Mental Health Awareness week: Knowing my limits

It is Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, so I thought I’d share a bit about my recent efforts to keep my mental health in check. As someone who does not live with mental illness*, keeping things in check is a bit easier for me. But as someone who lives a largely isolated and lonely life, I am aware that if I do not make concerted efforts to maintain my mental health, I could well end up with mental illness.

Before widowhood, I never worried about my mental health. But I have learned over the last eight years that when I don’t have a confidente in my life, stress seems to multiply all on its own. Well, actually, I suppose it multiplies (at least in part) because I create this silly little cycle of stress and guilt-enhanced stress.

The impact that this stress cycle has on my mental well-being became even more evident to me about two years ago. At that time, I had been experiencing an incredible amount of stress for more than two years. Everything was building up and I was certain that the stress-fuelled anxiety I was experiencing was a sure sign of mental illness.

After meeting with a mental health professional, however, I found that it wasn’t mental illness I was suffering from: It was stress. And loneliness. And stress is caused by loneliness. (Read the full story here.)

Since then, I have taken steps to decrease my mental stress. And I have found ways to shake off at least some of my loneliness and isolation. And, importantly, I haven’t experienced any anxiety attacks since then! However, I still experience stress. Only now it is more about deadlines and workloads than sadness and anxiety. But that doesn’t mean that the stress doesn’t threaten to cause me mental challenges.

And, of course, some of my obsessive-compulsive quirks can lead to mental challenges, too. Especially when it comes to how far I will push myself to succeed in whatever challenge or goal I’ve set.

Like many people, I like to push myself to my limits and a bit beyond. If I set a goal, I need to exceed it – simply meeting a goal is not good enough. I need to prove something (to myself and/or to whoever told me I couldn’t do something). And that means that I push myself to my limits (and beyond) and then I want to go further and further still. Because I fear the moment I stop I will lose the momentum to get going again. Because I fear the moment I stop I will be viewed as lazy or unmotivated or incapable. So I don’t rest. Because rest is what you do when you don’t have something important to do.

Over the past several months, this pattern of behaviour has been my downfall. I had set myself a list of goals for my PhD and my running and fitness goals.

On the PhD side, I was determined to get a tremendous amount of work done. And each time I came to a difficult part, I tried to work harder and convinced myself that I just needed to power through. Every waking moment was spent thinking about my thesis. Many of my sleeping moments were spent dreaming about my thesis. And many of my should-be-sleeping-but-wide-awake moments were spent feeling stressed and anxious about my thesis. And when I tried to relax, my time was spent feeling guilty because I wasn’t working on my thesis.

On the fitness side, I was determined to increase my running distance, times, and speed. I was also determined to increase my daily step counts. And I was determined to lose the weight I’d put on after breaking my ankle. I was pushing myself to my limits, that was sure! I had even joined an online step competition where I was the champion for four weeks in a row.

When the two sides combined, I found myself exhausted. I was not sleeping. I was not relaxing. I was not enjoying my “free” time. I was obsessed with walking more and running more and writing more and PhD-ing more.

And then I crashed. My physical health was suffering from physical stress. My PhD was suffering from mental stress. I was succeeding in all of my fitness goals, but I was failing at being healthy. And I was failing at being productive on my PhD.

It took me a week of self-pity to start figuring out how to fix it all. And then it took me another week to start feeling confident that I would be able to fix it all.

But here I am, fixing it all.

My first action item was to remove myself from the step-count competition. And to address my overall fitness regime. Part of this was a review of my diet over the past several months. That’s when I realised that I have been eating more cured meats and cheeses than normal – several times more! I also realised that I was eating more high-fat, high-sodium take-aways and pre-packed meals at home.

My next action was to talk with my supervisors to explain what was going on. They understood my need to de-stress and were very supportive of this. I then decided that I was going to allow myself to sleep a bit later in the mornings, at least until I stopped feeling so exhausted. And I started to re-think some of my overall working patterns, which led me to create dedicated end-times for work so that I could enjoy a stress-free hour before bed.

These last couple of weeks have been spent paying attention to my limits. I’ve been listening to my body and setting myself limits based on what I know about my obsessive-compulsive quirks. Frustratingly, this means I have not been running. But happily, it means that I have found myself working on my PhD more productively, and I’ve been sleeping better and eating better and relaxing without guilt!

The next couple of weeks will be spent paying even more attention to my limits. I am slowly working to re-build a routine that will incorporate more exercise (including running) into my days. And I am developing a working pattern that allows me to be both productive and active.

My worry, however, is that I will forget my limits again. And if that happens, I will find myself in a cycle of stress once again. And if that happens, I may find myself once again worried about my mental health.

But for now, I know my limits and I am working to not push them too far, too fast. But I also know that you have to push past your limits to some extent if you are ever going to grow and improve. Finding the balance is key! It is not an easy thing to do, as I have a potentially unhealthy competitive streak (and I’m my worst competitor!) but I am going to try as hard as I can.

After all, I’ve always found that when I know my limits – and don’t push them too far all at once – I am happier and healthier. Physically, emotionally, and mentally.

* I have been certified, really.

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