Sarah

Sarah Allen is a 25 year-old Kiwi from Waiterimu, Waikato . She is the eldest of 3 siblings from a NZ-European family. Sarah studied Graphic Design at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, and Business and Marketing at Auckland University of Technology. She now lives with her partner on his dairy farm in Hawera, South Taranaki. She works rearing calves and freelancing in Graphic Design and photography,

Having a good structure within my days helps give me consistency. The most important things in my routine are exercise, sleep and preparing good food. Having a routine for those three things sets me up for everything else. They are my base. From here, everything else falls into place.

I try to go to bed early and at the same time each night. The same goes with my morning alarm. I get up at the same time each morning and try to do some form of exercise. Since these are unquestionable structures in my days, it means that I can fully relax when I have down time. I feel more relaxed knowing I have done a few fundamental things to keep me feeling good each day, and I can take the rest of the day as it comes. 
 
I used to spend a lot of energy arguing in my head, thinking, “do I want to go to the gym or don't I?” I would make up excuses, thinking that I had lots to do and not enough time, and I am sometimes still guilty of this! I now try and focus on how I feel after I exercise. I was wasting so much mental energy deciding, so I made the gym a habit, not a choice. This works well for me. I’m an indecisive person as it is, so if the decision is already made for me, then there is nothing to question; nothing to "um and ah" about.

Becoming more disciplined in the area of exercise has also helped me become more relaxed when I miss a day. If I’m really tired or sore, I’m not hard on myself for resting or doing something light, like a walk. I’ve learnt to listen to what my body is telling me, without becoming lazy and doing nothing at all.

I’ve discovered the power of exercise and how it contributes to keeping me well. Little and often is key for me. It’s taken me a while to be consistent with it and commit to doing it everyday, but I know that’s what I need to maintain feeling mentally clear. It has become a very important tool that I turn to whenever I have a tough day. I notice a huge mental shift if I get a good sweat on and release any bad energy, that followed by an early bedtime is my basic recipe to get back on top of things. 
 
Getting enough sleep is essential for me to be my true self. If I don’t get at least 8 hours, I find I am more likely to be triggered by things throughout the day. Each night before I go to sleep, I think of three things that I am grateful. This helps take my thoughts away from worrying about money, work, or the future. Night time is when my mind can be busy with “worries” so I also do a body scan, breathing exercises to keep me focused on me and the present which helps me fall asleep and have a good quality sleep also. 
 
One of the first steps on my path to wellness was when Mum sent me to spend a week with Charlotte Thaarup-Owen, a mindfulness coach in Australia. I learnt what mindfulness and meditation is, along with many beneficial tools that I can easily use day to day. Mindfulness is reasonably simple, yet so effective. It calms my mind and body down through the conscious decision of paying attention.

One of the mindfulness tools that I find really helpful is a daily 10 minute meditation. I use either a guided meditation on my phone through an app called Headspace, from Charlotte’s recorded voice or otherwise just silence and focusing on the breath and doing a body scan. I try do it religiously everyday, although there are some weeks that go by where I slack off and don’t do it at all. Those are the weeks that make me aware of how important meditation is for my well being. I start to notice unhelpful and repetitive thoughts creeping up on me. But a huge positive is that I can now NOTICE these negative thoughts, and nip them in the bud before they fester and get me down for days at a time. I can now notice negative thoughts as just that - thoughts. They come and go and are not me. That is a result of mindfulness training and a huge reason why I meditate. When I’m really in the groove and feeling good I’m doing it morning and night.

 
When I was about 20, I was fortunate to attend one of Charlotte’s mindfulness retreats in Bali. She took 8 of us from all parts of the world, all different people living different lives, yet with the common ground of wanting to add mindfulness into our lives to help with our own struggles. We went into the retreat feeling defeated and drained and walked away with practiced and proven tools which left us feeling hopeful about things. We also left with confidence and excitement to add them into our lives back home. 

I now check in with Charlotte every few months or so, not that I have much to talk or report on these days. But it’s so reassuring that I’ve got her there with so much knowledge and understanding, whenever I need it.

At the end of last year while I was travelling in India and Sri Lanka, I did a 10 day Vipassana - a 10 day silent meditation course. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done, but it was hugely important to my mental development and my journey.  The biggest lesson I learnt was that no one else is responsible for my happiness but me. Every day I can wake up and choose to be happy or not. I also learnt that the most reliable thing is the body, not the mind. The body is the context for everything.

Nutrition is another area that I focus on. I like learning and understanding the basics behind ideas and grasping the ‘why’ I should do something. It makes me trust it and it’s easier to implement it long term as part of my lifestyle. That’s been the case with nutrition, I listen to podcasts and read about food, I’ve done a bit of research on the link between the brain and the gut. There is lots of evidence with the connection between gut and brain, so I try to keep this in mind when eating, and eat foods to nurture the gut, knowing it will help my mental wellbeing also.

 
My mindfulness also ties into my nutrition. As a result of practising mindfulness I can tune into my body and understand how it’s feeling after I eat certain foods. I can tell which foods serve me well and which ones don’t. Through this practice I’m now more aware if I start slipping back into old habits of comfort eating to make myself feel better. I definitely love the odd treat from time to time as I do believe in balance, but I have a different mindset around it and try to stay clear of eating foods that I know don’t agree with me, no matter how amazing they taste! 
 
