Over the past few months, I’ve been sharing my new approach to being healthy (both in body and in mind) on this blog. This particular post will probably make a lot more sense if you first read On Huge Lifestyle Changes, or My “Holy Hell, I’m Actually Doing This” Journey to Being Healthy. If you’re interested in the fitness side of things, you can check out On Huge Lifestyle Changes: My New Approach to Fitness and Being Active. If you’re curious about the changes I’ve made when it comes to what I eat, you can read On Huge Lifestyle Changes: My New Approach to Eating Healthy.
On December 31st, 2018, as midnight fast approached, I felt an uneasy sense of dread. 2018 had been a relatively good year for me; unlike 2017, when I went through a series of emotional ups and downs, 2018 had seen me settle in Canada, find some healthy routines in my work and my social life, and adopt my beloved Dottie.
And yet, I still didn’t feel satisfied. I still wasn’t sure if I was capital H happy. And if I wasn’t sure that I was totally happy, it made me think I probably WASN’T totally happy… right?
But let’s go all the way back, shall we?
I was what you might call a “sensitive child” (my mum is definitely saying “mm-hmm” right now). I was very easily overcome by emotion, and prone to dramatics. For as long as I can remember, I have written journals full of entries that all had the same general thoughts and worries: what am I doing with my life? How can I be a better person? What will ultimately lead me to happiness? And, you know, all those other overly-ambitious, quasi-existential, 110% naval-gazing thoughts of a teenager bursting at the seams to do something different, be someone different.
As I got older, however, those thoughts never really left me (see: this entire blog). I was constantly worried that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. I never seemed to be satisfied, no matter which of my goals I accomplished. I would constantly lie in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering why nothing I did felt like enough.
That attitude trickled down to my personal relationships, too. I never felt good enough in my friendships or romantic relationships; thoughts of, “But why would they want to be with ME?” plagued me to the point of sabotaging relationships that might have been very good without all of my doubts and my fears.
Throughout my 20s, I grew accustomed to constant ups and downs. The extreme high of travelling through Southeast Asia followed by the low of having no money and having to return home, for example. I convinced myself that I was only happiest – perhaps that I was only happy at all – when I was travelling, when I was on the road. Like every pseudo-inspirational travel quote you see on Pinterest or Instagram, I thought I could only be “free” or happy if I had the wind in my hair, the road at my back.
And let me tell you… that is some BULLSHIT. I feel embarrassed to have perpetrated that myth for as long as I did.
OK, I really was this happy in Colombia
Because what took me a very long time to learn and to ACTUALLY absorb – I just turned 35, after all – is that happiness is what you make it. It took me breaking down, and breaking down HARD, to realize that being on the road does not automatically equal happiness and fulfilment. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly can, but LOTS of things can. I was placing travelling on such a pedestal that I failed to take a look at what else might make me really happy, too.
It’s cheesy as, well, cheese… but you truly have to be happy with yourself first. It’s just like my idol RuPaul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else. Can I get an a-men?”
AMEN, Ru. Amen.
And yes, I had heard all of those sayings before. I had to love myself, I had to find happiness within, etc, etc, blah blah blah. But how in tha fuck do you actually put all of that into action?
That’s what the past five months of my life have been about. That’s what a huge part of this healthy journey has been about.
When I started going to the gym and eating really healthy, I knew there would always be a third component to feeling my best: I had to strengthen my mental health as well.
Because now let’s go a couple of years back, shall we?
Around 2015, I started to feel very, very sad. As I had mentioned, I have always been quite sensitive, and used to feeling ~feelings~. I was OK with letting myself cry, or feel anger, and I would often lean into those emotions.
But by 2016, I knew something was off. I used to be able to associate my sadness with an external event: the end of a relationship, let’s say, or feeling stressed with work. I knew to look out for a monthly bout of malaise in relation to my period. But by summer of 2016, I was sad all the time.
I started having panic attacks. I counted down the days until I could escape London for a weekend and fly to a new destination, but when I got to said destination all I wanted to do was go home. I had no desire to make new friends or meet up with existing friends, but I felt horrible and listless spending night after night alone in my apartment. I drank at the pub every night, because at least I was surrounded by people and the alcohol could distract me. I ate like shit. I didn’t take care of my body at all. I would lie in bed at night and think of all the ways I was a failure. There were some days I couldn’t think of one reason to get out of bed.
