After leaving uni, I took a year out to work on personal projects. I was sick of feeling perpetually stressed and having no time for my hobbies. For once, I was going to use my time exactly as I wanted to.
My health is very important to me, so I was determined to look after it as well as I could. With so much time on my hands, I began walking three miles a day. I also did about half an hour of yoga most days. I tried to eat leafy greens every day, kept processed food to a minimum, and drank plenty of unsweetened fluids. Conscious of how much time I spent on my computer, I started to work standing up. And I made sure I always got eight solid hours of sleep.
Physically, I had never been healthier. There was just one problem – I wasn’t happy.
Mentally, I was certainly better off than I had been in my stressful uni days. But I was still struggling. I often felt anxious and drained. More than anything, I was lonely. Almost all my friends were working or studying. And I was in a relationship with someone who was still at uni and couldn’t spare much time for me. My family lived 100 miles away, and I only saw them every few months.
Though I got out to activist events when I could, I still spent the majority of my time alone. And because my anxiety was so bad, I tried to avoid situations that made it worse. This led to me becoming even more isolated and feeling still more down. It was a vicious cycle. Ironically, I was somewhat obsessive about my physical health. This obsession was probably quite bad for my mental health!
It’s not easy, but I’m now trying to break out of this cycle. I recognise that overcoming anxiety means getting out of my comfort zone, not staying where it’s safe. We all need to be challenged and stimulated in life. If not, we’ll likely become bored and frustrated. So we do need some level of stress in our lives – just not too much.
This illustrates an important point. Health is more than physical, and we aren’t truly healthy if our mental health is poor. This is true from a purely biological point of view too. Severe stress, anxiety and depression can make us age faster and develop more diseases. Mental health and physical health are closely intertwined.
I sometimes beat myself up for feeling down, since I’m so very fortunate compared to many people. I don’t have to worry about food, clean water or shelter, and my physical health is excellent. But we humans also have emotional, social and even spiritual needs. We need to meet those too if we’re to have all-round good health.
For me, true health has been an elusive thing. Though I believe I’m on the right track, I still have a long way to go. Sadly, I think these days most of us struggle with our mental health in some way. It isn’t our fault. We’ve grown up at sick society, obsessed with money and material possessions. We’re disconnected from each other and from nature. We work ridiculous hours to pay extortionate rent, with little time left over to pursue what we love. Advertising encourages us to eat poorly and feel bad about ourselves. Our work is often sedentary and uninspiring.
Anyone who tries to break away from these social norms meets resistance. The difficulty of living outside the system can be a source of stress in itself. Personally, I never want a conventional 9-to-5 job. But this means I spend a lot of time stressing out over how to stretch my very limited income still further. In an ideal world, I’d love to live in a moneyless, self-sufficient eco-community instead!
I don’t have a problem with work – I just want it to be meaningful. So for now, I’ve decided to workaway, making a little money online to cover my travel costs. I hope meeting new people and learning new things will help with my anxiety. Living this way will mean I don’t have to think so much about money, removing another source of unhealthy stress.
The bottom line is this: there is no health without mental health. We should make time for our mental health in the same way we make time for our physical health. The best way of doing this will vary from person to person, so we all need to find what works for us. I make some suggestions in my post on stress and spirituality.
Sometimes it can feel like an uphill struggle just to get through the day. But we all have the strength within us to carry on. Things will always get better.