It’s taken me a long time to feel relaxed about diet, body image and that topic entirely. It’s definitely taken a lot of work and practice to be able to notice how I'm feeling after eating specific foods, but it’s a great tool to be able to listen to my body and do what is best for me without being influenced by outsiders looking in.
 
Being social is something I pay attention to, and more importantly when I don’t feel like it. It’s so easy to have an excuse and not to be bothered in today’s world. So if I feel myself wanting to withdraw from an event or something social with friends that’s when I really encourage myself to go. Because time and time again I always feel better after going out and catching up with friends. Even if I have to make a huge effort, I never regret hanging out with friends.

I have an ‘over sharer’ personality, and like to tell it how it is. Being open and sharing my feelings with friends is such a great way to build support around me. I have a close group of friends who have stuck by each other right from the school days. I’m very lucky in that respect, they know me so well. They have been through my journey with me and fully understand me. It goes all ways too, we all give and receive, we are all here for each other. A big positive with the journey that I’ve been on is that I have more humility and am much more aware if others are down. I think It’s made me much more empathetic.
 
If something stressful happens in my life now, I will usually get at least one of my friends calling me and simply asking how I am. Having friends like this means that we are constantly reminding each other that it’s okay to talk, and it’s encouraged.
 
It’s not always easy to share my deep emotions and sometimes I have to force myself to tell them certain things. I find it good to explain to them in quite a frank way without too much attachment as that’s the reality of how I feel so I might as well be honest with it and get it off my chest. Once it’s out in the open, they can fully support me because they are aware of the situation.
 
I like to be around positive people and am more aware of people who tend to bring negativity energy into a conversation or space. I’ve figured out that I can listen but I don’t have to engage or get sucked into any conversation that I don’t want to be a part of if I don’t find it constructive. I think I have become better at listening in conversations where no advice or opinion is needed, just someone listening.

I learnt from my psychologist and in the Vipassana about how to really be in my body, especially in moments when I get stressed or anxious. I’m really lucky to have learnt this tool so early on and  it’s something I'll hold onto and use for life. I believe that my body often knows more than my mind and can tell me so much about what is going on. The body always knows, and the brain can be untrustworthy.  
 
Something I do when I feel anxious or stressed, (and it’s taken a while to remember to do it and practice it), is to check in to the body straight away. First, I acknowledge that I’m stressed, I then take 3 deep breaths and feel where the stress is sitting in my body. I place a hand on this area, which could be my stomach, my chest, my throat or elsewhere. The warmth of my hand is comforting on the area of my body and I say; “Dear body thank you for warning me that this topic is stressful. I am okay, thank you.” I say this a few times until it eases up. It possibly seems a bit airy fairy but it works. It’s become my little hack to manage moments of panic or stress or worry.

Another positive thing I try to do often, is to see the good in someone and speak it.⁠ Thinking nice thoughts about others is good but committing to saying them is even better. Once the thought is out in the open, a positive effect can be felt within each of us and it’s able to create a smile, a connection and even a boost of energy.
 
I find the same effect when I voice appreciation too by going beyond the single word of just ‘thanks.’ I’ve experienced this in the workplace, elaborating on the ‘why’ behind the thanks really brings good energy. It’s a win, win as both the person giving and receiving the kind words feel a little better. 
 
It goes also with telling the people I love that I love them. I often tell my friends and family that I love them as I think it’s important to hear and tell them I care. 

I’m proud of the positive mindset and healthy lifestyle in which I have developed as a result from the learnings from my experiences. Reflecting on my journey, I know creating a healthy mind and lifestyle wasn’t instantaneous. It took me a fair amount of time and a lot of hard work. 

I believe that there is no finish line to ‘happiness,’ and that it’s more of a continuous work-on. And it’s that word “work” that I find is most important. It took work, patience and persistence for me to develop a healthy mind, and those things also help to maintain it. I continue to put a lot of emphasis on learning and developing myself and my wellness. I think I always will. There is an infinite amount to learn.

Sarah experienced depression between the ages of 15-22 years old.

How you felt as a result?
Uncontrollable, repetitive, negative  thoughts.
Withdrawn. Helpless. Anxious.
Not in control of relationships and day to day life.
Thought that I would never get better. No motivation to change.
Suicidal thoughts.
Short fuse. Easily frustrated. Grumpy. Super moody.

Did you take prescribed medication?
Yes, for 8 years.

Were there any triggers that exacerbated your feelings?
Stress.
A toxic relationship at the age of 21.
Confidence being knocked by an adult figure in teenage years.

Was there a turning point when things started to get better?
Mum sent me to a mindfulness coach for a week. She taught me how to meditate and I learnt some basics about how the brain works and what chemical imbalances were. I began reading about  mindfulness and meditation and the research behind it and became interested in the ‘why’ I felt this way. When I started to understand the why, it all began to make more sense.

Going off my medication was a big step forward in my journey. I had monthly support from a psychologist who put a plan in place to gradually come off the medication over a 6 month period. After being on medication for 8 years, it only took a few months from when I stopped taking it to notice how much better I felt. I haven't been back on it since, which has now clocked up to 4 years.

 

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