I Prioritized My Mental Health for 14 Days – Here’s What Happened October 6, 2017 Oct 06 2017 This article is sponsored by Veeva, a natural supplement company that is dedicated to providing treatment for mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. Please note that I only work with companies that I really, really love, personally use and can shout about from the mountaintops. Lucky for you, if you want to try out their products you’ll get 15% off upon checkout with the discount code ALINA15 before December 31st. Let’s begin with an experiment. What are the words that come to mind in the following scenarios: Giving up your weekend to help a friend move Staying back late at the office to get a big project done Perhaps words like ‘kind’, ‘generous’, ‘selfless’ and ‘hardworking’. What about the scenarios below? Saying no to meet a friend to stay in and read a book Taking a 1-hour lunch break at work to go for a long walk Did the words ‘lazy’ or ‘selfish come to mind? Do these scenarios make you feel guilty? Or were some of them perhaps even laughable and unrealistic? Unfortunately, we live in a society where sacrificing your time and mental energy to tend to someone else’s needs is met with encouragement, but taking the same time and mental space for yourself is met with shame or frowned upon. And when that message is reinforced at home, amongst friends and at work, we fall into the pattern of letting daily stressors like work, errands, cooking, social obligations and bills pile up, without stopping to make time for mental space, or waiting until the next vacation to recover from burnout. What is Mental Burnout? Whether you want to call it ‘chronic stress’, ‘fatigue’, ‘exhaustion’, or even the more scientific term known as ‘adrenal fatigue‘, we all know what mental burnout feels like. It’s when you: Are exhausted all the time Have enough mental energy in the evening to just watch Netflix or sleep Feel chronically anxious, stressed or mildly depressed Start suffering from brain fog, low libido, and recurrent colds …Simply feel ‘meh’ all over and want to escape life and curl up in a ball in bed via GIPHY Is There a Way To Prevent Mental Burnout? Simply put – yes! However, the answer to this is not eliminating stressors, as that’s simply not realistic. Work, errands, groceries, bills, relationship problems, and crazy people with drama will always exist. If you really want to prevent burnout and lead a happier life, you have to learn how to respond to stressors. With no exaggeration, how you respond can be the difference between feeling exhausted and getting sick all the time, and having high energy and health on a daily basis. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, read on for a quick science lesson: Responding to Stress 101 The body can operate in one of two states: 1) fight or flight; 2) rest and digest. In ‘fight or flight’ mode, also known as the sympathetic nervous system, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in response to a stressor. The hormones signal for more glucose and oxygen to be sent to your brain and limbs so that you can think and act fast in the stressful situation. At the same time, all other non-essential functions are paused, such as cellular repair and digestion. Rest and digest mode, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system is the exact opposite, and is activated when you are in a calm, peaceful and happier state. Why does this matter? The body cannot distinguish between a real threat (a lion about to attack you) and a perceived threat (I’m going to be late for work). The stress response will be the same. For most of us, we’re chronically in a state of stress due to our stress response. We perceive every problem to be a threat, whether it’s a work deadline, traffic or the monthly mortgage payment. The chronic cycle of stress results in adrenal exhaustion and a whole host of health problems, such as the ones briefly mentioned above. Prioritizing Mental Health I get it, it’s not easy to turn off the ‘fight or flight mode’ and simply ‘stress less’. But the first step has to come from the awareness that you aren’t prioritizing your mental health, shifting those priorities and putting mental (along with physical) health at the top. Without mental health, you’re not doing justice to your other priorities such as family, friends, and your career. Once this shift takes place, you will naturally be less reactive, more calm, and respond to all types of stress much better. So to put my money where my mouth is, I decided to test this shifting of priorities on myself for two weeks, and see what difference it made. My 14-Day Experiment to Prevent Mental Burnout I am someone who runs her life by a to-do list, daily calendar and has a tendency towards workaholism. I know that not being productive in some manner doesn’t equate to ‘wasted time’, it is something I struggle with on a daily basis. While the list below is going to be different for everyone, these are the things that worked well for me and I hope can inspire others looking to make the same change. I took longer in the mornings While I already make time every morning to do some stretches, have breakfast and lemon water, I extended the morning routine by 30 minutes to one hour. I made time for a run (yes, it happened once but it was fantastic!), bike rides around the neighbourhood, multiple walks in the park, or simply listening to some guided meditation and staring out the window. Whether you can add on 10 minutes or 1 hour, starting off with a calm and peaceful state of mind helps set the tone for the day. I cut back on social media We’ve all seen the headlines that social media is associated with anxiety and depression (1), yet many of us still spend too much time mindlessly scrolling through images on Instagram or reading (mostly irrelevant or unnecessary) articles on Facebook. I removed the notifications setting on my phone for social media, and checked in only once or twice a day for no more than 5-10 minutes. I also paid special attention to how I felt after using social media, and noticed that although it was subtle, there was always a form of subconscious comparison even if there was no ill intention behind the thought e.g. “wow she dresses well, I should learn how to dress better”, or “he’s travelling the world, am I wasting my youth?” Sigh. I took adaptogen herbs An adapta-what? As mentioned earlier, when the body has been in state of chronic stress for a long time, it is taxing on the adrenal glands which release our stress hormones. Adaptogens are herbs that help the adrenal glands recover, thereby helping us better adapt to stress in tough situations and cope better (2). Basically, adaptogenic herbs can help you feel like a zen buddha