Despite all of these warning signs of a serious depression, I refused to seek help. I refused to showcase any vulnerability. “My life is amazing!” I kept telling myself, again and again. “I live in London and get to travel the world for a living!” I’d tell myself night after night through sobs. I spent hours upon hours on the internet, sometimes spending whole evenings playing mindless games or browsing online shopping sites. Anything to pass the time, anything to distract me from how I was really feeling.
A trip to East Africa for two months in 2017 shook things up, and I was once again rejuvenated. By the end of those two months, however, I went right back to feeling miserable. The latter half of 2017 was one of the lowest periods I’ve ever experienced, to the point where I was unable to stop crying or get out of bed. I was also plagued by near-constant sciatica pain, so there were times I couldn’t get out of bed physically as well as mentally. It was the pits.
Of course, if you go back through this blog or its social media, there was nary a mention of this; you’ll see happy photos of Cinque Terre and Austria, or maybe smiles in Berlin or Nagoya. It was this period of my life that made me realize I desperately needed to make a huge change.
After nearly five years in London, yes, my visa was indeed expiring. The truth is, however, I could have stayed somehow. I could have made it work. The truth is that I was simply too sad, simply too vulnerable and weak to stay there. I moved back to Canada for many reasons, but my mental health was reason number one.
And so, I moved home. 2017 was one of the worst years of my life, but 2018 was much better. As mentioned, I settled in my lovely little house, I reconnected with my family and friends, and I adopted Dottie, who in seven short months has become the love of my life. I slowed down. I booked travels and then cancelled them, finally listening to what I truly wanted and truly needed. My mental health thanked me considerably.
But still, I knew I could be stronger. I still cried a lot, often feeling lonely and restless. I often lacked motivation, and as a freelancer who works from home, I was starting to allow myself to get lazier and lazier. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, or so it has been said, and I know from history that I need to have a busy, full schedule in order to feel my best.
When I woke up that cold January morning, the first morning of the new year, I told myself it was time to get healthy. That meant the gym, sure, but it also meant prioritizing my mental health and focusing on being the best version of myself that I could be. It also meant making sure that I felt motivated and busy, leading to more fulfilment in my work and my personal life.
So what are the changes I’ve made to strengthen my mental health?
The biggest and most important change I’ve made is to limit my time online. I have, for the past decade or so, used the internet as a crutch whenever I felt bored or lonely. All of that mindless scrolling, of course, only exasperated my lack of motivation.
In the past, I would spend almost all of my waking hours online. That sounds disgusting, I know, but it’s the truth. I would immediately reach for my phone while still lying in bed, and could easily spend an hour or two just scrolling on Facebook or Instagram before getting up.
Before January, I’d grab my laptop and work from wherever I felt like it; sometimes my desk in my office, but often from bed or the couch. On the laptop, I’d quickly become distracted and start scrolling or browsing again. I’d eat dinner in front of the TV, phone in hand, scrolling Facebook while watching a series. In the bath at night, I’d be on Instagram. In bed, the same… constant scrolling, a constant barrage of information and images. The last thing I’d see before I shut my eyes was my phone’s screen.
I don’t need to tell you just how fucking unhealthy this behaviour is, but I also don’t need to tell you that most of us are probably guilty of it.
Starting in January, I decided to cut back the time I spend online considerably. I went from being online anywhere from eight to (gulp) fourteen hours a day to approximately one to six hours a day, depending on work or the day of the week. I can’t even really tell you how I limited my time online, but one of the biggest changes I made was to purchase a desktop computer. It was so important to me to differentiate that space, because in the past my laptop was both for work and for fun. Now I know that, when I sit at my desk, I’m there to work.
As soon as I cut down on the time spent online, my life instantly got better.
Even more interesting… I didn’t miss being online at all.
The most noticeable change was that I had SO MUCH MORE TIME. So much more time to cook and write and read and walk with Dottie. All of that time was just sitting there, waiting for me to take advantage of it, and I was lying on my couch watching some Instagrammer unpack a box of free makeup. Like… what?
I started enjoying other forms of entertainment so much more. When I watch a movie, I watch a movie. I don’t watch a movie and do something on my phone at the same time. I started reading so much more again, reading as voraciously as I used to… you know, before the Internet took over all of our lives. I’ll put on a record and just sit there and I listen to it, just like an old man from the 40s or something. I love it.
