“There is no shame in not being okay”

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MQ Ambassador Samara writes about her experience of anxiety and depression, overcoming perfectionism and how she came to be part of a new anti-stigma project, Let’s Talk Mental Health.

At 27, I was Head of Photography for a global advertising agency which propelled me onto setting up my own agency, with the likes of Ted Baker, Universal, and Disney on my books.

While to the outside world my life appeared ‘perfect’, it could not have been further from the truth.

I was burnt out, suffering from acute anxiety, horrific insomnia and checking my pulse at my desk on a daily basis to check I wasn’t having a heart attack. I knew full well that, with the levels of stress I was under – accompanied by copious amounts of red wine, fags and only few hours of sleep each night – a heart attack or breakdown was on the cards.

The only things that mattered to me were the deadlines and my bank account. My memory was deteriorating; even the simplest tasks like remembering my PIN number became a challenge. I decided enough was enough – I needed to get away and have a break. What I didn’t envisage happening was fracturing my spine in four places and nearly drowning in a wave just a few days into my holiday in Sri Lanka.

I was told by doctors that I wouldn’t be able to walk again. But after just two weeks of meditating every day, praying and visualisation, I walked (granted, it was with a Zimmer frame!).

I am living proof that the power of the mind is incredible.

However, the battle was far from over. As soon as I started to fix my body physically, my heart and my mental health fractured. My long-term relationship broke down and I lost my business. Whilst my body was on the mend, my mind was far from it – I experienced PTSD, stress, depression, insomnia and acute anxiety.

I spent a year explaining my concerns to doctors, but there was little they could do with up to six months’ wait for therapy. They offered me anti-depressants, but I felt this was merely a sticking plaster over my problems, which actually needed fixing at their roots.

I committed to a mission to heal myself and researched countless nutritional plans, natural supplements, workout plans, meditations, mindfulness techniques and designed tools to help me stay in control. Art and yoga were both really big parts of my therapy – they really helped soothe my anxiety.

This had a huge impact on my mental health – in fact it changed my life. I wanted to develop this further which is why I recently qualified as a transformational coach, which I’ll do alongside my photography work.

I’ve accepted that my mental health is something that needs to be worked on daily.

Just like our bodies need to work out, so do our minds. I prefer to say mental ‘health’ instead of ‘illness’ for that reason – like physical health, it’s something we need to manage and take care of on a regular basis.

I had a real fear of judgment when I first shared my story publicly on a podcast. My ego was telling me to keep quiet, that I shouldn’t air my ‘dirty laundry’ and that I’d just get laughed at or be seen as attention seeking. After pushing through this fear, the feedback I got was unbelievably positive. This was a big lesson for me; that often the things we fear the most (my fears were judgment and not coming across as perfect) are the things that will set us free.

I am by no means perfect and this is something I’ve had to accept.

There is no shame in ‘not being okay’. I still have my bad days, but I remind myself ‘this too shall pass’. I make sure I stick to my morning routine of meditation and mindfulness practice; I’m cautious of not having too much sugar or caffeine as this doesn’t help with my anxiety and depression. I also make a conscious effort to not spend too much time on social media aimlessly scrolling and comparing myself to others.

I wanted to be an Ambassador for MQ because I feel that mental health is something we should all feel comfortable discussing. There’s still so much that can be done to improve our understanding– for example, looking at how external factors like our environment and space influence how we feel.

I believe environment has a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

For me, being able to walk outside, get fresh air and connect with nature is very important. There are lots of little things you can do to make your space a better place, like going for short walks when you feel stressed, buying plants and surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good. I feel other people with mental health difficulties could help researchers understand the impact of factors like architecture, space and environment by speaking up about their own experiences.

I have total empathy for anyone who is going through the mental health difficulties that I have, and I want to help as many people as possible to navigate their life back to where they want to be. That’s why I’ll continue to be an Ambassador for MQ and share my story.

You can read or listen to more from Samara, by visiting her soundcloud or website.

You can watch Samara’s discussion for #LetsTalkMentalHealthII with architect Evangelia Chrysikou here:

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