Moving from self-destruct to self-care

Last year we asked our Instagram followers how they recognise when they need more self-care. Some people referenced physical symptoms like tension headaches, spots, illness, being run down, fatigue, and others talked about mental symptoms like not being able to concentrate or speak properly, forgetfulness, depression, anxiety and tension.

A younger me was terrible at self-care

I could relate totally to everything that was said, and I have learned the hard way over the years that self-care really is essential to my happiness and wellbeing. A younger, more naïve me was terrible at self-care and excellent at self-destruction. And I didn’t realise there was a problem with this, which was the dangerous part.

I chose self-destruction instead of self-care

Self-destruction for me in my late teens and early 20s entailed not eating properly or well, drinking and smoking too much, not sleeping enough, not doing anything that gave me purpose outside of studies or work (like a hobby), hanging around with the people that weren’t good for me, and not exercising or doing anything sport our outdoors related. It was all about socialising and partying. And I wasn’t happy. I was very insecure and didn’t really like or know myself.

 I wasn’t happy. I was very insecure and didn’t really like or know myself.

Ironically, the reason I was into excess around alcohol or partying in general was partly because that’s just what everyone around me did, and partly because I believed that there was a purpose to it, i.e. ‘’having a good time’’ and that it would make me feel better. I also loved music and that went hand in hand with going out.

I had a safe and sheltered childhood. I rebelled a bit at school, but I wasn’t really getting into anything too risky. I had a secure life, parents who cared, and adults warning me not to do certain things. But I always sought out naughty kids at school to hang out with, talked back to teachers, and never liked authority. I don’t like bureaucracy, constraints and rules around how and who I ought to be.

I also think when you’ve been a bit sheltered, you’re intrigued by the things everyone tells you are bad. ‘‘What was so wrong with taking drugs’’ I used to think, ‘‘and being up all night in dodgy places?’’ The thought of it was interesting for me not frightening.

When I left home I went down a bad road

When I left home, especially as the oldest child with no sibling role model to warn me, I went down a bad road. I felt immune to self-care, or I hadn’t heard of it. I didn’t look unhealthy, I was a normal weight and my hair and skin were alright. I didn’t get ill much. I was able to work a job at weekends at university on no sleep. So, I used to assume that I was fine. I got by but never really thrived in any way.

My lifestyle was bad for my mental health

I never thought about how my poor mental health was in any way related to my lifestyle. But the reality was that as early as 16 I was going too far and couldn’t handle what I was putting in my body; I was always sick after drinking and I always had terrible patches in my memory and feelings of shame and regret the next morning.

At university I was emotionally unstable and unable to control my moods or behaviour. I would often go out and start crying for no reason at all. I had no respect for myself and I often put myself at risk. I sought approval from people who didn’t care about me and looked for love in the wrong places.

My health was my last priority

My health was my last priority. I was deeply unhappy, was punching walls and kicking doors with anger and frustration and hurting myself. I took myself to hospital one evening because I felt suicidal. I would always wake up in the morning hungover and humiliated pretending to my ‘friends’ that I was fine. They of course were at the end of their tether with my behaviour because they didn’t realise I was mentally unwell (or didn’t want to deal with it). I didn’t have the strength or stamina to cope with the lifestyle I was imposing on myself. But I was ignoring that.

I was deeply unhappy, was punching walls and kicking doors with anger and frustration and hurting myself. I took myself to hospital one evening because I felt suicidal.

First step to self-care was self-awareness

I think the first step towards self-care is self-awareness. An awareness of how bad things may have got for you, and that this must change. There is no weakness in this, it is commendable, and it is positive. Being in denial about yourself and your problems is a dangerous game. Once you’ve identified a problem you can start to change it. So, this is what I did.

I also developed an anxiety disorder in my early 20s that suddenly made me worry about literally everything to do with my health. So strangely it was also my anxiety that got me into self-care.

The first thing I did was get back into exercise

One of the first things I did to feel better was to get back into exercise, aged 23. I started to run around the local park by my house in Leytonstone for about 15-20 minutes at a time. I didn’t have the gear or the idea at this stage. I was getting breathless quickly and I was running in old clothes and Converse, but it was a start.

Running then extended to free exercise classes at the Nike store in Oxford Circus, but I credit this entirely to my friend Lauren who introduced these classes to me. We then signed up to a few 10ks together. I was feeling good about my new-found love of exercise. I had a natural athletic ability at school that had been lost over years of unhealthy living and was now rearing its head again.

I signed up to my first half marathon

Eventually I signed up to my first half marathon with my mum in 2015. We ran for Mind and raised over £500. It was great, and very cathartic. Running such a long distance is so challenging and the feeling you get when you achieve something like that it is truly unique.

It is said that for some people exercise is as good at treating their depression as antidepressants. Everyone’s experience is different of course, but research has shown that the endorphins released through exercise lift and regulate mood and energy, and that a healthy mind is linked to a healthy body.