I stopped comparing myself to others as much, so my self-esteem and confidence grew almost overnight. I unfollowed or muted anyone who made me feel bad about myself, because you don’t owe anyone your follow or your like or your view. I used to follow so many other bloggers because I felt like I had to, not because I wanted to. In today’s petty-ass world, it can feel like a VERY BIG DEAL to unfollow someone you personally know, or someone you’re supposed to follow. But seriously? We’re adults. Also, that’s what the mute button is for, hah. Just do it. It feels glorious.
I just felt more awake. I wasn’t constantly glued to my phone, staring down while the world passed me by. Go anywhere in public these days – on the subway or at an airport or even at goddamn restaurants where people are out for a meal with each other – and almost everyone is staring at their phones. I realized how bad it was making me feel to be so attached to a device.
I also felt so much less pressure to perform, so much less pressure to be perfect. In the past, I was giving myself shit because my photos weren’t professional, because I wasn’t gaining tons of new followers, because I wasn’t getting thousands of likes. I would tell myself over and over again that those things didn’t matter, that all of the people I was comparing myself to literally spend four to twelve hours a day on the platform (I’m not joking), and yet I STILL felt bad.
Do you know how you stop feeling bad about Instagram? You stop going on Instagram. These days, I have a much healthier relationship with it, only spending a bit of time on the app if I feel like posting something (like recent photos from a trip to Europe). I’m never going to be a professional Instagrammer – who knows if that will even be a thing in a year – so why the hell was I allowing it to affect my life so much?!
Honestly, I can’t even tell you what I was looking at or doing online for all of those hours. All I know is that now, I try to limit my online time to work and work only, with the exception of reading the news in the morning. Of course, this means I’m working much more efficiently, becoming way more productive, and ultimately feeling so much more motivated. I’m also only looking at the updates from people I actually really like, so I enjoy the limited time I spend on social media.
Limiting my time online to a fraction of what it used to be has been, by far, the biggest and best change to my mental health over the past five months.
I go outside as often as I can. This is, of course, connected to spending less time online. Even in the freezing cold, I made sure to spend at least an hour outside, every single day. It helps that I have Dottie to walk, but now that it’s beautiful outside I spend many hours in my garden every day, and I’m outside with Dottie for at least an hour or two. I’m not the only one who thinks that spending time outdoors impacts my mental and physical health; it’s been scientifically proven to have multiple health benefits.
I work from home and so this is much easier for me to do than others, but I imagine even going for a quick walk at lunch will have amazing benefits.
I am active every single day. No matter what, I have to walk 10,000 steps a day. So far this year, I’ve missed only a few days (long travel days in Europe last month, for example). On top of that, I go to the gym every day; some days are super active, with a really intense workout, while other days I take it easy and just do some light cardio or weights. Still, focusing on being active has played a HUGE part in how I feel emotionally.
Now I can’t picture my life without being active. On days when I’m feeling a bit low, I head to the gym; I know that the adrenaline and the activity will instantly make me feel a bit better. I’m also looking into various classes and lessons to really mix up my exercise and activity.
I focus on eating healthy food that feeds both my body and my brain. I’ll admit that a few months ago I would have read that sentence and groaned, but I noticed HUGE changes both physically and mentally once I focused on eating food that was actually good for me.
It’s not rocket science… if I eat a bunch of fatty, sugary foods and drink a bunch of booze, yeah, I feel like shit. If I eat lots of nutrient-rich food that my body needs, then yeah, I will feel really good. These days I have so much more physical energy, which means I have so much more mental energy.
I focused on strong, healthy friendships. I was so fucking lonely in London, I really was. I felt like I was in the coolest city in the world but I had nobody to share it with. That loneliness was a huge factor in my decision to come home. I had friends in London, don’t get me wrong… but many of my friends were incredibly busy with work, or lived really far away, or were travel bloggers themselves (so finding time when we were both in the city at the same time was nigh on impossible). With the exception of a few, I felt like I had dozens of acquaintances in London, but very few good friends.
When I moved back to Canada, I had a few solid friendships already, plus the support of my family. Over the past six months, however, I’ve made tons of new friends, most of them at the gym (which just goes to show that the gym really can help your mental health as well). Because I’m in a good space right now, I must be putting out that good energy; I’m also very open to new friendships, and am quick to suggest hanging out with someone new.
All I can say is that, this time last year, I was pretty desperate to make social plans. Now? I relish in having a few nights off from plans a week.
