I would prefer to be working, in a rewarding job that uses the skills and knowledge I built during my schooling and my short stint working as a scientist. However, work in scientific research (and that fits my CV) is very thin on the ground so I tried a 9-5 office job for a while. That didn’t work out either, and part of the reason why was my own mental health. Due to various life stresses I was suffering from high anxiety.
In the end, not working has been the best thing for my mental health. Although, it has taken over a year for me to really see an adjustment. When the anxiety was at its worst I tried medication. I’m still not really sure that did very much. Perhaps it toned my mood down from super-reactive to just ‘constantly more anxious than I wanted to be’. Along the way I have (slowly) increased my physical activity levels. This certainly has helped. Growing up I was the opposite of a sporty kid; always picked last for team sports; horizontal with a book whenever I could be; ducked whenever a ball was thrown in my vicinity etc etc. But now I would urge everyone to find their ‘thing’, try whatever physical activity you can so that you find something that motivates you to move. What has helped most of all though, is slowing down.
Slowing down, strangely enough, has taken a long time (it’s a slow process, ha!). For the first few months of not working I would be excited at first, thinking about all of the things I could do with my surplus of free time. But then the anxiety would crowd in and form all of these intrusive thoughts. It’s hard for me to recall exactly what they were now, as I’m not in that mental space anymore. Anyhow, the end result was that while worrying about all of the things I should be doing my mind would be racing in circles till I found a distraction to quieten it. And then I would be doing very little, which of course led back to the start of the cycle.
Over the course of a year I’ve slowly become more and more productive and come up with strategies to mute the worries. One has been to stop, take a breath, and remember ‘It doesn’t matter’ (because in fact, it very rarely does). And this whole time I’ve worked through the newest stress, infertility. The strategy to help with that one has been to write this blog. It’s not just the writing, but getting all of the thoughts in order before writing that’s really helped there. Anything is better than being stuck on the same thought on high repeat like an annoying song in your head!
When I was in high school I researched Taoism for an assignment and I’m reminded of that philosophy by realizing that I’ve had to slow down and think less to be able to think more and get stuff done. One day recently I was peeling apples for a dessert I was going to bake (apple crumble/ crisp) and my ability to calmly make a decision proved to me how much progress I had made. It’s such a small thing! I went to prepare the apples but then I got momentarily stuck deciding whether I should peel them. Sometimes I don’t peel the apples because I think it is healthier that way. However it’s also sometimes less tasty with unpeeled apples. It should be a simple decision right? But this is exactly the kind of thing that would get me stuck previously. Some of the thoughts might range from, “well if it was just for me and hubby I would leave the peel on, it doesn’t have to be an excellent dish because I’m just cooking it to use up these apples”, “but I’m going to share this dish with friends also, and they might find the peel odd, so I should remove it for them”, “but peeling is a hassle, it’s much easier to skip straight to the chopping step” and inevitably I would recognise that it was irrational that I was taking more than a millisecond to make this decision, and then I would feel bad about the whole thing. At least with this example, the apples can remain on the bench, without adversely affecting anything else, while I make my mind up, which won’t even take that long. What will be impacted is my motivation for the activity, something I would normally enjoy but one I could manage to ruin for myself. The worst of these times was when I was trying to decide what to do with my day, then I could get really stuck.
But this time I had successfully decided that I shouldn’t let a bag of apples rot in the bottom of the fridge, and I was enjoying the simple pleasure of baking. And I grabbed the peeler, and ran it loosely around the apple without any care or precision and then I thought, “That’ll do!”. And I realised I’d found a third option, a compromise, that I might not even have thought of if I’d been consumed by needless anxiety. Maybe it sounds silly to be proud of a solution consisting of ‘partially peel the apple’ but it illuminated my slow, calm mind in that moment and I knew it meant I could achieve so much more.
Maybe it’s a part of growing up, and maybe it took being in a dark place to learn a little, but I am much better at focusing on the things that are actually important to me now. What’s more, I can only see that continuing and it’s something I’m really grateful for 🙂