Saturday 19 August 2017

Is the pursuit of Wellness stressing us out?

Nowadays we are under pressure not only to achieve in our careers, but to eat clean, be a gym bunny, take supplements, read self help books, meditate… and be mindful as we do it all. It's exhausting, contends Caroline Foran whose own search for wellness almost pushed her to breaking point

Anxiety inducing? The pursuit of wellness
Anxiety inducing? The pursuit of wellness
Caroline Foran. Photo: Nathalie Marquez Courtney

Caroline Foran

We're living in an age where - thankfully - we're encouraged to take good care of ourselves in every sense of the word. No longer is it seen as a badge of honour to burn yourself out at work or to survive a string of all-nighters; now, the coolest thing to do is look after yourself. When it comes to mental health, you could say we're doing better than ever.

But while we might have more information and resources at our disposal than ever before, and we're certainly more open to discussing life behind that Valencia filter, we also have more pressures coming at us from every angle.

At any given time, we aspire to ascend the career ladder, to kill it at the gym, to keep up with our social lives, to find love, to pencil in some 'me time', to nail our sleeping patterns, to count our steps, to eat well, to maintain some semblance of presence on social media, to photograph any meal that isn't beans on toast, to read all those books that will help us live our lives more efficiently, to download that Headspace app and to be mindful about each of these things at all times… It's exhausting and a sure-fire recipe for anxiety.

At one point or another, one of those spinning plates is bound to drop, and looking after your sense of wellbeing should not fall under the heading of yet another thing to worry about getting right. 'Wellness' shouldn't be seen as a 'trend' or a bandwagon to jump on. Nor should it be yet another metric for social comparison: "She manages to meditate every morning before work, meanwhile, I struggle to take my make-up off at night."

An overdose on wellness, while well- intended, can actually backfire, leaving you more stressed and anxious in the long run. This is particularly relevant when we use it to stack ourselves up against others. Once seen as the 'in' thing - "everybody's doing it, don't you know?" - it's easy to see why a resistance to this 'trend' would emerge.

Three years ago, I began suffering with anxiety, to the point that I had to leave my job. For a considerable time, I could barely cope with the idea of leaving the house. I was merely existing in between panic attacks.

On top of the panic attacks and anxious thoughts that whirred around my head at lightning speed, I became very ill, physically. I wasn't able to sleep, I wasn't eating properly - for me, anxiety will always manifest itself in my stomach first. Each morning without fail, my body would ache as though I had come down with a severe flu. I even had sore teeth from holding myself so tightly.

When people ask me what happened, my story is far from riveting. The thing is, there was no life-changing or traumatic event that brought about this anxious phase; for me, it was a simple case of too much change and too much pressure in a short space of time, coupled with my sensitive disposition (which, at the time, I would have described as weakness).

I thought leaving a job I didn't like would solve the problem but, in reality, I merely swapped one external pressure for another: the pressure to be okay. This was a pressure I put on myself. In a blind panic, I turned towards the world of wellness in a bid to 'cure' it.

I tried everything from hypnotherapy to a treatment that involved electrical vibrations attached to my temples - supposed to soothe the mind - to a million different health store supplements, to sitting there literally trying to 'snap myself out of it'. I drove myself insane thinking that if someone like Eckhart Tolle could just decide to never feel anxious again (reading his book, The Power of Now was a challenge) I could too.

While there was nothing necessarily wrong any of these approaches in isolation, I was throwing the kitchen sink at my anxiety in the hopes that this would get me somewhere. It didn't. My way of approaching the anxiety then was anxious in itself. I was panicked and I wanted to feel better and, honestly, if a cat with a bunch of tarot cards told me it could help, I'd hand over my life savings.

Everybody else seemed so together - they were handling a lot more than me and not falling apart - why wasn't I made of stronger stuff? What right had I to break down? This, as you can imagine, served only to fuel the anxiety.

A turning point came when - among other things chronicled in my book, Owning It - I gave up on this curing obsession. For some people, anxiety is fearful because the feelings are similar to what you might expect when you're having a heart attack. For me, it was an overwhelming fear of the fear. I was petrified that my own mind had the power to have such a negative effect on my body.

What I eventually learned was that it wasn't the presence of anxiety in my body that was the problem, but my perception of it, which increased its effects tenfold. When I took time to understand anxiety, what it is and how it works, as well as my own personal circumstances at the time of my struggling, I realised how normal anxiety is; how okay it is to not feel okay.

Instead of having a day where I didn't feel anxious and assuming I would be anxiety-free forever more - which only made things worse when I inevitably did feel anxious again - I changed my relationship with it.

For someone who feel anxiety so physically, this resulted in a physical calming down of the symptoms; by accepting it, I had disarmed it. I decided to make it work for me rather than against me and though that might sound like I just 'changed my mind', it took me a long time and a lot of patience to get to a point of owning it.

Over time, I also made a conscious decision to stop comparing myself to others who didn't appear to struggle with anxiety. Someone else's experiences had no bearing whatsoever on mine and vice versa; it doesn't make you weaker or them stronger. And for what it's worth, regardless of how great your life might seem on paper, you have every right to feel overwhelmed. All that matters is what's relative to you.

It's this same approach that we ought to take when it comes the current wave of wellness that dominates our social media newsfeeds.

It's all a bit much at times but your own wellness shouldn't be ignored entirely. Your best bet? Keep it simple. Ignore the noise. Don't get carried away with fads or find yourself devouring every article on mindbodygreen.com.

You might feel motivated at first, but trying to absorb every bit of advice on what you 'should' be doing to look after your mental health is, in my experience, massively counterproductive.

Instead, find what works for you - irrespective of what works for some celebrity you can't relate to. If curling up on the couch and bingeing on TLC's Say Yes to the Dress makes you feel good and helps you come back to zero - it's certainly one of my go-to activities - then so be it. Trying to adopt a monk-like existence - with thrice-daily meditations - is nothing but a waste of time, unless you're naturally that way inclined.

Three years on and with a lot of experience and understanding, as well the tools that I know to work for me, I'm living a life that's no longer defined by anxiety. I've stopped trying to live a life devoid of it because it's an inevitable part of being human, especially in today's high-octane society.

Although it still rears its head from time to time, I'm owning it. I'm nice to myself, and I keep it simple. I do what works for me - which can take considerable time to figure out - and I've stopped berating myself for not 'having my sh*t together', as so many books and articles seek to correct.

Furthermore, I've given up on my wasted efforts to become a 'wellness warrior', an additional pressure I never needed. Looking after yourself is not a war. If you're looking at wellness as yet another stressor on your daily to-do list, or a battle that you have to enter for the sake of your wellbeing, you're doing it wrong. No pressure.

Caroline Foran is a journalist and author of 'Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living With Anxiety', which will be published by Hachette Ireland on May 11 at £9.99

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