Hand in hand with this is that I let a few of my former friendships fade away. I had to take a hard look at how some of the people – even some people who had been in my life for years and years – were making me feel. Today I only want to be friends with truly supportive people, and with people who are just as interested in being friends with me as I am with them. I wouldn’t put up with a boyfriend constantly blowing me off, making me feel like shit, or not calling/texting when they said they would, so why would I put up with that from a friend?
…and I stopped worrying about dating. Throughout my 20s, I was in a few longterm relationships. While there were good moments, overall they were really emotionally draining. I’m not just blaming my exes here, as I was equally to blame. I wasn’t very mature in those relationships, and I was horrendously needy and sensitive.
Throughout my 30s, I’ve dated off and on, resulting in a few relationships. When I broke up with my last boyfriend last autumn, I immediately jumped on Tinder. A few horrible dates later, I thought about what I was really trying to do, who I was really trying to meet.
I quickly realized that, whenever I feel like shit in my life, I believe that a significant other will make me feel better. You see how messed up that is, right? That is the WORST way to start a relationship, and it would result in said neediness. I have always said that I want to have a very happy life, and that if somebody comes along to add to that life, all the better. The problem is, I wasn’t putting that into practice.
Since working on my physical and mental health, I haven’t dated at all. That’s not to say I’ve been a nun – ahem – but I haven’t actively tried to date. And of course, as I’m feeling so much better and so much happier… I haven’t felt the need to date, either.
These days, nearly six months into this journey, I feel ready and open to meet someone. I feel like I would be a much better partner than I would have been six years ago, or even six months ago. If it happens, great. If not, I know I’m going to be happy either way.
I practice gratitude daily. This sounds like some hippie bullshit that I would be rolling my eyes at, trust me, but fuck… I love life right now. I have a roof over my head (that I own!), a family and group of friends that love me, my health, an amazing dog, and a great job. I get to travel whenever I want. I am one of the most privileged people on the planet. Why would I not be thinking of how thankful I am every single day?!
Though I’m not into meditation (yet… I’m doing everything else I said I’d never do, so who knows), every single day I try to spend at least five minutes thinking of everything I’m happy about. A few years ago, when there were days I couldn’t get out of bed, I remember racking my brain to think of one thing I was happy about, one thing that would make me stand up and start the day.
Is everything perfect and lovely all the time in my life now? Of course not. But I believe that daily gratitude, when coupled with everything else on this list, has made me much more laidback, much more able to deal with smaller annoyances, and much more willing to jump out of bed, excited to start the day.
Of course it’s cool that I can fit into old clothes again, and that my skin is clearer, and that I have more physical energy. But these mental changes? These changes have been the very best ones of all, and I can’t wait to see what the next six months bring.
So that’s it… just some of the changes I’ve made to strengthen my mental health. Up next I’ll be sharing the results of all of this healthy living, so stay tuned… and thanks for being online and reading a blog post that is actively telling you to get offline, I appreciate it, hah.
Do you take steps to strengthen your mental health?
Please note: I am not in any way an expert in this field. I simply wanted to share what I have done over the past few months to try to strengthen my own mental health. I hate that there is so much stigma surrounding mental health, especially when so many of us deal with it every single day. Although I didn’t include therapy on this list, I am very much in support of seeking external help; I definitely should have done that for myself when I was in my lowest places.
I’m so happy for you, Brenna! Depression is not an easy thing to crawl out of. Believe me, I know. Two books I recommend: “Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It” by Kamal Ravikant is a little $5 book that basically tells you to repeat the mantra that you love yourself — all of the time — and that’s how you do it. I thought it was nuts, but after daily practice, and now remembering what happened, I know this is a book I should pick up again.
Also “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. It doesn’t jive with some, but it’s basically my Bible. If it does nothing for you, hang onto it and pick it up again in a year. RuPaul also said, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Remember that this life you wear — the past you drag around with you and the future you keep trying to reach — doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is the present. And if that’s not a clean slate, I don’t know what is. 🙂
Good luck with your journey Brenna, it looks like you’re going to rock the personal development!
Thank you so much, Veronika!!
So proud of you! This is amazing! Taking lots of tips for myself here too – I need it! 🙂
Love you xx
Woo hoo! This was a lovely and happy-making post 🙂
Aw, thank you so much, Sarah! 🙂
Thank you so much for this honest post. I feel like so many bloggers try to write like you do, but you’re the only one I can actually relate to. Keep writing, I’ll always keep reading x
Aw, thank you so much, Julia! That really means a lot to me. 🙂
This is a lovely, positive post. How do your new habits fit in with your travel schedule? Do you still feel as good mentally and physically when you’re on the road? Is part of looking out for your mental health travelling less?
