Your Body Is Telling You To Stay Home When You're Sick, So Listen To It

by Melissa L. Fenton
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We’ve all done it at one point or another. We woke up sick as a dog, hacked our way through the morning routine, ignored our burning foreheads, wheezing lungs, and drippy noses, and drove straight to work. And if you work from home, you’ve done it too — pushed on through the work day when you should have never even left your bedroom. Yep, guilty.

Not only are Americans notorious for not knowing how to unwind and relax, we’re also obsessive workaholics — often hoarding our sick days like dark chocolate. We just don’t want to use (or waste) one of them unless we are on death’s door. And as moms, we worry that the world will fall apart if we check out for a day or two.

Unfortunately, we’ve conditioned our ailing selves to ignore something doctors call “sickness behavior.” In layman’s terms, when our bodies are ill and begin the biochemical and physiological process of fighting off infection, it sends powerful signals to our brains that tell us it’s time to rest. These are the persuasive feelings and instinctual urges that naturally come to you when you’re sick. They are the ones that say things like, “I want to stay in bed all day,” and “I don’t want to talk to anyone,” and “I don’t think I will be able to make it through the entire work day,” and “I’m so tired I can’t think straight.”

All those mental messages telling you to rest are literally the result of the same chemicals telling your immune system to kick it into high gear, and start killing off some germs. They also want you to rest your body so it can begin to heal itself, and give your immune system a fighting chance to get you well again. Those same messages also tell your brain that you don’t need to eat or have sex, and they usually take away any desire to want to be social with your peers.

“Those messages are so powerful they can’t be ignored,” Philip Chen, a rhinologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, told NPR.

Unfortunately, we rarely listen to those messages, and instead push through — only making us sicker, and threatening the health of those around us as well. In a survey of health professionals at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, doctors and other health care providers said that even though 95% of them thought showing up to work sick puts patients at risk, 83% of them did it anyway. These are healthcare professionals and even they don’t listen to their body’s health cues.

So why don’t we listen?

Well, for many reasons. First, most of us simply can’t afford to miss work, or we work in highly demanding and competitive environments where one missed day could be detrimental to our career progression.

Secondly, unlike day care centers and schools, most offices don’t spell out specific guidelines for illnesses, and what symptoms mean you need to (and must) stay home.

Finally, it seems to be generally agreed upon that unless you physically cannot get out of bed, then you really just need to get out of bed — and suck it up so to speak. Eric Shattuck, a lecturer in evolutionary medicine and anthropology at the University of Texas, San Antonio says that most people ignore “sickness behavior cures,” even when it’s telling them to stay in bed.

“There’s what I suspect is a very cultural pressure to perform and to perform well, especially for what we consider minor illnesses,” he states.

Unfortunately, going to work sick not only can prolong your illness because you’re not resting, but you’re spreading germs thoughout your workplace to other parents, and potentially to their children. Bottom line: you need to learn to listen to the cues and messages your body is telling you, especially in the early stages of something as minor as a cold. If you can afford a sick day, take it — they’re offered for a reason. And as far as what exactly is considered to be a “real” illness that should be entirely up to you, and needs no explanation. And for the record, this should include taking mental health days too, because not all absences from work need to be related to your ear, nose and throat. Sometimes those same messages in your brain that are telling you to stay home so your cold can go away, are telling you to stay home so your mind can relax and decompress.

Whatever it may be telling you, listen to it.