in the face of crisis. It’s a surreal feeling when you first notice yourself feeling much more calm and clear in a stressful situation, or not reacting as strongly. Plus, you’ll notice other symptoms of adrenal fatigue start to improve. I’ve taken adaptogens before but this time I was trying a new one called Stress Formula from Veeva. After one week, the most noticeable difference for me were my energy levels in the morning. I had previously been dragging myself out of bad, and not feeling refresh despite eight hours of sleep each night. After 7-8 days I noticed I was refreshed and ready to go at 6am, saving myself 30 minutes of groaning and ‘snooze time’ in bed. Note: the great thing about this blend compared to others is that it can be taken long-term, and doesn’t require cycling on and off like other adaptogen blends on the market. I said ‘no’ and created boundaries If a plan comes around and I have that day free in my calendar, I say yes. Of course, sometimes I want to go to that social event, or it’s an important one to attend, but sometimes it’s not that important and I’d rather just stay at home and organize my cupboard, but end up saying yes. While I’ve gotten much better at this than in the past, I still struggle with finding the right balance. This time around I decided to set boundaries, and simply not allow for more than one social event on a Friday, and one on Saturday. Sundays were blocked off to recharge or work on personal projects, unless Saturday was wide open as well. I turned down an event, rescheduled two social meetups to a later date, and it turns out that people are simply not that bothered. Just like you, they’re probably glad to get some time back as well. I listened to my intuition Simply put, if my brain said “nope, I need a break”, I listened to it. All too often I push myself to get some extra work or chores done, worrying about the to-do list piling up. Two weekends in a row, I simply let go of the need to fulfill all the tasks on my to-do list, and surprisingly the world didn’t end. I just did those tasks another day, allowing for more time on my weekend to relax. I sat and stared at the wall This one is hard, really hard. I’m pretty restless by nature and typically need to be doing something to occupy my attention, whether it’s working, talking, exercising, cleaning, organizing, reading, watching a show…it’s all still something active. In the evenings, I would try to spend fifteen minutes not doing anything and simply stare out the window or at the wall. It gave my brain a break, but more than anything I think it showed me my thought patterns. You can’t help but become aware of your thoughts if you’re not distracting yourself with something else. I found that my brain was a running to-do list, whereas for someone else it might be fears, worries or anger. Becoming aware of my mental patterns showed me exactly the behaviour I need to break to reduce stress and anxiety. I created a soothing environment This is something that took a minimal amount of effort, but had a huge impact on my mood. In fact, it’s now a ritual every time I come home from work. I find a relaxing playlist on Spotify like piano music, acoustic guitar or something Parisian, and then light incense to fill the room with a soothing scent. If I’m not in the mood for incense, I’ll use a basic essential oil reed diffuser with an anti-stress or anti-anxiety blend. For example, the anti-stress blend from Veeva contains essential oils like sweet orange that are proven to reduce the stress hormone, cortisol. (3) I went for aimless walks or strolls I walk everyday, but it’s typically to get me from point A to Point B and has a specific purpose, like going to work, picking up groceries, going to the bank. Funnily enough, even when the purpose of my walk is to walk, there’s still a goal like “do a brisk 30 minute walk as exercise” at the back of my mind. This time I decided I would allow my walks to be aimless – no time limit, no purpose, no walking pace. I found myself holed up in a bookstore, discovering new pockets of my neighbourhood, following my curiosity into new side streets and shortcuts, actually stopping to read the flyers on bulletin boards (I actually learnt something), and sitting on a bench like an old lady watching dogs and kids play in the park. It is so freeing to just follow where your feet want to take you, and take in your surroundings without goal-oriented blinders on. I recommend doing this alone, to truly let yourself stay as long as you want somewhere or go wherever you feel like exploring. The Result Am I now a zen guru sitting on top of a mountain? Err, no. But I did find some clarity, new rituals to reduce stress, a calmer state of mind and some ‘aha moments’. The biggest insight for me – as someone that is attached to the feeling of being productive – is that the world didn’t end, the ball wasn’t dropped, and everything continued along just fine when I worked less and spent more time on my mental health. I was able to fit in a lot more me time and my social and work life were not impacted, I just felt happier. I highly encourage you to try a similar challenge, and do whatever you feel ‘prioritizing mental health’ means to you. Your experiences, insights and moments of clarity will all be different based on your struggles and attachments, and I’d love to know what worked for you! This article is sponsored by Veeva, a natural supplement company that is dedicated to providing treatment for mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. Please note that I only work with companies that I really, really love, personally use and can shout about from the mountaintops. Lucky for you, if you want to try out their products you’ll get 15% off upon checkout with the discount code ALINA15 before December 31st. Sources (1) Why Social Media Causes Anxiety. (2017). Anxiety.org. Retrieved 6 October 2017, from https://www.anxiety.org/social-media-causes-anxiety (2) G, P. (2017). Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. – PubMed – NCBI. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 6 October 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19500070 (3) Pour, F., Arman, S., & Jaafarzadeh, M. (2017). Effect of aromatherapy with orange essential oil on salivary cortisol and pulse rate in children during dental treatment: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Retrieved 6 October 2017, from About Alina I'm a Holistic Nutritionist based in Toronto, Canada and my official title is Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP). I received my diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. I'm a coach and an educator. Follow Alina on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for all of the latest updates.