As someone who struggles with OCD, I’m often very aware of when my mental health is beginning to slip. It’s something I’ve trained myself to recognise over the years – those days when my anxious thoughts are extra loud and everything feels just a little bit harder.
Since I was diagnosed four years ago, I’ve also learnt to recognise my triggers – the behaviours or scenarios which cause my mental health to go downhill. But one trigger I’m always unprepared for – and have very little control over – is catching a cold.
Just this week, I was reminded of how big an impact feeling under the weather can have on my anxiety levels. Having battled with a sore throat and headache for a few days, I woke up with a sense of dread in my chest which refused to budge, and spent the rest of the day dealing with sudden bursts of intrusive thoughts and a racing heartbeat.
Despite feeling fine – happy, even – the previous day, everything changed in an instant – and I had to turn to my toolkit of coping mechanisms to get me through the day.
Besides being bloody annoying, this whole experience got me thinking. I know I’m not the only one who experiences a mental health dip when they’re feeling under the weather – but why is this? Is it just to do with the disrupted sleep many people experience when they’re sick, or is there something more to it? And if so, is there a way to remedy this?
According to Naomi Humber, head of mental wellbeing at Bupa UK, the answer is multi-faceted. “Our physical and mental health are interconnected, meaning that when we’re poorly, both our mind and body can be affected,” she explains.
“Certain viruses – like the flu – trigger your immune system to produce inflammatory proteins, which help fight off the infection. However, they can increase your risk of fatigue, poor concentration and even cause you to experience low mood and feel more anxious.
“Staying indoors, resting up and avoiding social contact when you’re sick may also leave you feeling anxious, irritable and depressed.”
In this way, while the inflammatory proteins produced by your body’s immune response can physically take their toll on your mental health, the way we tend to behave when we’re sick – isolating ourselves from others, maybe scrolling a bit too much on social media – can also contribute to the mental health dip many of us experience.
It makes a lot of sense – especially when you consider that, on the flipside, poor mental health can actually weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to illness. “When we’re stressed, our body produces greater levels of the hormone cortisol,” Humber says. “In short spurts, a higher cortisol level can boost your immunity; however over time, it decreases your body’s ability to fight off infections.”
Besides being incredibly reassuring, Humber’s explanation is yet another reminder of how closely linked our mental and physical health really is.
It’s only natural that when you’re feeling physically under the weather, your mental health might feel a little wobbly, too – and that’s why taking care of yourself mentally is just as important when you’re ill.
How to look after your mental health when you’re feeling ill
If you’re struggling with the mental health impact of feeling under the weather, here are some simple things you can do to relieve some of the pressure.
Listen to your body
“Pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you, especially if you’re not feeling well,” Humber suggests. “When you’re sick, it’s likely you’ll need to rest up, and it’s no different for your mind. Take time out to rest and replenish and try some calming activities to ease how you’re feeling. For example, read your favourite book, listen to calming music or have a warm bath.
“Taking some slow deep breaths can also help reduce anxiety levels and help you reset. Try breathing in for four seconds, hold your breath for another four seconds and then breathe out for five seconds. Focus on the present moment and think about what you’re grateful for – it can be helpful to write these down.”
Keep a routine
“When you’re poorly, it can be difficult to maintain a routine,” Humber says. “Stick to your usual routine where possible, as this may reduce your worries. If you feel up to it, head outside for a short amount of time during the day if you’re used to being outdoors, and make sure you’re still prioritising self-care. Having a routine can be helpful in times of unpredictability, uncertainty, and stress.”
Stay hydrated and replenished
“Eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated are some of the best things you can do to improve your physical health, but they also have benefits for your mental health,” Humber explains.
“Make sure you get as much sleep as you need. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, try to give yourself a relaxing bedtime routine and avoid digital devices an hour before bed, as they can impact our sleep.”
Head outside for short bursts of fresh air
“If you feel up to it, wrap up warm and head outdoors for a short time, as it can do wonders for your mood,” Humber recommends.
“It’s important to remember that if you are struggling with your mental health and it’s impacting your daily life, speaking to your GP or a mental health professional can help,” Humber says. “They’ll be able to help you identify what’s causing you to feel this way, and to identify steps to take to improve how you feel.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com for confidential support.