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How I beat anxiety and depression

About a year ago I was suffering with anxiety and depression. I set out to cure it through alternative means: diet, exercise and meditation. I called it my Eat Pray Sweat challenge, and I pledged to document my experience on this blog.

But I didn’t.

I don’t need to tell you that depressed and anxious people are inherently demotivated when they’re anxious and depressed. I had every intention of sharing my experience. But the level of control and discipline that was required to execute that ambitious lifestyle (let alone to write about it everyday) turned my already high-strung, perfectionist self into a tizzy.

Looking back I realized that by trying to exert so much control over my food, exercise and mood, I ended up making myself worse. It was an insane amount of pressure to put on myself at a time when all I really needed was some tender loving self-care.

But the great news is, that time has passed – as all things do – and I’m feeling amazing and happy and excited about life. So I thought it only appropriate to share the good news.

This was not the first time I suffered with depression, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The idea of that used to scare the crap out of me…

The thought that I would spend the rest of my life battling anxiety and depression really made me feel like there was no point to living. I mean really, what was the point if every few years I would have to go through this prolonged period of unbearable pain and agony?

People get really concerned and uptight when you speak like this, and I totally get it. We should 100% take any mention of “no point to living” or “wanting to end it” seriously. For me, personally, the fear of killing myself has always trumped the desire to stop living. And I’m grateful that it’s never gotten to that point for me.

But the point I’m trying to make is this: The fact that my anxious and depressed tendencies will return no longer scares me. So what if every few years I’ll feel like dying? Maybe that’s just the price I have to pay to have all these amazing things in my life like a supportive spouse, a relationship with my family, my friends, my brains, my education, my career. I’m so blessed to live the life I have that those periods of anxiety and depression seem like a small price to pay. I could be missing limbs, I could be chained up as a prisoner in some pervert’s sex cage, I could be in a refugee camp in Syria.

I know what you may be thinking – I’m only saying this now because I’m in a healthy phase. And you’re probably right. But when it happens to me again you bet I’ll be using this strategy to try and make myself better. Because the thing is, it’s down to us – me, you – to make ourselves better. No one else can do it.

Maybe doctors and pharmaceutical companies can take the edge off – and of course it depends on your type of mental illness, I’m not purporting that schizophrenics stop taking their meds – but I think the day-to-day self-care should not be overlooked when it comes to recovery. (As I feel like it most often is…)

Coming through this second bout of anxiety and depression taught me something that I didn’t learn the last time. Maybe it has something to do with my age during my latest experience (30). But what really worked for me this time around was acceptance.

 

Acceptance

It’s very hard to describe what acceptance is or how it feels like. It’s just kind of like this a-ha moment that never comes when you will it to, it only comes when little good things pile up.

I suspect it’s similar to what most spiritual teachers refer to as a moment of awakening. If you’ve ever heard of or read Eckhart Tolle, he describes the moment he exited his suicidal mindset into a state of complete presence and bliss as the moment he separated from his mind.

I much prefer the way Michael Singer describes it (his moment of awakening). He was sitting on the couch with his brother-in-law, experiencing an awkward silence, when he realized the voice inside his head was going crazy coming up ideas to end the awkwardness. He turned to his brother-in-law and said, “Do you ever notice there’s a voice inside your head telling you what to do all the time?”

Not only is it funny, but this description is a lot more relatable. Michael describes the voice in our heads as one that’s constantly trying to exert a preference over every thing we do and every situation in life (i.e. our likes, dislikes, loves and hates): I.e. “Here comes Rebecca. I don’t like her, quick lets walk in the other direction.”

The premise of Michael’s book documents his 40+ years of saying yes to wherever the flow of life takes him. The funny thing is, he’s this hippie who lives on a spiritual commune near Gainesville, Florida, yet he’s the creator of a multi-billion dollar public software company. His life story and his approach to describing awareness, or presence or whatever you want to call it, has really helped me to surrender and accept my life.

 

Acceptance vs. Resistance

Acceptance and resistance don’t go together. Resistance will destroy acceptance any chance it gets. The two opposing forces are always at odds, but it’s the resistance (or ego as some people call it) that is so strong and powerful within us that by default it will always win.

I like to think it’s because resistance is something we as a species know quite naturally. Our minds are hard-wired for survival – and resistance to the elements, predators, sickness and tribes, is what led to this survival.

Luckily, we no longer have to kill people or food with our bare-hands in order to survive. But sadly, our minds haven’t adapted to our new, cushy existence. Instead, our minds are running rampant, scanning situations, events and stimuli and treating it all as a potential threat.

