For many, the journey to true wellness begins at the total opposite end of the spectrum. It often begins with dis-ease in the mind and body and a feeling of ‘un-wellness’. For some it can be a mental health issue that either forces us to change our lifestyle habits or perhaps shifts our mindset towards the way we take care of ourselves.
It was certainly that way for Lauren Barber when she began her wellbeing adventure, here she shares her experience of how striving continuously for health and wellness lead to an ironically unhealthy mindset…
At the age of 27 I had it all – or so it seemed. I had created a thriving business in an industry I loved, I was married to a very lovely and supportive man, I owned a beautiful house exactly where I wanted to live, I had a dog and a horse, my family were all healthy and I was surrounded by many friends.
Yet… beneath this ‘perfect’ exterior I had created, I was crumbling. I was struggling with health anxiety and panic attacks, digestive issues and an overwhelming feeling of numbness. I carried a huge amount of shame over these feelings because ‘I had it all’… didn’t I? Who was I to be suffering from dis-ease in my mind and body?
Igniting a ‘passion’ for wellness
A lot of my anxiety stemmed from health related worries, and so the natural starting point for me was to begin to take more ‘control’ over this area of my life. I began to introduce a little more movement in my life in the form of structured exercise classes, I worked with a Health Coach and several other therapists who all helped me start to understand ways I could introduce small modifications to my diet in order to keep blood sugar levels regulated and therefore have a more sustained energy level and less chance of dipping and getting shaky and panicky.
I would find myself gorging on food until I felt sick, all the things I deemed ‘evil’… like roast potatoes, crisps, puddings, ice cream… I would mindlessly shovel – literally shovel – until I felt dreadful.
My shift turned towards going on a strictly Paleo diet, as well as cutting out gluten, dairy and refined sugar. I moved into weight training and adopted the ‘go hard or go home’ attitude as I pushed my body harder and harder. I then began to restrict my carbohydrate intake dramatically – not even allowing carrots to be eaten unless I had been to the gym. Even ‘health foods’ such as quinoa were restricted and I then cut out all natural sugars as well – yup… even fruit was seen as the enemy at times.
I felt totally in control. And thereby lies the problem.
The opposite of sustainable…
After around 18 months of this exploration and ‘regime’ the cracks started to show. I damaged a disc in my back, which meant I couldn’t train in the same way I had been doing. At the same time, my periods stopped. My confidence hit absolute rock bottom and my only way of controlling and achieving perfection was to become even more rigid in my eating habits.
I declared certain food groups as ‘harmful’ and I celebrated when I had ‘good’ days – which to me, were when my eating had been ‘perfect’, I had been to the gym, walked 10,000 steps, and achieved everything on my to do list.
And then there were the ‘bad’ days. On a Sunday – ‘cheat day’ – I would find myself gorging on food until I felt sick, all the things I deemed ‘evil’… like roast potatoes, crisps, puddings, ice cream… I would mindlessly shovel – literally shovel – until I felt dreadful. The feeling was like a punishment to myself for being so gluttonous and then simply fueled my fire that these foods were toxic to me, which gave me the motivation to go back on a restrictive pattern on Monday morning.
I won’t lie – I did actually feel amazing at times – I felt proud of myself for achieving more than I had ever felt possible. It was the first time I felt truly strong, and like I had will power. I couldn’t understand why others didn’t want the same as I did – and yet I also felt pangs of envy when my husband could go out for a day to the rugby and eat whatever he wanted, drink, have fun and not beat himself up for days afterwards.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing
If I step back a bit to the beginning and the reason I began my journey to wellness, I now understand that what I was looking for was a way to control the area of my life I felt the most out of control. My mental health and my anxiety. Because – I was terrified of going back to the place where I didn’t feel like I was alive – and so when I didn’t have total control over my food and my exercise routine – I then feared going back to that place.
The ironic thing is that I have always loved food and I longed for the days that I used to devour a whole melon as a child, enjoy a ham baguette on the riverbanks in France with my family, have cheese on toast for my tea because it was comforting and bake cakes just for fun. I was so heartbroken that something I loved so dearly had become my own worst enemy. I realised it was not sustainable – not for my body, and most certainly not for my mind.
What does eating sustainably look like to you?
As much as eating from sustainable sources is imperative, I feel that we first have to find a way that is sustainable for ourselves. And that means becoming aware of any unnecessary restrictions, eating patterns or unsustainable lifestyle habits we have adopted.
The rise in our pursuit of wellness is an amazing thing – I don’t resent that for a second because more and more people are able to make powerful choices and create a lifestyle that energises them and helps them feel amazing. But there does have to be that elusive ‘balance’. When your focus on wellness beings to harm your mental wellbeing… then for me this turns away from sustainable.
My definition of wellness has shifted dramatically and it began to change when I became more aware. Wellness for me is about joy, energy, fun, pleasure, good sleep, healthy relationships, creativity… when those things were missing in my life – then I knew that things had to change.
Become an observer
When you start to observe yourself and your behaviours, acknowledging your feelings and noticing where your attention is going around eating and lifestyle habits, then you can make more conscious and sustainable decisions.
Some of the things I became aware of in myself were…
- Feeling the need to hide food choices from my Instagram feed for fear of being judged. Whether that was for eating meat, eating dairy or something that wasn’t gluten free.
- Eating the same things day in day out because I knew what the macros were, and actually not enjoying my food because of it.
- Using my intolerance to gluten as an excuse to take my own food to friends so that I knew exactly what I was going to be eating.
- Depriving myself of sharing and enjoying foods with friends and family, and then getting a buzz out of my ‘willpower’.
- Spending all of my free time trying to ‘figure’ out the perfect way of eating and living my life to ensure I lost weight, had energy, achieved impeccable digestion and maintained glowing skin.
Witnessing some of these things in myself lead me to seek support from others, to begin the practice of gently and sustainably unravelling some of the conditions I had created within myself. The healing process itself has to be achievable for you and baby steps have been my best friend.
Finding the right kind of support has been a huge part of my journey. At first I thought I had to be told what to do because I didn’t know the answers – and from a scientific point of view that may well have been the case at times. But from an emotional and intuitive point of view – every time I allowed someone else to dictate to me what I should or shouldn’t be eating I gave away my own power and lost a little more trust in myself.
For me I needed to find support from people who would hold space for me to navigate through the process on my own – gently nudging me in the right direction if I needed guidance and allowing me to make mistakes along the way and learn my own lessons. A non judgemental support team comprising of therapists, friends, family and most importantly… myself.