Don’t worry hon, you’ll be fine

What you should do when a loved one makes a big deal out of every little health hiccup

Sick woman being taken care by her roommate

Isha called in sick for work as she was down with a bad cold. The youngest child of her parents, Isha had been weak as a baby. Hence, her parents had been extra careful about her health—they protected her against rain, heat and cold.

She wasn't allowed to eat out, as her mother feared she would come down with a stomach bug. Every little physical complaint was catered to with utmost love and attention. Isha grew up believing that she was physiologically delicate.

Sandhya, Isha's colleague, was always at work, come rain or sunshine, in health or illness. She grew up in a family where minor scrapes, aches and pains were considered a part of day-to-day life.

She was encouraged to go about her daily work even if she were down with a fever. Her family encouraged and appreciated mental and physical resilience. Sandhya's self image today, vis-à-vis her health is that she is a sturdy and resilient individual, who does not crash at the first sneeze or cough.

Today, all of us, at some level, understand and accept the huge impact our mind has on our physical wellbeing.

Research has implicated the mind, not just in psychosomatic disorders such as ulcers, blood pressure and headaches, but also in chronic conditions such as diabetes and terminal illnesses such as cancer and tumours.

This intangible, invisible thing called the mind, which has the power to bring the body to its knees, is also a delicate entity, easily influenced by external winds. And the strongest influence on the human mind is the thoughts and messages communicated by the significant others in our life.

Our close family members can, and often do, influence the way we think, the way we look at life, and at ourselves. It is only natural; then, for our thoughts about our physical health and wellbeing to be significantly influenced by our close relationships and the other way round.

Knowing this, each of us should take charge of how we impact the health of our family members. Let us look at some ways in which we can be a positive influence on the health of our loved ones...

Be a positive support

When your loved one is feeling unwell, sympathise with him or her. Be sensitive to the illness, or condition, that is causing pain or discomfort. Communicate your understanding to your loved one. At the same time, point out the positive aspects of the situation.

For instance, if your spouse is down with a viral fever and has to miss an important meeting, empathise with her. At the same time, also point out that “at least you will be well in time for the big presentation next week.”

It helps to be positive in the face of illness. It helps restore immunity, makes you feel better, and also makes the situation far more tolerable.

Condition health, not illness

A lot of our behaviours are the result of conditioning. Behaviours reinforced by our parents in a positive manner are repeated and those that are criticised or punished usually aren't.

Thus, as parents, ensure that you condition your children to grow up as healthy adults, and not as sickly, delicate beings. Treating a child as weak and giving too much attention every time the child is sick, will condition the child's system to repeat those behaviours.

It will also condition her mind to believe that she is weak. In contrast, if you focus on health and wellbeing, the child will be conditioned to do so herself, and if you teach her to be tough in the face of illness, she will eventually internalise this idea. Build psychological hardiness in children. This in turn ensures higher resilience to and quicker recovery from illnesses.

Don't mollycoddle

People often mistake care with mollycoddling. It is one thing to care for a sick child and be concerned about her well being, and quite another to fuss over a slight sprain or a little stomach ache.

When a loved one is unwell, pampering him or her helps, and there is no harm in doing so—to a certain extent. Overdoing it can backfire, not so much on you, but more on the person herself.

Mollycoddling leads the person to believe that even a small illness or ache is big enough to bring work to a standstill, lie on the bed, and complain about the discomfort.

Worse, it conditions the person's mind to believe that the body is really suffering and is unwell, and as discussed earlier, this conditioning goes a long way in shaping the person's belief about his or her own health status.

As a child, Parag frequently suffered from flu. Every time he fell ill, his mother would take leave to be home with him. He would be forbidden from attending school until he recovered from not just his fever but also the cold and cough.

Every time he got a common cold or cough, his parents would start him off on an antibiotic course. His mother would often say to him, “You are coughing! I know tomorrow you will come down with fever.” Now, as an adult, Parag has the same mindset. Every time he suffers a severe bout of cold, he gives up on his body, and “knows” that high fever is soon to follow.

