Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depression

What’s holding you back? I know what holds me back, and it’s inherent fear. I’m sure I wasn’t born this way, riddled with anxiety and crippled by ruminations, but it’s how I am now, thirty one years later. Life would be easy if there was one event that I could pinpoint to making me feel this way, but the harsh reality is that as we mature, shit happens, and we have to deal with it. Life is a learning game, and it’s never over, so as we traverse through the years, these feelings ebb and flow, but never completely dissipate.

For Helen Morris, the feeling was all too real. The founder of Samsara Communications – a specialist media agency for conscious brands – decided to self-start her own business after years spent bending and breaking to London’s gruelling rat race. “I was working long hours, totally drained, relying on caffeine and sugar to get me through the day, and I was drinking alcohol too often,” she says candidly. “I wasn’t doing any exercise, eating well or sleeping properly. I was pushing myself to the limits, so looking back, it’s not a surprise that it manifested in depression.”

On a trip to Central America, Helen took her first yoga class and on returning to London, she quickly set about training to become a teacher. “Immediately, I started noticing how much lighter – mentally, physically and spiritually – I felt after each class,” she says. “I signed up to the course not really knowing how it would pan out, but feeling intuitively that it was the right thing to do.” This liberation of control facilitated lots of other connections, ultimately leading her to start her own business, but it also allowed her to take control of her depression—something she has struggled with for years.

“Meditation and yoga have really helped me quiet my mind, access my intuition and recognise what is true for me beyond social conditioning, others’ expectations and the depression and anxiety,” she explains. “It’s like peeling the layers off an onion: with time, you start with time you start recognising what your true nature is.”

Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depressionHER FORMER FAST-PACED CAREER IN PR & MARKETING: After graduating from university in 2008 and spending the summer emailing every PR agency in London, I eventually landed a Junior Account Executive role. There were only three of us in the agency, so it was great exposure to every facet of the business, but after five months I was made redundant when the recession hit. London’s job market, especially for graduates, was looking dismal so I decided to move to Spain for a while to ride it out and teach English. I absolutely loved it there, but after eight months felt the urge to get back into PR and climb the career ladder. I landed a job at a media training agency and although still being fairly young at 24, I was given a lot of responsibility – typical days would include collaborating with directors at Goldman Sachs, Cadbury and American Express on media relations and crisis communications. I then joined a PR agency startup as one of the first employees – it was a true baptism of fire.  The relentless fast pace was incredibly stressful – I was driving national news coverage campaigns, securing conference appearances, writing thought leadership pieces and managing journalist relationships on behalf of huge advertising conglomerates and media companies like MTV. I learnt a huge amount, especially about the value of being tenacious and proactive.  I then moved in-house to a role as Marketing Manager for EMEA & Asia for a global data company, where it was my role to support the Director of Communications in getting PR strategies off the ground in eleven different markets from scratch.

HOW YOGA BECAME HER ESCAPE: I started training to be a yoga teacher in my spare time when I was in my last corporate job. My interest in yoga had been sparked when I was travelling through Central America. I was staying on a beautiful island off the coast of Panama, which was predominantly a party island, but that side of it wasn’t really resonating with me. I stumbled across a yoga studio, signed up for some classes and immediately started noticing how much lighter (mentally, physically and spiritually) I felt after each class. Upon returning to London and becoming absorbed by the working world again, I would go to yoga regularly as an escape and began relying on it for a clear head.  One night I wrote a list of things I wanted to achieve in my life, and out of nowhere came ‘Be a yoga teacher’. So I did it – there was no hanging about! Once I set my mind on something I tend to make it happen pretty quickly. I wanted to channel my energy and focus into something beyond working a 9-5, as well as deepen my practice.  I signed up to the course, not really knowing how it would pan out but feeling intuitively that it was the right thing to do.