Julie didn’t text me back, maybe that means she’s mad at me. What should I do?”

“My boss asked me for a meeting – oh god she’s firing me because I handled xx badly.”

Our minds are constantly moving, like a hamster on a wheel. It’s thinking about what tasks we need to do next, that scene from Narcos we watched last night, or what new pair of shoes we want to buy. It’s just endless chatter.

Acceptance is trying not to resist or silence these thoughts. That’s an impossible task that will just drive you mad. You will never win. The key, instead, is to just observe them when you can. If a thought pops into your head that evokes anger or fear – as is most often the case – don’t try to stifle it. Just say, “Oh hey, that’s anger. Interesting.”

The goal is not trying to fight it, rather, just accepting that it’s there, and that it’s normal.

This same concept of acceptance can be expanded to a larger scale. I’ll use an example from my life to illustrate.

Last year, when I was steeped in anxiety and depression, I made the decision to quit my job without another one lined up. You can read about that experience here.

Now, my mind kept saying to me “This is a bad idea. What are you going to do on Monday when you have nowhere to go or nothing to do? What are you going to do if you run out of money? You better find something to do soon because people are going to think you’re work-shy …”

And on and on it went.

To be honest, I felt like there was a ton of bullshit in the company (which is true for every big company) and I felt like I was wasting my life. A job like that requires you to focus on stuff that does not matter. Well, maybe it matters to some people, but trying to get Joe in the web team to prioritize my project over Sue’s didn’t matter to me.

I was just this tiny cog in a big, corporate multi-billion pound machine and I had zero connection to my work.

One of my excuses for quitting – other than “I don’t want to work here anymore” – was that I wanted to start my own business or go freelance. I just wanted to be self-employed, and I wanted to find my passion, something that I loved to do and was good at, so my work wouldn’t feel like work anymore.

So once the job ended, I set out to find that one singular passion. Which is actually a terrible exercise for someone going through depression and anxiety, spending weeks or months going inside your head to find the things of your past that brought you happiness or contentment. The last thing a depressed and/or anxious person needs is to be more self-centered. Am I right?

But needless to say, I made myself busy by experimenting with things I thought I would like to do. This involved trying out roles in the food and hospitality industry. I always loved cooking, remember my Cook with Brooke videos?

So I made some calls, sent some emails and lined up two waitressing / chef-ing gigs. I don’t need to tell you how hard those jobs are. Cooking at home for personal enjoyment is entirely different to cooking or serving in a restaurant. It’s a dirty, tiring, thankless job that pays almost nothing.

But the positive side of that situation was I realized the grass isn’t always greener. It made me appreciate my skills and experience in marketing, and it turned me back on the right path to what I’m doing now, which is marketing for our software development business.

But the point of this story is not to encourage you to try out loads of things at a time when you’re feeling extremely uncertain about yourself. Some people would say this is the best time to do it. I, on the other hand would say do it, but only if you feel like it will truly make you feel better.

If you’re experience an anxious and/or depressed episode, then the last thing you need is search for buried treasure – because the thing is, you’re never going to find it.

It finds you.

And trust me when I say that we all have numerous passions – not just one singular passion. (The idea that there’s only one special role for us out there is a delusion.)

I left my job in September, did the restaurant gigs in October, and by November I gave up and surrendered. I took the rest of the year off to chill out. By January I realized that I wanted to join my boyfriend’s software development business. He had built something substantial up in a short period of time, and it really needed my help to get off the ground.

Everything fell into place when I just stopped resisting and exerting control over my life. The urgency you feel when you need to kick this depression or find that dream job or life partner, or whatever it is you’re searching for, does nothing but make the journey worse. Just sit back and relax. You’ll get there when you get there.

 

Get a little bit of action everyday

People are really funny when it comes to being active. They think you need to spend hours at the gym or get your ass kicked by a boot camp instructor to be exercising. It’s such a clichéd idea, but the single, most important, biggest impact thing I did to get better was start being active again.

I did Kayla Itnines’ Bikini Body Guide and made myself practically throw up at the gym 3 times a week. But I also started walking around my neighbourhood – and that proved to be a lot more sustainable, not to mention more enjoyable.

At the time I lived near Victoria Park – this massive park in the east end of London. I would walk around the perimeter everyday. I’d listen to podcasts and would swing by the store and pick up dinner on my way home. It was a great habit.