In psychological terms, the person inculcates something like a ‘learned helplessness’. This means, that the person does not even make an attempt to fight the illness or overcome it, but succumbs to it meekly.

Teach by example

Every time Rohit feels unwell, he remembers his mother. Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 42, Rohit's mother never lost her zest for life. Despite intensive and invasive treatment interventions, she was always smiling, and went about her life as normally as she could.

Rohit doesn't remember a single day when his mother was not up and about every morning, waking them up with a smile for school, seeing them off, having hot lunch waiting for them, helping them with studies, and going about being a mum and a wife as though there was nothing wrong with her.

She maintained not just her positivity and her enthusiasm for life, but also her routine and her activity levels, right up to the last few months, when her body was racked with pain, medications, and radiation.

Actions speak louder than words. It's as simple as that. When family members see you taking illness or physical discomfort in your stride, it creates a far stronger impact than any words could.

Thus, the way you tackle illness, both in action as well as in thought, will help shape the way your family members look at it.

Use humour

Ill humour is often a concomitant of ill health. Naturally, when one is unwell, one feels irritable and out of sorts.

Showing them the light side of the situation, helping them laugh at themselves and their condition can create a positive change in the person. Of course, it's important to use humour sensitively.

In our attempt to distract the person from his illness, we should not engage in humour that could be even remotely perceived as being insensitive.

Use humour to bring a smile to the person's face and generate positivity, she will instantly feel better.

Enumerate strengths

When Bhushan got a severe asthma attack and could not accompany his daughter on her first day of nursery school, he was very upset. He suffered from asthma since childhood, and this had often deprived him of many opportunities.

He was feeling really low as he felt he was missing out on the little things in his child's life and blamed his chronic condition for it. Bhavna, his wife, smilingly told him that this was not the case.

She pointed out how apart from the episodes, he enjoyed good health and was always around when their daughter or she needed him. She reminded him of the times when he had taken so much pressure at work and yet not subdued to an asthma attack.

As a family member, support your loved one to focus on his or her strengths. Typically, illness is a time when you feel down, and it is natural that at such times, you dwell on your limitations or your weaknesses and lose sight of the strengths. Having someone see those strengths can be heartening and uplifting.

Help build perspective

At the end of the day, what really helps change one's mindset from illness to wellness is the way in which one sees the illness, the perspective that one is able to gain on it.

Here, having a family member with a positive, sensitive, and sensible approach can help the person see things in the right light. Yes, illness can be debilitating, and at times, even devastating.

Its implications range from a few missed days at work, to a complete lifestyle change, and at times, a real threat to life. Yet, when dealt with in a positive manner, each one of us can take illness in our stride and carry on with life as best as we can.

Restore harmony

A disease, or an illness, upsets the internal harmony in an individual. Irrespective of where this disharmonious state exists [in the mind or in the body], the repercussions are experienced in the body.

Anything you can do to help restore this equilibrium for your loved one, not only makes him or her feel emotionally relaxed, but also directly reduces the severity of the symptoms as s/he is experiencing them.

As a supportive family member, it is enough if we just try to understand the internal sense of upset or disharmony that our loved one is experiencing, and do whatever is in our power, to restore harmony.

Create a wellness culture

Every family has its own unique culture, shaped by the family members, their experiences, and personalities. Make a proactive and conscious attempt to ingrain in your family members, this positive outlook toward wellbeing.

Create a family culture that focuses on health, and not on illness, where individuals accept occasional health upsets as part of life, and not get overwhelmed by them.

Just a word of caution, though! Being wellbeing focussed by no means implies that you have to be insensitive to an unwell family member or that you must expect every member in your family to be on his/her two feet no matter what.

Far from it. It means that you help that family member see that occasional illness or disease is OK and must be treated such.

It means being sensitive to the discomfort the person is suffering, while encouraging him or her to see that health is a small part of his existence and that there are other things that are happening in life, which too need attention.

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