Reading time: 7 minutes

Rarely do we welcome being ill, yet it’s a fact of life that it happens.  The UK average for people in work is that we are off sick for just under a week a year. Given how this is something we all experience, rarely do we think about how to do it and how to improve our health literacy. So let’s get curious:

What do your symptoms indicate? 

Symptoms are information. All feelings are information. Given that feelings are both physical sensations and emotions, that includes symptoms. Whether it’s pain, a cough, aches or sniffles, your symptoms are giving you information about what’s going on for you and what action you need to take. And understanding your symptoms is part of your health literacy.

Coughs and sneezes let you know that your immune system is fighting bacteria or a virus. Stomach cramps let you know that your digestion is struggling. And, if you didn’t have a headache you wouldn’t know to check if you’ve had enough water or whether you’re stressed, before investigating further.  Stress affects your ability to fight infections, meaning that it can take you longer to recover and even jeopardise your ability to fully recover. 

You need symptoms to let you know how you are doing.  Just like the dashboard in your car lets you know how the car is doing, your wellbeing is dependent on your symptoms flagging issues that are going on. But in order to understand what your symptoms are indicating, you need to be able to read them. You need to develop health literacy.

Health literacy: how do you understand and respond to symptoms?

Knowing how to ‘read’ or interpret symptoms and what action to take to address them is called  ‘health literacy’. Like all forms of literacy, health literacy is a learnt skill. And like all skills, it takes practice and patience to get good at it. 

You probably know that an antihistamine is unlikely to be helpful if you’ve got stomach cramps, right? It’s likely that you take that knowledge for granted, so my invitation to you is to pause and check with yourself.  Do you actually know that? We often think we know which medication works for what but when we take a closer look, we’re not so sure.  Your local pharmacy is a great source of information and it can be helpful to have a chat about the medication that you’re using. 

Non-medical responses and interventions

The same applies to non-medical or non-pharmaceutical interventions. Knowing that, for example, peppermint and ginger are good for digestion related issues and turmeric is helpful for inflammation is also important. Brewing a tisane (an infusion of dried herbs) for your cold can often help ease symptoms quicker and more effectively than using medication. 

Being aware of these things, though, is just part of health literacy – the reading part if you compare it to language literacy. Without the writing part, being able to follow (or ‘sherlock’) the clues of a symptom to its root cause and action, you will only ever get halfway there. 

John’s health literacy story

John came to The Helpful Clinic after suffering with stomach issues for over three years.  When asked how he’d managed his symptoms so far, he answered: taking paracetamol three times a day. As always the first question to check is: is it helpful? When John checked that question he realised that it wasn’t helpful, at all. In fact, constant use of medication was having a detrimental impact on his digestive system, making his symptoms worse.  

After further sherlocking, we identified two primary causes driving these symptoms: food intolerances and some unhelpful eating habits. We also identified that he needed to eat food that was actually different from his partner’s. Supporting them to change their diets and eating habits so that it worked for both of them meant the change was a bonus rather than a compromise.  

Beliefs about being ill can keep you ill for longer

We always have thoughts and feelings about our thoughts and feelings. And so it is with being ill. Most of us find being ill frustrating. We believe that it gets in the way of the to-do list or prevents us from being there for our loved ones. But is this helpful? Is it even true? This belief can mean that you don’t give enough time to recover and end up limping from one illness to another, never feeling fully well and sturdy. 

You may also have beliefs about how to be ill.  Many of us have been told that we should always push through and that being ill is a sign of weakness. You may even have gone to work full of a cold so intense that you couldn’t actually think straight.  It’s unlikely that you did your job well. It’s more likely that you made mistakes and risked passing your illness on to your colleagues. This is something we’re all more aware of now since Covid and our beliefs on this are changing. 