HOW BURNOUT MANIFESTED INTO DEPRESSION: I first had depression when I was teenager and it intensified when I reached my mid- twenties. One episode I am sure was triggered by work stress; I was working long hours, totally drained, relying on caffeine and sugar to get me through the day and was drinking alcohol too often. I wasn’t doing any exercise, eating well or sleeping properly. I was pushing myself to the limits, so looking back it’s not a surprise that it manifested in depression. I felt totally disconnected from myself and from others and that nothing I ever did was good enough. I was always exhausted. Now I can see that it was the depression, and not who I really am, but at the time I had normalised it. I started seeing a therapist, which was helpful for a time, but then the depression would come back. My rock bottom was a few years ago when I had a severe episode of depression and anxiety. It was the toughest and most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through – I thought I was losing my mind. Long-term anxiety triggered a major depressive episode, the worst one I have ever had. I had a huge anxiety attack; I thought I was dying and felt the walls were caving in around me. I was too scared to leave the house. I thought, ‘That’s it for me, that’s my life over’. I really believed I was going to be in a permanent state of terror and darkness. I was signed off work and went to stay at my parents’ because I was too ill to look after myself. Luckily I had incredible support, especially from my colleagues at the time. My friends were, and still are, an invaluable source of strength and support for me. I was barely able to get out of bed for a number of weeks, yet however bad it got, I kept having an image of a phoenix rising from the flames. I don’t know where it came from, but I took it as a message that if I could just get through this darkness, if I could hold on, then everything would be ok. Before it happened, I had signed up to a Nike Women’s 10k with a friend which was a few months ahead. Knowing that I had that to I do, and I wasn’t going to let myself down, really helped. I gradually started getting back to my training programme. As with the phoenix, I had this image of crossing the finish line. It was almost a triumph against the depression: you’re not going to keep me down, I am bigger and stronger than you. Now I work with the depression and anxiety and not against it, but having this mindset really helped me at the time.

Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depressionWHY DEPRESSION & OVERWHELM AREN’T THE SAME THING: A friend once asked me what depression felt like. I told her it was like having a black cloud permanently following you around. You feel empty and you can’t access any feelings of joy, because your levels of serotonin and dopamine, the bio-chemicals which govern feelings of happiness and motivation, are so low. This is why those with clinical depression can’t just ‘cheer up’ or ‘snap out of it’. It’s a serious medical condition; it’s not just a fleeting bad mood. You are robbed of self-worth and positivity; you likely think you’re useless and a burden. You don’t see the point in anything, or at worst, living. Clinical depression isn’t just having a bad day, or a bad week, which is all part and parcel of the human experience – it’s a seemingly constant state of despair. In contrast, being overwhelmed (for me personally), is when I have too many things going on and no breathing space – be that work or socially. While this may result in mild anxiety or trouble sleeping, it’s usually something that can be remedied fairly quickly when I take steps to fix it. These might be a few early nights, taking some time off or simply minimising my to-do list to the absolute essentials for a few days. Being overwhelmed for a long period of time can lead to depression if not dealt with but the two are very distinctive for me.

THE START OF HER WELLNESS & PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT JOURNEY: When I was 27, I started looking into alternative healing. I found a guy who did Reiki in London and during a phone chat he told me about an astrological concept called Saturn Return. The planet Saturn comes into orbit in our birth chart every 27-29 years and is designed to throw us off center and make us grow up fast. It forces us to reassess our life in order to guide us onto the right path. Anything that isn’t built on firm foundations (work, relationships, partying lifestyle) is highlighted – a quarter-life crisis, if you like. That really resonated with me and I began delving into wellness, personal development and spirituality as a way of understanding what I was going through, and of course ultimately to feel better.

