Act Like You’re Sick: The perfect antidote to holiday stress

To Your Mental Health

Jason Florin

Like a lot of guys, I absolutely hate to admit when I’m getting sick. I take it as a sign of weakness, of mortality. But at some point, around the time I can’t breathe or taste anything, I have to come to terms with myself and admit that I’m not well. And when I do, something amazing happens: I start to take care of myself and eventually feel better.

Start before you have to

As long as we ignore all of our body’s warning signs, we remain unhealthy. But the simple steps of acknowledging the problem and taking some basic actions make all the difference. Removed from denial, we are free to sound the alarms and send all of our reinforcements to put us back together. We allow ourselves to sleep more, eat healthier, take a break from work, and even see the people we care about more often.

The irony is that the acts of a sick person are a foundation for long-term health, both physically and mentally. The problem is that we don’t usually start them unless there’s already something wrong. Instead of waiting for our bodies and minds to fail, I want to recommend a better approach: Act like you’re sick right now. You will get all the same benefits without the misery of actually being ill.

Check your internal rain barrel

Anything that presents a threat to our safety or wellbeing is a stress. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors’ stressors were physical in nature, centered around life-or-death situations. Today, most stress comes from low stakes encounters, such as work and relationship difficulties, or simply trying to survive the holidays.

However, the potential for harm is greater than ever because these kinds of routine events bombard us on a daily basis, and they typically go unnoticed. The Centers for Disease Control suggests that close to 90 percent of our illnesses are linked to stress, from the common cold to chronic pain. In fact, a good argument can be made that successfully managing stress is the most important task of our adult lives.

Like a rain barrel, our stress accumulates over time. This means that you may be unaware of any harmful effects until the internal barrel spills over. Once it does, you can’t undo the consequences.

A better strategy involves knowing your triggers, the conditions that cause you the most stress. Some can be avoided, while others can be dealt with better. Of course some stress is unavoidable – and even helpful – so there’s no use in trying to take advantage of your sick role for too long.

The gift that keeps giving

Regardless of your religious affiliation, family history, or shopping preferences, the holiday season inevitably brings with it moments of wonder, as well as a full plate of stress. In the end, no one else will take care of you if you don’t do it for yourself.

This is the mantra of all of the helping professions, from nursing to counseling, yet it is one of the most poorly followed pieces of advice. The result is that a lot of qualified people leave their jobs because they don’t take care of themselves.

If you want to continue experiencing the same results of unmanaged stress – feeling sick, tired, and lacking drive – then keep doing the same thing. But trust me when I say that being stubborn about your health is a punishment that will stay with you long past the new year.

Jason Florin is an associate professor of Human Services at College of DuPage and has over 15 years of experience working in mental health and substance abuse treatment. He holds degrees in Health Science and Counseling, and he is a licensed professional counselor. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent any other institution or organization.

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