How the fun police can slow down recovery

As a child, you may have learnt that being ill was some sort of punishment. You had to stay at home, in your bed, feeling all sombre and still.  There may even have been a “Fun Police” making sure you were not ‘enjoying’ yourself because being ill is a very ‘serious business’. If you have the energy to laugh, surely you’ve got the energy to be productive/ work/ study. This belief deprives you of your most powerful immune system booster: laughter.  This self-generated intervention is proven to reduce stress levels and help fight infections.

These are just some examples of beliefs that may be delaying your recovery time. Others may include beliefs about your ability to recover or bounce back and whether you ‘deserve’ to take the time to care for your health.  Whatever beliefs you have, the key is to get curious and identify them.  Awareness is the starting point.  Then you can sherlock whether the belief is helpful, and, if not – what may be more helpful instead.  

Body talk

Self talk, that is how you talk to and with yourself, matters.  We all do it and regardless of what the topic is. How our self talk makes us feel has a big impact.  This includes how we talk to and engage with our bodies. If you feel that your body is holding you back, it’s likely that you are feeling critical of your body almost as if your body was being ill on purpose to trip you up. This internal conflict is likely to drive up your stress levels which remember, isn’t good for recovery.  

What’s your relationship with your body? Would you describe it as caring or maybe exploitative? Are you even speaking the same language? Talking to your body in a kind and caring way can strengthen your ability to process the illness quicker and get better faster. 

The lost art of convalescing 

You may be familiar with the motif of convalescing through film and TV programmes. It’s when you take the time to rest and replenish after being ill, before returning to full activities.  Take the turning point in Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, this is when Captain Hastings first meets Hercule Poirot; he is convalescing. 

Historically convalescing is associated with taking time to be in beautiful surroundings (often the seaside). It’s a treasured space where the focus is on rebuilding strength and stamina after the effort of processing illness or injury.  It’s about taking the time to savour and enjoy simple tasks and activities that help that rebuilding process. We seem to have abandoned convalescing at some point last century and our health is suffering because of it.

What shouldn’t you do when you are sick? 

In our modern day society, the attitude is often to assume we’re back to a full tank of energy as soon as symptoms subside. This is rarely the case and this push-through attitude can end up costing more in terms of energy, time and impact.

Imagine your energy and your immune system as your energy bank’s current and savings accounts.  Processing an illness can take everything you’ve got. This means you’ve cleared your savings, are at zero on your ‘current account’ and possibly even overdrawn. So when symptoms subside, you may feel ok, but your accounts are empty and need replenishing before heading back into full function. 

7 tips for doing ‘self care’ when you’re ill

Although being ill often feels inconvenient and uncomfortable, it can actually be helpful. The key is to get curious about how you read your symptoms and how you use self care and sherlocking to feel better.   

Here are seven tips to help you.

  1. Sherlock (get curious about) and understand your symptoms.  What is the information here? Check each of the physical, mental and social dimensions for a deeper understanding. 
  2. Sherlock how you habitually respond to your symptoms, is it actually helpful? Educate yourself about  how to respond to symptoms with medical and non-medical interventions.  
  3. Give yourself time to be ill and process the symptoms. When the immune system isn’t fighting for resources with your to-do-list, it can do the job properly.
  4. Reclaim the art of convalescing for better and long-lasting recovery. It may only be an extra day and it may save you a relapse costing you an extra week.
  5. Investigate what your beliefs are about being ill, and ask ‘Are they helpful?’. If the answer is ‘no’, it’s time to get curious and sherlock what may be a more helpful belief to have instead. Look out for an upcoming blog about this topic
  6. Watch, read, listen to what gives you joy and preferably makes you laugh. Savour this time.
  7. Talk to your body like you would talk to a dear friend.  You’d be surprised at what you discover about your symptoms and why they are showing up. 

And remember

It’s more helpful to be curious than critical, so go gently with yourself as you work with these questions. We’re going into the winter season here in the northern hemisphere when there are more bugs and viruses, so practising being ill well will pay off. You’re likely to process what’s going on quicker and have a more enjoyable experience of being ill. You’re ill anyway, so you may as well make the most of it. 

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor

Thor sitting writing in his chair and Denny the dog sitting next to him and looking outside the window