I couldn’t tell you when it started. It doesn’t work like that with mental health. There is no first symptom, it creeps up on you, or rather it creeps away from you.
I guess the first time my health began to challenge me was when I was 18. I had contracted a bacterium while travelling in India and had lost a lot of weight. This, coupled with the challenges of ‘life’, seemed to act as a catalyst in me developing a dysfunctional relationship with food.
I continued to struggle with this ‘atypical eating disorder’ through my studies and early career, although I never remember being unhappy through this time. It is only in hindsight that I can see what role the control over my weight played.
In my second job, I was severely bullied which triggered intense stress and anxiety. This is the first time I was aware that I was not happy. I remember leaving work early one day and going to cry in the arms of a friend. It’s seems odd now to think that I was blaming myself for what was going on, I felt I was being weak, that I wasn’t good enough.
In my next role, my stress and anxiety continued to augment, my weight was still below healthy, largely due to the pain and digestive discomfort when I ate. I had also started to experience other physical symptoms including repetitive muscular strains, food intolerances and breathing difficulties. I continued to try to live a healthier lifestyle through new diets and regular exercise to no avail. I even tried Balinese healers and mystic approaches.
You don’t have to wait to be one of the 25% of people who are diagnosed with mental illness before you start looking after your mental health
It was at the age of 29 that it all changed. I hit a wall. I remember moments in the proceeding months feeling a constant sense of not wanting to be in my life, I never felt comfortable in my world.
If we want good mental health we need to fuel our body and mind with physical activity, nutrition and good rest.
The day came that I experienced complete burn out. It was brief but intense.I was eventually diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depression. My GP suggested I quit my job and took some time out, which I refused to do. I had forged a successful career in the fashion industry and felt very attached to my role.
He then suggested trying Mindfulness – which I was more than a little skeptical about but I decided to give it a try. In a matter of 2 weeks everything had changed. I could focus again, was more articulate and felt able to cope with my excessive workload. I was still working long hours but was learning to switch off when I left work. As I continued this simple 15-minute daily practice I noticed that I was no longer waking up the night feeling breathless. I had been to yoga classes for years but approaching the physical Asana with this more mindful approach transformed the practice. I started to feel more appreciative of my body and suddenly wanted to fuel it with a nourishing balanced diet.
This triggered four years of in-depth research into the relationship of mental wellbeing on the physical body and vice versa. I am a cynic at heart so I wanted the science to validate what I had experienced. And the science is there; extensive, well validated clinical research showing that if we want optimal physical health we need to maintain good mental health too. Furthermore, if we want good mental health we need to fuel our body and mind with physical activity, nutrition and good rest. We can’t have one without the other and only if we look after both can we live a truly healthy life.
I completed my Mindfulness teacher training, studied Psychology, completed Yoga teacher training and eventually undertook an MSc in the psychology of wellbeing. After many tests, I found out that my gut bacteria had become severely imbalanced and the pH of my blood had changed, which was resulting in my digestive problems, food intolerances and my other symptoms. This impacted the chemical levels of my brain, hormone levels and affected my moods.
Now I am on a mission to highlight the importance of looking after our physical and mental wellbeing so that others don’t have to go through what I did. My key message is that you don’t have to wait to be one of the 25% of people who are diagnosed with mental illness before you start looking after your mental health. Very few people know that we can actually build daily ‘mental health routines’ to promote and improve mental health in the same way that we can do physical fitness workouts. That’s what I am here to share.
By Charlotte Wiseman – real life food journey