A few years ago I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. As part of the book I had to write down my values in order of importance. The purpose of this exercise was to get you to re-write your values so you choose the ones that help and support you in achieving your dreams. For example, if your dream is to travel the world, but one of your greatest values in life is stability, then maybe you should relegate it to the bottom of the list – because that value is not going to help you in your pursuit of being a world traveller.

The value I put as number one – even above “love” or “family” – was health. From my previous bout of depression I knew that if I didn’t have my health, I couldn’t love and I couldn’t live! So for the past 3 years I’ve been saying together with my partner Mark that health is the most important thing in life.

Because of this we take health very seriously. We go for walks every night after dinner and try to spend our weekends doing something active like cycling or spinning, or just walking around the London markets.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect. I smoke a little bit of marijuana from time-to-time and we both love gluttonous food (I’ll talk more about that later…). But we spend a lot of our time trying to be physically active together.

I follow a 5-10 minute Lead Machines workout on YouTube everyday in my living room (check out these blokes they are so cute and loveable), and Mark cycles to and from work. These low-commitment routines have really compounded, and we both feel amazing.

So if you’re currently suffering from anxiety and/or depression, download Serial or your favourite podcast and just head out the door, down the street, and around the block. Do it now and I’ll continue the rest of the story when you get back…

 

Meditation

Meditation is something I set out to do in my Eat Pray Sweat challenge, and though I made a go at it, I really struggled to maintain it.

I used to use the Headspace app but found every level I progressed became increasingly complicated. I would be following the steps and labelling my thoughts, and before I knew it I was spending the whole session just trying to label everything that came to mind. I felt like this wasn’t conducive to chilling out, so I stopped doing it.

If you’ve tried meditating and you don’t like it, it’s probably because you don’t understand what you’re supposed to be doing. At least that’s what happened to me! I would just sit there, frustrated, trying to suppress all the thoughts that came into my head. Again, recipe for disaster.

I would often mix between the Headspace and Calm apps. But more recently, I’ve preferred the simplicity of the Calm one.

The great thing about Calm is that it tracks the number of times you meditate in a calendar. It also tells you when you’re on an xx-day streak – which is super motivating because it encourages you to push that streak as far as you can go.

After taking a six-month break, I sat down to try meditating again. I used the Calm app and did a ten minute timed session. After the session was over, a screen popped up notifying me that I had just completed my 100th session. I felt like it was a sign to keep going, and try to reach 200 as quickly as possible. I’m now meditating twice a day, once in the morning after breakfast, and once in the afternoon, and I’m really seeing the effects it has on my mood.

So if meditating frustrates you, you’re not alone! It frustrated me for the first year and a half that I tried it! But I knew that so many people who lived peaceful and fulfilling lives swear by meditation, so I always had a desire to crack meditation for myself – to really feel the benefits of it.

Again, this might all sound cliché – eat right, exercise and meditate – but from my experience, little efforts in these three areas go a long way. I found doing 5 minutes of exercise in the morning in my living room has done more for my body then hitting the gym 3 times a week. Sitting and meditating for 10 minutes twice a day with zero expectation as to how it’s going to go has also been a remarkable experience.

Now food…I can’t talk about my mental health without talking about food.

 

Food: My Frenemy

I’m not going to lie…this is one area of my health that I struggle with so much. I have such a hard time achieving balance when it comes to food, it sometimes can be exhausting.

I find that if I allow myself a little bit of wine, or a little bit of sweets, I just want more more more. It’s scientifically proven that sugar is addictive, and that’s why we crave it more when we consume it. But for the last 15 years of my life (basically 50% of my life) I’ve been somewhat an emotional eater. Not to the point of obesity or diabetes, but I find it very difficult to moderate when it comes to food, alcohol and marijuana. Because of this, I often find myself craving the control that a detox affords.

When I was seeing a dietician, I found the experience thrilling at first. We were going through my diet on a forensic level, and she was telling me all these things I should and shouldn’t eat. Like I shouldn’t eat vinegar of any kind, or chocolate, or dates. I should go easy on carbs. I should eat bone broth. Nut butter is ok but not too much…

To be honest, I found her to be all over the place in terms of advice. And I found myself restricting my diet even more under her guidance. It just became impossible to live my life and socialize with people. One week she would tell me with relative seriousness what consuming a particular food would do to my body, then the next week she would tell me I needed to relax.

