As I reflect on my breakdown in 2016 and as I watch my children getting older, I often ask myself what advice I would have benefitted from and what habits I wish I’d adopted 20 years ago, particularly when it comes to work. The list is long so I will focus on five key areas:
- Prioritize your mental health: I often say you don’t get physically healthy by watching someone else run. I feel I could apply this action-based rule to my own mental health. I would advise my younger self to learn about stress, its symptoms and impacts, as well as positive actions I could take. I would encourage myself to speak up and early should I be concerned about how I feel, and to welcome support and guidance. I would urge myself to experiment with techniques (journaling, affirmations, reframing, wellbeing etc) to see what worked for me, and to take my mental health as seriously (if not more seriously), as my physical health.
- Live in the moment: It wasn’t until I was 37 that I started to take the practice of mindfulness seriously, and to benefit from it. This led to a heightened awareness of my thoughts and thought patterns, which has been both interesting and rewarding – allowing me to be increasingly calm, focused and present. I would encourage my younger self to give mindfulness a chance and regard it as a powerful tool to help manage negative thoughts and importantly, to engage in and enjoy what is happening right now.
- Create positive habits: I have made many changes to how I live and work over the past 3-4 years. Here is a quick summary of advice I would give my younger self: 1) prioritize sleep and reap the benefits every day; 2) exercise regularly to destress and feel great; 3) limit caffeine and alcohol by exploring often better tasting and more rewarding alternatives; 4) make regular time to ‘hang out’ with friends or colleagues, to eat, talk and laugh together; and 5) create boundaries for work that allow for proper relaxation and recuperation each evening, before getting stuck in the next day.
- Be patient: I would encourage my younger self to avoid being in a constant rush – to be more senior, to earn more money, to be more settled, to have more experience, to be at a different life stage etc. On reflection, I feel the desire for more, as fast as possible, only increased my levels of stress, worry, frustration and exhaustion. I am not saying “don’t be ambitious” or “don’t dream big”, I am simply saying, let it come when it comes. I would remind myself to remain focused on my journey and make decisions that will help me to burn bright and long, rather than to burn out.
- Focus on what you love: as I get older, I have become increasingly aware of the benefits of working hard at something I genuinely care about. My younger self was more concerned with what could pay me the most – I’m sure I was not alone in that mindset. The reality is, many of us will need to work for a long time, and that time is more likely to be rewarding financially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and socially when you are doing something you truly love. I would encourage my younger self to keep a very open mind, to have the courage to follow my interests, to make a broad range of connections, and to stay true to my beliefs. I was 40 when I followed my heart into something I love. While my recovery was not easy, it has been rewarding. Now I feel like I am thriving.
Alex Lane is on the committee of the CMHA Thriving From The Start Network, a mental health community for people early in their careers. To find out more about the Network, click here.