THE STEPS SHE’S TAKEN TO TRANSFORM HER LIFE (THAT YOU CAN USE TOO!): The silver lining of being so ill has been that I had to change my lifestyle, as a matter of survival, to prioritise my mental health. Self-care isn’t an option for me, it’s a necessity to keep me balanced, healthy and happy. The prelude to getting into wellness was feeling totally off balance. I took a long, hard look at myself and the choices I was making. I could see that a lot of these choice weren’t working for me. I was constantly bloated with IBS, I was always tired, my skin looked dull and grey, my weight had gone up and I often had mood swings. From there, I began reading health blogs and educating myself about nutrition. I changed my diet from subsisting largely on rice cakes, chocolate, hummus and Diet Coke, to healthier foods that were going to energise me and make me feel good. For the first time in a long time, I stopped revolving my weekends and social life around drinking and replaced it with running and yoga. I also started doing guided meditations from YouTube and reading books like ‘The Power of Now’. The increasing sense of clarity and awareness that came from this new approach to looking after myself enabled me to realise what it actually meant to feel healthy. More recently, balance has meant learning to manage my mind. For many years I was completely tuned into my inner critic and would listen to its constant stream of negativity:  ‘You’re not good enough’, ‘Why are you even bothering?’, ‘You’re worthless’.  Having Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) really helped me see that these harsh thoughts weren’t really me, as well as equipping me with tools for managing them.  Would I say those horrible things to a friend? I’ve now learnt to talk to myself in much kinder way, but it’s an ongoing practice. Learning Vedic meditation has been absolutely key for my health; I don’t know where I would be without it. I learnt with Will Williams, an incredible teacher and now my colleague. It lifted the clouds of depression for me. It’s a mantra-based meditation that is rooted in ancient India yet is incredibly practical for how we live now.  I do it every day and it balances and de-stresses me like nothing else. I’ve had to accept that alcohol just doesn’t work for me. I can have the odd glass of wine, but anything more will amplify any anxiety I have and have a huge negative affect on my mood, which is just not worth it anymore. It was hard at first, because I was so identified with drinking as a big part of my social life, but now I value being clear-headed and healthy so much that it no longer feels like a sacrifice. For me balance means looking after yourself so that you can show up in the world as a positive and energetic person. Having the increased level of self awareness that depression gift has gifted me with means that I’m really tuned into how neglecting my health can throw me off balance. I have to really prioritise things like sleep, exercise and the way I eat in order to feel good.

Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depression

HOW FINANCES ALMOST STOPPED HER FROM STARTING THE AGENCY: My biggest fear before starting the business was that I would fail and run out of money. The classic ‘imposter syndrome’ that so many women experience popped up. I decided to go for it anyway – thinking ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and working my way back from there. The fear in leaving the corporate world and creating my own venture was far worse than anything that actually happened when I did it! For anyone in the same boat I highly recommend a book called ‘Daring and Disruptive’ by Lisa Messenger. She launched a print magazine in a dying market with no previous industry experience, which is now sold in over 30 countries around the world.

HOW SHE MOVED FROM BEING AFRAID OF THINKING ABOUT MONEY TO FEELING EMPOWERED BY IT: I spent around a year planning for my next move and I siphoned off money into an ‘escape’ fund. I saved as much as I could – having a financial back-up took the pressure off somewhat when I left, but it did take a while to adjust from the safety net of a monthly salary nonetheless. Creating different income streams really helped, for example I was able to supplement an initial freelance income with teaching yoga. I think there is always an element of fear involved when you make a big change in your life such as going self-employed. A book that really helped was ‘The Escape Manifesto: Quit Your Corporate Job, Do Something Different’ by the excellent organisation, Escape The City. Financial planning is key, as is being religiously on top of your accounts at all times. I used to think money and finances were scary, but actually, once I got my head around them, I now find them empowering. Prioritise your business and be prepared to cut down on unnecessary expenditures for a while to support your new independence. Ensure that you save, no matter how little, and that you have a pension. Take time to find a great accountant if numbers or finance aren’t your strong point, mine is a lifesaver.

Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depressionTHE FIVE STEPS SHE TOOK TO LAUNCH: I tried a lot of things and then got clear on what I wanted. The years before, in which I had learnt so much about wellbeing, business and entrepreneurialism were invaluable. It wasn’t an overnight process by any means, I really took the time to figure out what lit me up, what I was good at and how I could combine the two. I listened to podcasts, went to talks, read articles and absorbed everything I could. I spoke to people who were a few steps ahead of me. I contacted people I admired and asked them questions about how they had got to where they were. Hearing how they did it helped me see the importance of just starting, regardless of the outcome. I worked with an incredible business coach and brand mentor called Lucy Sheridan. She totally got my vision from day one and was invaluable in helping me expand my thinking and build up my confidence before launching. Having the accountability and support from her was instrumental in the launch. I created my website and messaging and worked really, really hard. I established what made Samsara Communications stand out and took this sense of confidence with me to new business meetings. If you don’t believe in yourself and your concept, why should anyone else? I made sure that I had enough ‘off’ time to replenish. It can be so easy when you’re launching a business or project to become totally absorbed in it, to the detriment of the rest of your life. It’s vital to look after yourself with sleep, exercise, time off and eating right to keep going. I would do everything the same now. Not that it was all perfect, but I believe in taking action on what you want to create and correcting the course along the way.

SECURING CLIENTS: So far, the growth has been largely organic. I already knew my first client and it just so happened that they were looking for marketing support at exactly the same time as I was going freelance. Other clients came about via recommendations from friends or contacts. A friend of mine, Ali Schilling who owns the beautiful Hilltop Yoga Studio in Muswell Hill in North London, and I did our yoga teacher training together. When I launched Samsara Communications Ali saw my Instagram post and got in touch as she was looking for support with social media and business development. 

START-UP GROWING PAINS: When you’re self-employed, you constantly have to back yourself, which can be exhausting.  You have to remind yourself why you’re doing this and get used to feeling uncomfortable.  It can be hard to switch off, as you’ve got to be constantly thinking about how you can refine, improve, grow and add value to get ahead. I burnt out a couple of times last year because I didn’t take enough time off. I was always ‘on’ and in hustle mode, even on holiday. I’ve learnt this year that holidays aren’t a luxury but a necessity, and the business isn’t going to fall apart if I take a day off.  Luckily I’m much more in tune with my energy levels now and have put measures in place to ensure that I take adequate time off to recharge.

HER ADVICE? BE REALISTIC WITH ABOUT YOUR WORKLOAD: It can be really tempting when you’re first starting out to say yes to everything – whether it’s work offers, events or people asking you to work for free. I overestimated by capacity to keep this up and realised I was over-exerting myself. Now I am learning to be more discerning with my energy and I’m much more conscious of when I need to take things back a notch, especially if decisions are fear-based. I try and reframe difficult things by asking myself, what steps do I need to take to improve this situation? What other perspective can I look at it from? Who can I ask for help? What can I learn from this? What is this teaching me about how I want to work?

HOW YOU CAN INCORPORATE SELF-CARE HABITS INTO YOUR LIFE: If self-care is new for you, start small. Write a list of things that nourish you and make your soul sing and schedule time in for them every week. It could be going to your favourite yoga class, turning your phone off for the evening, putting on a face mask, reading a book or having a healthy dinner with close friends. Even just taking ten minutes in the morning to do a guided meditation from YouTube can make a huge difference to how your day goes. Self-care isn’t selfish – if you’re feeling good and taking time to look after yourself, then that positivity is going to flow to the other people in your life. I’ve become more conscious of my energy over the past few years and now realise that if I’ve giving out so much when it comes to work, I’ve got to rebalance myself. The introvert side of me needs to recharge alone, so I make sure if I’ve got a busy week I will schedule enough time to recuperate. I no longer feel that I have to say yes to everything as well, because I know that if I overload myself I will get burnt out, and that’s no good for anyone. Self-care isn’t selfish – if you’re feeling good and taking time to look after yourself, then that positivity is going to flow to the other people in your life. I’ve become more conscious of my energy over the past few years and now realise that if I’ve giving out so much when it comes to work, I’ve got to rebalance myself. The introvert side of me needs to recharge alone, so I make sure if I’ve got a busy week I will schedule enough time to recuperate. I no longer feel that I have to say yes to everything as well, because I know that if I overload myself I will get burnt out, and that’s no good for anyone.

