Last year I took charge of my mental health and still came up short.
Diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder in the winter of 2018, I researched all that the internet could offer me. I joined the gym. I took up yoga. I went to therapy. A former premed student committed to evidence based science, I did all the lifestyle modifications research showed to improve mental health.
I discovered what foods were associated with lower levels of depression and ate them with religious zeal — antioxidant-packed blueberries, salmon chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamin rich spinach, high-protein Icelandic skyr (that tasted like sour milk). I ate it anyway, hopeful that the comforts of statistical significance would bear results.
And like strangers on Twitter kept shouting at me over and over to do, I drank water. Tons of it. I meditated with Headspace for 10 minutes per day. I went to the gym 272 times in 2019 (according to the gym’s app), attending hundreds of yoga and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes.
Despite it all, I still felt the looming dissociative sadness that would engulf me like Saran wrap, threatening to suffocate me at odd moments.
No amount of post-workout glow could keep it at bay, in perpetuity. I began to wonder if all my effort was worth the trouble, if the work of self-care (and it is work, truly) could really pay dividends.
It’s a phenomenon that can be broadly described as being 110 percent done with being “good” (read: on top of, perhaps to the point of obsession) about your lifestyle, fitness, and health conditions.
I’m not alone — Audrey Stanton of The Good Trade and Katie Rosenbrock of The Hungry Runner have chronicled their own experiences with wellness fatigue. “I so badly desire to participate in all of the healthy suggestions, though it has become anxiety-producing instead of relaxing,” Stanton wrote.
Vogue UK adopts a different, but still relevant definition: “slavery to relentless health trends have resulted in redundant household clutter as well as emotional exhaustion.”
These articles all espouse the same core feeling: burnout from a self-imposed obligation and external pressure to participate in today’s cult of self-betterment.
For those with health-related resolutions, the brave new world of wellness may seem full of promise. That promise is curated to pack gyms and make kale fly off supermarket shelves all across the country. Then we’ll settle into another frenzied January, where we believe how we take charge of our bodies, our minds, and ultimately, our lives will be different this time around.
It’s overwhelming, entering a world where radiant, mostly white women talk about how great they feel, the misinformation online swirling around like limpid froth on an oat milk latte. But these new lifestyle habits, whatever they may be, will probably not be your salvation.
It may even exhaust you in the end, like it did to me.
“When you can get a little taste of feeling good, it can become, ‘What else can I do? What more can I do to feel better?’” says Jessica Murnane, an advocate of plant based eating, author of the cookbook “One Part Plant,” and founder of Know Your Endo, a platform for endometriosis education and awareness. It can be easy to become obsessed with health and wellness trends, she says.
Although Murnane is part of the wellness world, she remains critical of the culture and the “wellness-industrial complex” — the late-capitalist industry that’s sprung up to meet the ever-present pressures of optimizing our bodies, in terms of health and beauty. She disagrees with the idea of “one size fits all” rhetoric. She uses the near-universal promotion of quinoa’s health benefits as an example.
“It’s really about returning to yourself and asking, ‘What makes me feel good?’” she says.
And even then, no diet change, exercise habit, or curated self-care product can cure it all. Murnane, who has stage 4 endometriosis, adopted plant based eating years ago in pursuit of better management of the illness. Even with diet changes, she still developed a 10-centimeter cyst, the size of a baby’s head, on her ovary.
“No matter how much green juice and yoga and everything else I did right, there was nothing that was going to stop that cyst from developing,” she says.
Some might find such narratives disheartening, but Murnane considers her story a “win” for someone with a chronic illness. She gives herself credit for getting herself, from a place where she could no longer get out of bed or stand, to living a relatively normal life. “I could have been really upset about that cyst and been like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ But I can’t do that because I knew I was doing my best.”
It’s a hard truth to swallow, that no matter how “good” you are, you may not reach your personal goals. It can be tempting, then, to turn to quick fixes — the turmeric shots, the mushroom packets, the CBD lemonade.
I came across a video by Dr. Ellen Vora, M.D. titled “The Wellness-Industrial Complex” that, for me, aptly provides guidance to the overwhelming cycle of turning to products for deliverance. “Don’t be distracted from the original messaging of how to be well,” she says in her video. “It’s not a product. It’s not necessarily something you can buy. It’s really just lifestyle and behavior.”
In Vora’s eyes, true wellness is low tech, unsexy, and hard to scale — unable to be capitalized upon by the trillion-dollar wellness industry. “Have fun […] but don’t forget that [engaging in products] rarely is actually going to create wellness in your life.”
Her video ends with a recommendation of the basics: “sleep, food, exercise, stress management, community, fresh air, sunshine, being outdoors in nature.”
Of course, incorporating a balance of these basic needs that works for you is daunting in and of itself. A 2009 social psychology study found that it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic — and even a habit as small as walking around the block for fresh air may take months to solidify.
When it comes to real, unfiltered wellness, your “best” will not always translate to the seemingly effortless health and boundless potential radiating from online gurus. In reality, much of it, in Murnane’s experience, is about confronting your own limitations.
“I don’t think we celebrate our wins enough and we’re looking for the next thing that can make us even better,” she says. “We might be pretty great as it is.”
For the most part, I still make my best efforts to eat well, drink water, and move my body, among a host of other habits I practice. Recently, I’ve learned to stop the internal process of self-flagellation that used to accompany the slightest deviation from my wellness routine.
Like Murnane says, I celebrate my wins: the healthy relationships I’ve cultivated since my manic episode to the way I sometimes deftly ride the waves of sadness, knowing I’ll eventually wash up on some shore of relief.
I see my own habits as a hedge against more undesirable outcomes of bipolar disorder, a touch of the narrative-making Joan Didion alludes to when she wrote the opening of “The White Album,” an essay about her own mental unraveling: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If I eat this, I’ll be okay. If I move my body this much, I’ll be okay.
I know these remedies are far from certain, with the more than likely outcome that they will fail me eventually. I do these things anyway, knowing full well that I am a person forever caught in my neurotransmitter’s ebbs and flows. I do them to live.
Patricia Kelly Yeo is a freelance writer and journalist covering health, food, and culture. She is based in Los Angeles. Find her being mostly professional on Twitter.