It started with a sniffle. Now you’re in the throes of a cold or the flu and, adding insult to injury, you feel inexplicably sad.
How do you know if it’s regular sickness blues or something more serious, and what can you do to cope?
Why does being sick make you sad?
You may feel sad when you’re sick because what is happening to your body can also negatively affect your mood. In fact, Tong says several of the symptoms of a cold can mimic symptoms of depression, so it makes sense that experiencing these can cause you to feel down.
“During the time of illness, many of us will experience symptoms of acute viral illness that overlap with depression, such as fatigue, malaise, mental fog, problems thinking, loss of appetite and sleep changes,” he explains.
Unlike depression, sickness blues fade in a couple days when you start to recover from your cold. But that doesn’t mean they’re any fun in the meantime. So, what can you do to cope?
Ways to improve your mood when you’re sick
Feeling sad when you’re sick is difficult because you may not have the energy to do your usual coping strategies to lift your spirits. If you’re feeling down or stuck, Tong recommends:
- Gentle movement. If you’re feeling up to it, light exercise like yoga, stretching or tai chi can help circulate your blood and lymph tissue, as well as potentially release endorphins that can improve mood. If you’re not well enough for movement, laying on your back with your legs up against the wall is a low-effort way to move lymph tissue and promote drainage and movement of fluid in your body.
- Deep breathing. This breathing technique improves mental health by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your body down and makes you feel more relaxed.
- Sun exposure. Sunlight can trigger your brain to release serotonin, a hormone that acts as a natural antidepressant. Going on a walk, sitting by a window or using a light-therapy lamp can give you a boost.
- Journaling. The benefits here are twofold: writing what you’re grateful for or noting what you’re feeling is a way to practice mindfulness, plus having a log of your thoughts and feelings helps you recount any symptoms with your doctor.
- Sensory activities. Aroma or music therapy can stimulate different parts of your brain and pull you away from depressive thought patterns when you’re sick. Try lighting a favorite candle, listening to music or soaking in a scented bath (or all three at once).
- Socializing (safely). Connecting with loved ones provides crucial social support. If you can’t see others in person due to your illness, talking on the phone or texting can help you maintain that sense of connection.
What if you still feel sad after recovering from being sick?
While feelings of sadness typically ease as you begin to recover, in some cases they can persist in what’s called post-viral syndrome.
Post-viral syndrome, including post-viral depression, is a constellation of health problems that continue after you’ve recovered from a virus, such as the flu or common cold. Symptoms can range from headaches and pain to trouble concentrating and fatigue, as well as ongoing mental health concerns like depression.
Researchers are still discovering what causes post-viral syndrome and post-viral depression, but Tong notes current research indicates that these symptoms are caused by an overactive immune system response that results in inflammation.
“Although our immune response is vital in helping our bodies recognize and fight microbes such as viruses, its exaggerated response and, in many cases, its failure to completely clear the inflammatory response may be implicated in causing symptoms seen in post-viral syndrome and post-viral depression,” he says.
In simplified terms, doctors hypothesize what is happening in your body goes something like this: After infection your immune system continues to produce inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Cytokines help fight infection, but they also cause fever, fatigue and general discomfort. If they persist, you can still feel ill even after your infection has cleared.
While you likely won’t experience post-viral syndrome after a cold, it can happen, and it’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing a low mood for two weeks or longer after you’ve recovered.
“I would encourage people to talk to their primary care doctor — at any point along the way — whether it has been two to three weeks out, or even months later. We have advice, medicines and resources including referrals available for people in need,” Tong says.
The bottom line
Feeling sad when you’re sick is a normal response to feeling unwell, so try to be gentle with yourself and practice some self-care when you’re under the weather. As you recover from your cold, you should start to feel better and more like yourself: physically, emotionally and mentally.