I was thinking of addressing that in a separate post, because part of looking out for my mental health is absolutely about travelling less. I don’t feel as healthy when I travel, no, and travelling was really starting to take its toll on me over the years. Over the past year, I’ve focused on less flights but bigger trips… so instead of 20 trips in a year like 2015, this year I’ll only really take two big trips (Italy and the Balkans in April, South Africa and Mozambique in October). This also means I get way more excited for these big trips and have a bit more time to digest them and prepare for them. Thanks for your comment, Ellie!
This post was so inspirational! I am always telling myself I need to cut back on my time online (those hours go by so fast!!) but implementing it is another thing altogether. One of the things I love about traveling is getting away from my computer and all those hours spent online. You have so many great ideas here, thank you for sharing and as always, for being so open and honest. It’s why I’ll always stop what I’m doing to read your posts… because they’re so fucking awesome 🙂
Aw, thank you so much, Tova! I’m so glad that you like reading the blog. 🙂 I also love getting offline, I try to do it whenever possible now, ha ha! I still get caught up on my phone sometimes, but I’m really trying to spend far less time staring at a screen. Thanks again 🙂
Very inspiring series. Thanks so much for sharing.
Thank you so much, Kate!
Just disconnected and blocked someone on social media – yay!!
This was a great read. I have followed your travels intermittently!
Thanks so much for sharing!!
Ha ha amazing! It feels so good, especially when you know it’s for the best. Thank you so much for following along, Martha!
Thank you so much for being so honest about everything, I can relate so much. Just about to go unfollow a bunch of people in Instagram, ha ha 😉
Ha ha way to go, Heather! 😉 Thanks for reading.
Hah, I was also thinking how ironic it is to be on my phone reading this! But for your writing it’s worth it. I definitely found myself on this post, especially when it comes to spending too much time on my phone… It’s a hard habit to break but I have to start cutting down my online time too and find other things to fill my time! Anyway, thanks for being so transparent about your struggles. It’s great to know you’re feeling better and I hope it continues to be like that!
Fantastic post Breena! This post shows that your values have changed, and seem to be much more positive for you and the people in your life. That’s not easy growth for a lot of people. I would recommend “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck” by Mark Mason if you haven’t read it already. It’s a great look into evaluating and changing values, of giving yourself the opportunity to be happy. The kind of happy that works for you, not the happy people post online to hide from the real world. As someone who has struggled with mental health for 20 years I can only say Yes! yes! Yes! To each of your statements, I would also add “laugh” as a step, do something that makes you laugh for 5 minutes a day, it does wonders. And would recommend anyone who is feeling a little beaten up to talk to their doctor or seek out counselling. If you get the right personality fit there they can be worth their weight in gold. And if its too expensive, or your not sure, there are some amazing MH apps out there, Youper is fantastic and can be accessed any time.
As always, thank you for an honest and well thought out post. Your work is inspiring and I’m so happy to see a fellow Canadian follow their healthy passions.
Mental Health is so important and it is so amazing to see people, like you spreading awareness and putting out their survival stories out there for those who are struggling. Such an inspirational post.
Aw, thank you very much, Selena! 🙂
What a wonderful, honest reflection to share – good luck to you, Brenna! I’ve often consulted your blog for travel ideas and came to it this evening while brainstorming a travel sabbatical I hope to have next year, but this post is so moving I could not but comment on it. I also believe books are a real source of wellbeing and comfort, and that limiting my screen time directly correlates with my mental health. I’m even considering gifting myself a bibliotherapy course (bespoke book recommendations from a counsellor) for my upcoming 33rd birthday!
Cheers to you, and whatever adventures come your way next!
Good article. Thanks for sharing..
Hai Brena! Im from Malaysia, i wish you best of luck for your future! Fill your heart with love, love yourself before love others. I will pray you will meet your prince charming!
That was a long read. You might be the sensitive child, I was accused of being the ‘troubled’ child while growing up…
To hell all these nicknames, we should all focus to be the best that we can. 🙂
Reading this in 2020 🙂
I love your writing… so candid…and relatable. Thank you for sharing. I hope someday I’m able to write like you.