there’s something really wrong with you.
You were hoping to go out to breakfast with your siblings this morning, but, given your current state, you won’t be able to make it. Bummer. What a nice distraction that would’ve been. Instead, you’re all alone in your bed with your negative thoughts. And, sadly, those thoughts only spiral as your somatic symptoms intensify.
So, what do both of these scenarios have in common, and, more importantly, what can we do about them? In regard to the first question, both situations feature the kind of anxiety brought on by negative bodily symptoms. What I mean by that is, if you didn’t feel hungover or sick, you likely wouldn’t be experiencing nearly as much anxiety as you are now.
The second question is a bit more complicated, however. That’s not to say there aren’t solutions — they’ll just take a bit longer to develop. Thus, in the remainder of this post, I’ll be doing just that. In the following sections, we’ll break down this kind of anxiety further and come up with answers to the question of what we can do to feel better when we’re hungover, sick, or just plain unwell.
Breaking Down Unwell Anxiety
Regardless of how you got yourself in this situation, let’s first get one thing straight: this is no time for guilt. It doesn’t matter whether you drank too much last night or went into the office even when there was a bug going around. Seriously. What matters right now is feeling better.
Yes, regret can be a useful emotion if it helps us avoid making bad decisions in the future, but the focus this morning is not on the future — it’s on feeling better right now. And, right now, guilt is only going to make your anxiety worse. What’s done is done. It’s time to figure out what we can do to move forward.
So, to address the situation properly and to start to break down what we can do about it, let’s begin with the obvious assessment that you don’t feel well, physically, right now. “No sh**, Sherlock,” I’m sure you’re thinking. I know, I know. Just stick with me for a minute. It will make more sense momentarily.
The reason we have to start with the obvious is to draw a simple conclusion: when we don’t feel well, physically, it’s not long before we don’t feel well mentally, either. Our somatic symptoms quickly work to penetrate almost every part of our being, especially our psychology. And, shortly after such unwanted feelings crack our mental defenses, our thoughts turn negative as well.
Put another way, when we devote all our energy to monitoring our headaches and upset stomachs, we let our guard down in the mental realm. It’s hard to fight two battles at once. As such, when we mobilize to protect or monitor our bodies, we leave our mental fortresses vulnerable to our nemeses of unwanted thoughts, fear, and anxiety.
As I talk about in a good deal of my writing, the degree to which we’re able to mitigate our anxiety correlates strongly with the degree to which we’re able to filter out destructive mental chatter. Simply put, if you think scary thoughts, you’re going to feel anxious, both physically and emotionally. Yet, the opposite is also true. Think uplifting thoughts, and you’ll likely find it pretty difficult to feel anxious.
Though it’s of course not rocket science, it’s an important lesson to remember, because, as we’re all reminded of from hungover or otherwise unwell time to time, it’s easy to let a stomachache destroy our mental discipline and plunge us into an anxiety attack.
However, the good news is that although the booze, virus, or other harbinger of unwell-ness is getting you down at the moment, it isn’t the sole contributor of your pain. That is, if you were able to somehow get your mind off how you’re feeling, physically, you might also be able to ward off the accompanying unwanted thoughts and alleviate or reverse the downward spiral that got you here in the first place.
Of course, positive thinking won’t magically take the booze or sickness out of your system, but it could kickstart a positive cycle that gets you feeling better, which, in turn, might free you from your stuck state and help you stop wallowing in your misery.
So, just how do we get our minds off our symptoms then? Let’s find out.
Out of Your Head, Into Your Body
When you don’t feel well, it’s obviously difficult to do much of anything. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you to get up and run a marathon. However, I am here to tell you to get out of bed. There’s a simple reason for this.
When you’re in bed or relaxing on the couch, you’re not using your body. You’re “all head.” Sure, such relaxation can be great after a long workout or day at the office, but it can also trap us in our minds, leaving us vulnerable to overthinking and anxiety.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever had a panic attack while on a run? I’d imagine you haven’t. That’s because it’s very difficult to do so. In fact, most of my own panic attacks have come in high-pressure social situations or when I’ve been sitting on my couch or at my desk. Why’s that? Because when we’re not engaging our bodies fully, it’s much harder to stay out of our heads — the very place from which most anxiety arises.
So, with all of that said, let’s start with one simple task. Grab your headphones, a bottle of water, and your running shoes, and just go outside with the intention of walking around the block. It doesn’t have to be fast at all. You just have to get moving so the physical and psychological negativity that’s been building inside you doesn’t have a chance to fester further.
Once you get outside, pop in your headphones and turn on your favorite, uplifting music. It can be anything you enjoy: pop, rock, country, dance, jazz, whatever. The important thing here is not the genre — it’s that the music doesn’t feel overwhelming or jarring. You just want to bring positivity to this otherwise dark, challenging morning.
And, as you walk and listen, start drinking some of your water. Similar to the music, your hydration goal isn’t to chug thirty-two ounces and shock your system. It’s simply to provide some relief and lubricant during this uphill (and likely dehydrated) battle.
Again, it’s simple and somewhat obvious, but that’s the whole point. When you’re not feeling well, you’re looking for anything to aid you in your struggle and distract you from thinking about your present predicament. Movement, water, and music often help do that.
As you finish your lap around the block, do a gut check, and see how you’re feeling. Do you notice any improvement in your symptoms or mood? If so, awesome. Don’t let that feeling fade just yet. Take another stroll down the street or choose a longer, different route.
Once you’re content with your progress, head back home, and remember the effectiveness of the strategy you just employed. Though it can be painful to begin, I often find that the mere act of getting moving helps take me out of my head and moves me closer to relief, quicker.
Anxiety’s Just Passing Through
So, where exactly does that leave us? Well, hopefully feeling a bit better, but, at the very least, with some insights we might not have had before. We’ve covered a few of those insights already, but here are a couple of final ones to wrap things up.
The first is that anxiety, whether it arises from the physical or the mental realm, is just a state. It comes and goes depending on how you’re using your body, what you’re putting into it, and what you’re thinking.
That leads to the second insight, which is one of the most important things to remember when you’re hungover, sick, or just plain unwell: what you’re feeling will soon pass.
Reminding yourself of this fact often helps break the frustration inside you that’s actually perpetuating your negative feelings and preventing you from taking the actions (like going for a walk) that could help you ward off your anxiety.
Now, to finally close things out, I’d like to end with a quote from Winston Churchill. It states, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Though it sounds hilariously obvious, it actually makes a lot of sense, especially when it comes to anxiety. That is, if you’re currently experiencing it, the worst thing you can do is sit in it. Don’t lock yourself up with your thoughts. Get out of bed. Change your state. Keep moving. Give it a reason to pass through you.
Because, as you’ve probably experienced before, it’s going to pass one way or another, so why not give it a reason to get out of town even faster?
Thanks for reading! Want more anti-anxiety strategies?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my other articles on managing anxiety:
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