Helen Morris on burnout, anxiety and depressionHOW MEDITATION CAN HELP TUNE OUT THE NOISE: Meditation and yoga have really helped me quieten my mind, access my intuition and recognise what is true for me, beyond social conditioning, others’ expectation and the depression and anxiety. It’s like peeling the layers off an onion: with time, you start recognising what your true nature is, or what ancient Indian knowledge calls ‘atman’. The type of meditation I practice in particular is amazing for decluttering your nervous system and clearing up stresses that your body is storing. There is so much beauty in slowing down and taking a step back and perhaps looking at things from a higher perspective beyond the sometimes incessant chatter of our minds.  Once you start taking responsibility for your life and your truth and how you feel, focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t, you’ll be surprised by how many opportunities and synchronicities flow your way and support you on your way.

TOOLS TO OVERCOME FEAR: It clouds our lives like nothing else. It can prevent us from taking positive steps in our lives and living out our true potential. It’s easy to let it run the show, but I have found a few tools that have really helped me strengthen my personal compass. I used to rush into making decisions, but now I slow down and ask – is this true for me? Am I making this decision based on fear? How does it feel in my body? Is this a nourishing thing to do? Having that pause in between an event and my reaction to it has been a big shift in the past few years and helped me focus on what I want.

APPLYING SELF-CARE IN OTHER AREAS OF HER LIFE: I value sleep so much more now than I used to.  I know that if I don’t get a good night’s sleep I won’t be at my best the next day so it’s really important to me. I use a sleep mask and try and avoid screens before bed, as the artificial light stimulates our pineal gland into a daytime mode, which prevents sleep and agitates our nervous systems. I’m really interested in natural skincare and not using too many chemicals on my skin. I was in Australia recently and their organic skincare market is much cheaper and more accessible than in the UK, it’s very inspiring. I love Vitamin E Oil, I use a few drops at night and my skin is transformed by the morning. Getting out into nature is a must for me, especially living in such an energetically dense place as London. I’m lucky that I live near a park, so I try and go there twice a week for a run or walk. I was given an Ayurvedic tongue scraper on a meditation retreat – it looks and sounds like a torture instrument but it’s a powerful detoxer which I use every morning. I have massages when I can, and Reiki with my friend Carly Grace, who also runs these amazing sound baths where you just float away to another realm. I also have a ‘gratitude group’ on Whatsapp with two of my friends who’ve been through mental health challenges too. Every night we text each other three things we’re grateful for from our day.  Gratitude rewires your brain to be more positive, it’s very powerful.

THE MANTRA SHE LIVES BY: ‘Jump and the net will appear’. It dropped into my mind before I went travelling through Central America for a summer by myself. I booked a one-way ticket to Colombia and had no plan beyond that and no idea how long I would be out there for. I just went with my gut instinct and it turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. While I was there, I managed to negotiate a job working for a former client back in London and ended up only being out there for three months, but I made the most of it. Everything worked beautifully because I kept following my intuition.  I travelled through all these amazing countries, made friends for life, improved my Spanish and it’s where I first got into yoga. The future is guaranteed to no one and sometimes you have to abandon logic and just go with what feels right in your heart. I did the same when I started my yoga teacher training, when I left the corporate world, when I signed up for a meditation course and when I launched Samsara Communications. A friend recently told me ‘You can’t make a wrong decision, you’re just creating a new pathway with your choice’, which is incredibly freeing – I love that way of looking at things.

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