Why Wellness Habits Can Make You Feel Worse
While wandering around the internet I have found lots of things about wellness that look more like punishments than ways to feel good.
They are along the lines of: be organised, write lists, get up at 5am to meditate and drink lemon water, then drink a green juice and go for a run… Ooof! You may be the type of person that enjoys this kind of regimen. That’s ok if it works for you. But this is about discipline, not wellness: those are not the same things.
This post is about how wellness is as much about moderation and following your intuition as it is about fitness routines and rigidly taking care of your mental health. Sometimes taking care of yourself means letting go a little. You know the W.H. Davies poem that goes “What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?”. That!
What’s wrong with wellness?
Nothing. Obviously there’s nothing at all wrong with being well. Being well mentally, physically and emotionally is excellent. Having healthy relationships and a balanced work life is, quite clearly, a magnificent goal.
The problem is that when attaining these things becomes rigid, obsessive or constricting then they are as much of a prison as unwellness. They become the unwellness. When you spend your time chasing some illusive better you through timetables and routines and constant activity, that stops looking like wellness.
What is wellness if it’s not doing the things, regularly and with discipline, that make you well? Well, (see what I did) wellness has to do with feeling good.
Wellness is when, on balance, you feel more positive feelings (physically within the limits of your own body and emotionally) and have a more positive outlook on life than you do negative feelings and outlook. Wellness is about doing more of the things you love and that make you feel good.
If you are a working mum, for example, feeling good might involve being outdoors with your kids. After sitting at your desk all day you feel lazy and unfit. You may think that with some negotiation with your partner you could add a morning run to your routine. And although you know it will help you feel energised it will also stretch your time and stress you out more.
So why not ditch the run and commit to two things 1. Take 3 x 5 minute outdoor walking breaks every day, and 2. play tag in the park with the kids for an hour at the weekend. The walks will help you to re-focus and re-energise. The tag will make you feel good. You will have been outside a lot.
Or if you are someone that loves fast food, but know that it’s making your insides look dodgy, it’s about seeking out simple healthy recipes that taste the way you like but give you a big hit of the vitamins and minerals you are missing. (Donal Skehan’s recipes are really good for this incidentally).
If you are overstretched at work, rather than squeezing meditation into your already over-crowded day, be honest with yourself and find ways to cut back – from leaving the office or closing your lap-top a half hour earlier twice a week, to making sure that you take a half an hour in the day to sit on bench and stare at the trees swaying in the breeze with a nice cup of coffee. Meditation is great, but it should be instead of something stressful, not an additional commitment in your day.
Look at your life. Make small changes that fit with how you like to live, and what you value, and that give you more of what you want. Wellness will follow.
Wellness isn’t just about health, it’s about living the life you love
By my thirties I felt burned out. For all of my twenties I worked unsociable and long hours for a paltry arts salary. I felt owned by other people. My life was dominated by to do lists and prioritization matrices. No amount of “love what you do and you’ll never work a day on your life” rhetoric made any of it seem less like work. Even when I was freelance and could choose my own work I felt this way.
I had been focused on productivity and doing an excellent job. Not on being fulfilled. I don’t look back and feel glad or proud of my hard work. I just wish that I could have enjoyed it more.
When, some time later, my therapist suggested writing schedules and lists to keep track of achievements, I got into a cold sweat. I was very effective at organising my way through a punishing and unsatisfying life: carefully monitoring what I ate, how I exercised, when I slept, list-making before bed to help me sleep, planning upon waking to make sure I could fit everything in without too much anxiety. The very thought of doing that again, for any purpose, made my chest tighten and my breathing shallow.
My early forays into coaching even supported the idea that if I was organised and smart, I could get what I wanted in life. If I set goals, made them measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound I would reach the destination I wanted to get to.
To be fair to myself, I was already doing that stuff. I’m a strategist. I never want to put out fires, I want to stop them from burning in the first place. So I have always been forward thinking and systematic. I like things stream-lined and focused. And it took me a long time to recognise, that for me, this solution was part of the problem. If I had to schedule everything, then I probably had too much on my plate.
I had a lot of those meditate, drink lemon water, exercise X amount, take X supplements lists. I added them to all the other stuff I had to do in a day. But the content of my routines and habits was wrong. I was overloaded and tired out.
Aren’t habits and routines healthy?
Everyone has habits and routines. There is a part of the brain that deals with autonomic daily activity and habit formation. Think: how often do you deliberately eat dinner, or go to sleep, or brush your teeth? Rarely I’d imagine, unless some other part of your routine is out of whack – like being on holiday or finishing work at an unusual time.
Routines are useful because they are predictable and therefore reduce stress. You might benefit from making changes to your routine to bring a sense of calm into your life. But I bet that you know someone who is so rigid about their routine that they get stressed when something causes a change. Balance is key with routines. Anything that becomes a source of guilt or anxiety when you fail to do it is not serving you. What you want is a routine that adds value and is flexible when you need it to be.
Without habits you would constantly be thinking about how and when to do the simplest of daily tasks. You already have hundreds of habits. Habit is just the way to describe the automatic way that you do things. So when your habit is smoking, or TV marathons you might want to find ways to swap those habits for less damaging ones.
Wellness isn’t about forming habits. Wellness is about making sure that the habits you have serve you in the best way. Bad habits often feel good. Our brains like them. So the trick, rather than to change our habits, is to replace existing habits with better ones and keep the feel good cycle going.
How do I replace bad habits for good habits?
Like this: think about the habits in your life that are unhealthy. Choose the worst one. And swap it for something else. Every day, whenever you would usually engage in that particular habit swap a different habit in. If you usually watch TV or scroll Instagram for three hours every evening, commit to doing something else that you really enjoy for one of those hours.
Make a list of healthier things that take an hour or less and do 1-3 of those things in the hour that you would usually spend in front of a screen.
Don’t be tempted to plan for more. Just plan for that one hour. If you fancy doing more, then do it. But keep the habit change small and simple.
If your morning routine is always rushed make an appraisal of what is taking up unnecessary time. If you shower in the morning, consider showering before bed. Spend your showering time on an extra 5 minutes in bed, or a leisurely coffee.
If you eat 3 chocolate bars a day, swap two of them for fruit. Then later consider swapping one of the fruits for vegetables like carrots.
Experiments have shown that minor habit adjustments have a snowball effect and will impact your life positively especially in relation to the amount of effort exerted to make the change. Soon the replacement activity will feel as automatic as the original activity. You will have formed a new (or adapted) habit that will feel completely natural.
Why not change everything at once?
The answer to this is simple. Because it’s too hard. It’s not rewarding. And it’s not sustainable.
Making major change is stressful. Be kind to yourself and do what is simple. If you swap out a habit that you find rewarding, you may find that you feel deprived. Your new habit won’t feel as rewarding. You won’t want to do it. The whole point of a habit is that it should become automatic. If your brain is resisting it will be hard for the automatic response to happen – you will have to think about it every time, and make yourself do it. It won’t be sustainable.
So, wellness is great. Routines and habits are something that you do every day. But wellness isn’t necessarily about discipline or having new wellness-based routines. It’s about acknowledging that some area of your life is not optimal (health, fitness, relationship, work-life balance etc. etc.). It’s about fitting in the things that make you feel good in place of less helpful habits rather than as well as them. That way you will incrementally improve your wellness and increase feelings of wellbeing.