It wasn’t long after I started working with the dietician (2-3 months maybe) that I realized I had a problem. My constant states of binging followed by detoxing were what some people would consider “unbalanced.” I was always exerting energy by swinging between the two states of gluttony and detox. I felt like I was always trying to achieve balance through going through extremes, but as a result, I was just perpetuating extreme behaviour.

Michael Singer – my favourite spiritual author which I’ve mentioned above – writes about balance in his other book The Untethered Soul:

When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward.

But how do you stop the pendulum from swinging to the outer edges? Amazingly enough, you do this by leaving it alone.

Just let the extremes go. Don’t participate in them, and the pendulum will naturally come toward the center.

The extremes create their opposites; the wise avoid them. Find the balance in the center and you will live in harmony.”

It wasn’t until I read this that it became clear to me that constantly going between the two states (detox and binging) is perpetuating a situation of extremes. With every detox I would spend roughly six weeks avoiding wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, gluten and alcohol. As a consequence, I would crave these substances at the end of the six weeks, I would give myself a weekend of pure, unadulterated consumption. Then the weekend would turn into a week, then two weeks, then all the “good” I did to my body would be undone in my eyes.

It wasn’t just learning about balance through my favourite spiritual author that helped me…

When I was really anxious and depressed, and seeing that dietician, I was really being hard on myself about my diet. I saw diet as the key to my depression, and if I fixed it, I would be better. The dietician suggested that I had control issues around food.

I never could wrap my mind around eating disorders, and I was always so grateful that I never had one growing up. But it started to occur to me that maybe I was developing one…

I read this article by famed food blogger Jordan Younger aka the Balanced Blonde (formerly know as the Vegan Blonde). In it she talks about orthorexia, though not recognized as a clinical disorder in the DSM-5, describes symptoms as the fixation on the virtue and purity of food, and a fear of foods that might “derail perfection”.

Her story struck a chord with me:

“I tried to hide my food fears when I was with other people — and veganism was the perfect cover. Rather than admit my food phobia, I could just claim it was too hard to eat out as a vegan. Meanwhile, the cycle continued: I cleansed, got too hungry, broke down and ate solid food, felt terribly guilty, and rededicated myself to another cleanse — usually a longer one.

I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t have a name for it. My issue didn’t fall into the traditional categories of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Mine was an obsession with healthy, pure, clean foods from the earth, and a fear of anything that might potentially cause my body harm. 

I was trying to control my life through food, and I believed I was worthy and powerful because I treated my body like a temple (which, to me, meant eating nothing but plants). Once I started to let go of that addiction to emptiness and purity, I started to live again. Slowly but surely, I made strides to get my life back.”

After reading that article, I ordered a pizza from Dominos and bought a carton of Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. I felt like I needed to let go in some drastic way and face my fears of unhealthy food by doing something (drastic) yet again. I knew then that I would just have to let go and not be so hard on myself when it came to food – for fear that I would develop this eating disorder further.

I’m not going to lie, I still suffer from this behaviour. As I write this post, I’m five weeks into a six week detox. I’ve justified this by the fact that I’m getting married at the beginning of October and after four months of travelling and eating out every day, I really wanted to slim down for the wedding photos. I realize I’m no further then where I was a year ago, constantly oscillating between detox and not. But my hope is eventually I will achieve that balance in regards to food…One day.

Food is a way for me to exert control over my life, a way for me to achieve perfection. But engaging in this pursuit of perfection is what ultimately makes me depressed and anxious. I have to constantly fight the need to be perfect everyday.

I need to watch my mind’s thoughts around strategizing and planning when it comes to food, “I will end this detox on the day of my wedding and not a moment before – even if it means not enjoying the celebratory meals with my family who have flown 5,000 miles to be here.”

The key to not letting this behavior derail you is awareness and acceptance. It’s not trying to be better, for that “better” is a mental construct of your mind, it’s not a reflection of reality.

Awareness and acceptance is the combo that has worked for me. I realize neither of these two feats are easy, but they’re not impossible either – unlike perfection, which is pretty much impossible!

I’m aware that I suffer from extreme behaviours around food, and from general anxiety and depression. And I’ve accepted that these are my unique struggles. I’ve realized that daily meditation helps me relax through disempowering the mind. And that daily exercise provides me with the exertion I need to feel relaxed in both my mind and body. All I can do is focus on these little daily rituals to feel better. I don’t need to follow a grand plan, or a challenge. I just need to be kind to myself everyday, and do the things that make me feel good in my heart.

I hope this post helps you in some way. And I hope you feel better soon.

Brooke

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