Nowadays I go to the gym a couple of times a week

Nowadays I love going to the gym a couple of times a week. Weight classes to music are so therapeutic. I also enjoy playing tennis, especially the sense of satisfaction I get from whacking a ball across a court. I’ve done a few ballet courses as well – and find the classes allow me to take my mind off things for an hour.

Weight classes to music are so therapeutic - I find the classes allow me to take my mind off things for an hour.

Another step I took towards self-care was meditation

Another step I took towards self-care was meditation. I was very lucky that there was a trained mindfulness coach working in the Communications team where I worked at 24 who, together with a clinical psychologist friend, began a free 8-week mindfulness course in my office. I went along to this at a time when my anxiety was awful, and I was having panic attacks a lot, even at work. I had sort of reached a desperate state where I wasn’t making any progress fighting off the anxiety.

I will never forget the feeling of total relief after my first proper meditation session. It was like ecstasy without a drug. I was completely calm and at ease with myself and my mind just seemed to go completely quiet. I remember thinking I’d love to live the rest of my life like this. I cried I was so happy that I’d finally found something that gave me peace. And from then on, I was committed to the course and to training my mind to not auto-switch into the fight or flight response.

I will never forget the feeling of total relief after my first proper meditation session. It was like ecstasy without a drug.

I still believe it was meditation that enabled me to break free from the panic attack cycle. Nowadays I try and meditate as often as I can. I think it is one of the most caring things you can do for myself. It is clinically proven to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms and re-wire the brain, which I think is incredible and can reassure people who’ve lost hope with other treatments, as I had. It also brings you into the present moment, so your life doesn’t just pass you by.

Other lifestyle changes that I made

I decided to make some lifestyle changes in my mid-20s. I had started to get quite bad ‘health anxiety’ anyway. I would convince myself that I had a symptom of a terminal illness frequently.

Reduced smoking

I started to think about what smoking was doing to my lungs and alcohol to my liver. I was worried about the impact of a party lifestyle on my brain. A lot of my anxieties were over exaggerated and irrational (if I had a headache, it must be a brain tumour, that kind of thing), because I had an anxiety disorder, but I also recognised that if I took care of myself the anxiety may subside.

Reduced caffeine and alcohol

I no longer felt able to cope with old vices the same way as I had at university. I gradually became a master of moderation. When my anxiety was terrible, I had to cut out caffeine and alcohol almost completely, because I was overly affected by stimulants and depressants. Now that my anxiety disorder has subsided, I can drink alcohol and caffeine but I’m careful about how much I have. I still love going out and dancing. It is wrapped up in my love of music. But I know when to stop. I don’t get so drunk I can’t remember anything anymore.

I rarely smoke now and if I do, I tell myself it’s something I do on occasion (because I enjoy it with a drink). Most of the time though I can weigh up the benefit of having a cigarette with the drawback and convince myself, even when drunk, that the cons outweigh the pros. I’ve tried to be less impulsive.

Started to eat well

I’ve realised the importance of eating well as I’ve got older. When I was younger, I never thought about nutrition and how important it was to give your body good food. I judged whether I was doing ok or not based on whether I’d put on weight or not.

I became a vegetarian by the age of 24, and I was diagnosed with coeliac disease at 27, which came as a shock as I had quite ‘silent’ symptoms. There is no cure for coeliac disease, and I must strictly avoid gluten for the rest of my life. As I have restrictions on my diet, it has made me even more conscious of what I eat.

Explored the link between nutrition and mental health

Mental health is really linked to gut health, as much of our serotonin is produced in the gut. I have mild irritable bowel syndrome as well and I am told that this is entirely created by my anxiety. When your brain is anxious it sends chemicals firing round the body in a fight or flight response that affect our gut, and when our gut is unhealthy, we don’t get the nutrition we need to stay well physically and mentally.

Studies have also shown that certain vitamin deficiencies can cause mental illness. I know someone who had never had problems with his mental health but suddenly started getting bad anxiety out of nowhere, and when he went to the doctor, they found that he was dangerously low in Vitamin D. Other vitamins you need to keep on top of for mental health are B vitamins, iron and magnesium. I try and make nutritionally varied meals now, take vitamins and avoid too much junk food.

I never thought about nutrition and how important it was to give your body good food. I judged whether I was doing ok or not based on whether I’d put on weight or not. 

Focused on getting a good night's sleep

Sleep is something else that’s so crucial to wellbeing. When I used to do all-nighters quite regularly, the combination of alcohol and no sleep used to bring on horrible anxiety symptoms for me. I would feel totally disassociated from reality the next day, would feel numb and hopeless, have terrifying heart palpitations that made me feel like I was having a heart attack, and would sometimes hallucinate or have night terrors.

