Checking in: five ways I’ve been prioritising “me”

As Mental Health Awareness Week is upon us, I thought it fitting to write a post on how I’ve been looking after myself recently and check in with you all.

April was an incredibly busy month for me and May has started all guns blazing.

I like being busy. I often thrive under pressure and do well in adapting to stressful situations. However, when life gets busy, I often forget to prioritise “me” time. I use the same excuses we all do: I’ll come back to it later, I’m too busy to stop, it’s on my list, in a minute…

This works for a while. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep pushing through. In times of emergency, critical issues or deadlines. Handling pressure, getting comfortable with uncertainty, and adaptability are all attributes I pride myself on and drive me in my work. But – and it’s a big one – these peaks need to have their troughs.

I used to find it incredibly difficult to “relax”. On days off work if I didn’t have plans I’d create a new side-project or – worse – end up silently working when I said I wouldn’t. I’d clean my house top to bottom, decide today’s the day to clear out my wardrobe, stock my shelves, ticking off all the things on my imaginary lists avoiding that dreaded down-time. When I stopped I felt wasteful, even useless. But, I also used to sit deep in my thoughts and when my mental health was poor this was the last thing I wanted.

A few years into recovery from anxiety and burnout, some professional help and a year of on-and-off lockdowns later, I now cherish this down-time. I learned the hard way that I am far more productive, healthy and happy when I pause.

So, I thought to share five ways that I’ve been prioritising “me” time during a busy period with the aim that it’ll inspire you to pause and check-in with how you’re doing, no matter how busy you are:

Connecting with nature everyday

In line with this year’s MHAW theme, I’ve found connecting with nature everyday helps ground me and keep me focussed. My happy place is by the sea, but I live in central London and I’m not always good at going outside during working hours, so I tend to wake up early and head out for a short stroll. On these walks I make a conscious effort to notice five natural elements and make a mental note. I often take times in the day when I’m at home to do the same, I look out of my window or go onto my terrace and find something that helps bring me calm. More tips on how to connect with nature wherever you are here.

Eating food that makes me happy

Those of you who’ve been following me a while know I love to cook. Cooking is a relaxing activity for me that allows me to get creative, have time to myself where I’m not looking at a screen and I don’t have the pressure to perform. When I’m stressed, I have been known to forget to eat or delay lunch breaks until hunger is the only reason I leave my desk. So, I’ve got into the habit of stocking my fridge with tasty meals I know I will love to eat or ingredients that will be fun to cook with after work. I recently signed up to allplants to give me an easy go-to meal on days I know I’ll be busy, but I prioritise food that I know will put a smile on my face.

P.S. when you need it – order that takeaway. After a stressful week last week my housemate and I ordered burgers and fries and it honestly brought me so much joy.

Getting active without performance pressure

I work with an incredible personal trainer (see my Coffee Q&A with Hannah here), and once a week we have a session that always leaves me feeling motivated, energised and refreshed. However, I haven’t always felt calm around exercise. As someone with a history of an adolescent eating disorder, I find fitness tracking very difficult. I’ve dipped in and out of it over the years, but I just don’t like it. Working with a trainer is a luxury, but it has enabled me to work towards non-aesthetic goals without constantly tracking my performance. I would advise any of you looking to get active to leave the trackers behind. Just head out for a walk/run/cycle/skate with no limits and have fun with it. Exercise should be about enjoyment and celebration of what your body and mind can do – not stress and frustration over what it can’t.

This past year, I’ve also re-ignited my love of skateboarding. I was one of those teens who anxiously wanted to be a cool-skateboarder but really just rolled up and down the road and hung around in skateparks after school chatting with my mates. But in the first lockdown in 2020, I bought myself a Penny board and have been taking it (almost) everywhere I go. When I skate I can’t be on my phone, I have to pay attention to what’s around me, and I have to get over the fear of falling. Getting back on my board – whether it’s 15 mins or 3 hours – has boosted my confidence immeasurably in recent months and given me a reason to get outside.

Writing down my ideas

If, like me, you are someone prone to the side-hustle-self-learning-non-stop-cycle and are likely to want to get stuck into a new topic or project immediately when the idea hits you: get a journal or create notes on your phone. When you have a moment to yourself it can be easy to slip into thoughts like “what should I be doing right now?” or “I’ve got X minutes, what can I do in that time?”.

Avoid yourself filling up white space with endless activities and tasks. Jot down your ideas and save them for later. Be purposeful with your work, project and rest time. Rest and recovery is as important as all that learning you’ve been doing. If it’s a great idea or fun topic, you’ll make time for it.

Practicing saying no

I used to be terrible at this. I thought saying no meant losing an opportunity, disappointing people or even creating enemies. I spent a summer even consciously saying yes to everything to pull me out of my comfort zone (not that I needed that much encouragement…). But, saying yes to everything isn’t helpful to your development nor the people you’ve said yes to. If you have too much on your plate you’ll do a worse job, and that’s not good for anyone involved.

This goes for social situations too. I often meet up with friends and tell them in advance whether I’m up for drinking or not, how late I intend to stay out or what else I’ve got going on. Being open in my communication with my loved ones has meant expectations are set but also we all feel respected in our time. If I’m in a bad mood and really need to sleep, I’ll cancel, if I don’t want to stay out late I usually have a reason. Once I started practising this with those around me I noticed my friends did it more in return, it was easier to be open with one another and there were no hurt feelings.

Respect yourself and those around you by practising the word “no”. Communicate your feelings and existing commitments with compassion and make sure your wellbeing is considered in these decisions.

If you identified with any of the topics or experiences shared in this post and feel you would like to talk to someone, please reach out to your GP, contact Mind, or the Anxiety UK helpline. And if you feel like things are too much, please call Samaritans on 116 123 💚

And for employers – if you’d like to talk about how to make your workplace more supportive – please reach out. I am a mental health first-aider and speaker with experience working to de-stigmatise mental health conversations in the workplace and creating company mental health policies with central HR teams.

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