This doesn’t happen very often now after a night out because I take better care of myself, but for me it highlights so much how linked your body and mind are. So many anxiety symptoms are physiological, and lack of sleep causes anxiety because our brains can’t function as well when we are tired, and our reasoning and memory suffer.

In a busy modern world, many of us take sleep for granted. I used to do this a lot. I’m a night owl and it takes me about an hour to fall asleep usually. I don’t like mornings and feel like my brain is often active at night. So, my sleep self-care nowadays usually involves going to bed at a regular time, trying to ensure I have 8 hours, wearing ear plugs and removing stimulants (caffeine, screens) before bed!

Becoming kinder to myself and improving my self-esteem

After making lifestyle changes, I realised that I still had more work to do to improve my self-esteem and be kinder to myself. I realised that I had collected a lot of friends that weren’t good for me over the years – from trying to fit in to crowds that I was quite different from at school or at university in order to be liked.

Choosing to spend time with friends that are good for me

I realised some of my friends didn’t share my values or interests, and that I didn’t have a lot in common with them. I also felt that some friends scared or intimidated me and that I couldn’t be myself around them. So, I decided to be brave and break loose from people that I didn’t really like and who I felt didn’t really like me either. This is quite a momentous thing to do, and when I did it with a large group of friends, I was terrified initially thinking I’d made a mistake, had been rash and may never find more friends. But the long-term effects of this decision have all actually been positive.

I am so much happier now that I spend time with people who are more like me, friends I’ve made in work places that I have lots more in common with, and old school friends that know me inside out and bring out the best in me. It is really freeing and liberating to be with people who bring you up and not down.

Recognising and removing myself from toxic relationships

You really don’t need to put yourself in toxic social situations. It’s empowering to choose who your real friends are. Having less, more genuine friends is better than more, fake friends. When my life was all about socialising, being seen and being liked, ironically, I didn’t feel that liked at all. Now that I am more secure in myself and do more of what I like, I feel like I have the best friends I’ve ever had.

You really don’t need to put yourself in toxic social situations. It’s empowering to choose who your real friends are. 

Thinking about what I deserved from a romantic relationship

The same is also true of partners. I’ve learnt quite late on in life that I’ve unknowingly been trapped in an anxious attachment style for years – never feeling good enough for partners and always seeking their approval and subconsciously chasing people with an avoidant attachment style, who by nature do not like commitment.

I have had loving, caring partners too but as I’ve been single again for the last couple of years, I’ve watched myself be treated badly by people who in hindsight didn’t deserve me. And I’m now aware of how much more secure I have become in myself and what I look for in a partner – to prevent myself being mistreated in future.

Building on the relationship with myself

I spend a lot more time on my own these days, which as an introvert with a bit of social anxiety, I think is important to do. I am a sensitive, emotional person, and sometimes loud, crowded, busy spaces full of people send me into a negative state of mind. Rather than always opting to go out drinking in my spare time, I now engage in hobbies that I really love.

I used to feel like I wasn’t very good at anything. I played the guitar at school but never fully committed to it. I was good at art, but I never thought I’d carry on doing it after A-levels. I was good at sport too but sadly quit all the teams I was in at school because I was going through a bad patch mentally and couldn’t handle the social aspect of it.

Getting back to the hobbies I love

When I reached my mid-20s, I decided that I wanted to get back into hobbies. I went snowboarding and wakeboarding for the first time and loved both. I decided to get back into the guitar and properly practice, and now I’ve reached an intermediate level which is really rewarding. I also sing when I play and that is one of the best feelings in the world. I decided to put my art skills to some use and experiment with abstract painting and drawing.

I’ve been learning French for the past couple of years for the first time since GCSEs. I’ve reached Improvers level at ballet after doing a few courses. I really enjoy writing, so alongside blogging for MHF I’ve started writing a screenplay.

All these things really improve my wellbeing but I’m careful to set realistic targets with my hobbies as if you try and do too much it can lead to feelings of frustration and failure if you don’t achieve what you hoped to. 

All these things really improve my wellbeing but I’m careful to set realistic targets with my hobbies as if you try and do too much it can lead to feelings of frustration and failure if you don’t achieve what you hoped to. It’s good to get the balance right and not become too engrossed in something that it hinders other areas of your life. I know I can get carried away with painting so I only let myself do it at weekends, as I was finding when I did it on weeknights a whole evening would go by and I wouldn’t have eaten or anything.

Self-care has given my life more meaning and happiness

Self-care comes in lots of different forms. The steps I’ve taken to self-care have made me a better person and given my life more meaning and happiness.

Looking after myself is something I don’t ever neglect anymore, and something I try and prioritise when I’m feeling anxious or depressed. I’ll stay in and have a nice bath or watch a film if I’m down, rather than forcing myself to socialise.

Self-care is probably one of the most important things you can do. Without it we often don’t have the strength to become the best versions of ourselves, and to me not being the best version of yourself seems like life’s most wasted opportunity.

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