Some of the most fulfilling experiences for me, and when I felt most at ease and content, were those where I have volunteered my time to help others. There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that by doing the same, by thinking of and helping others before yourself, you can significantly improve your mental health and it can even be the secret to overcoming addictions too.
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I consider myself a humanitarian at heart, I have often toyed with the idea of spending my life working in refugee camps, working with those less fortunate who have had everything taken away from them. It’s almost as if I can feel their pain and suffering.
At the age of 18 I travelled to Ghana to volunteer for 6 weeks, helping to build schools. When I arrived, things were not actually what they seemed. This was clearly a “voluntourism” scheme making a lot of money by sending paying western folk over to developing countries to make a profit. It became more of a holiday. There wasn't a lot of opportunity to actually make myself useful and I became very skeptical of these volunteer schemes. My mood plummeted until I arrived home. I now actively discourage people taking part in such schemes where you pay. I think my mood plummeted because I knew I wasn’t doing any good at all.
I spent about a year researching the issue and came across the Department for International Development 3 month ICS internship where you fundraise for your charity placement and spend 3 months at small local charities in the developing world. I wanted to give it another go, to see if I would get a different experience and actually end up feeling fulfilled.
I did. I was actually working, putting my skills to good use for a small women's rights charity in Ethiopia: NEWA. It wasn't a holiday. I went to work, as the only British volunteer in my placement. I worked alongside NEWA’s staff on their policies, their fundraising and their website. During those 3 months, I felt great. I had purpose, I had an important role and I am still in touch with the family I stayed with and my colleagues at NEWA. I was happy, content and not anxious or depressed, I didn’t realise at the time but I was probably trying to make myself feel better during the onset of my anxiety disorder. And it worked.
It is only recently that I came to realise that a lot of the 12 step programmes that have been successful in helping people overcome addictions are actually based on this fundamental idea too. A few months ago I heard Russell Brand talking about his own recovery and the 12 step programme.
The basic idea is that instead of focusing on yourself, you turn your attention to those around you and actively try to make amends for the wrongs you may have done to others along your path of addiction. In other words, turn your attention to helping others and you are on a journey to service. This in turn can completely help you recover from addictions and help you achieve whatever you want to achieve or overcome, it gives you purpose, drive, ambition and in turn self-esteem.
Another reason why I personally found volunteering beneficial for me is in meeting other like-minded people. During my time in Ethiopia, I met a lot of lovely, inspiring, down to earth people and there’s a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with individuals who want to help make the world a better place.
During the past 6 or so years, I haven't done as much volunteering as I did when I was younger, I now sit here and wonder if this could have contributed to my poor mental health too in the past few years? I think its a very tricky one, a catch 22, the worse you feel, the less motivated and confident you are to take part in any volunteering or extra curricular activities and trust me it can be very very difficult indeed to start that process.
At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic I was anxious, but luckily about 2 months ago, my GP doubled my dosage of antidepressants and so although the world was changing rapidly and my anxiety was creeping up, I was actually going through a period of stability in terms of my emotional outbursts and my overall mood. That’s also why I had so much drive in making a website and building a business, despite the crisis.
I also felt well enough to volunteer, so I sent out some leaflets around my local neighbourhood to ask people to get in touch if they are isolating and need anything at all from the shops or pharmacy. I did some shopping for my elderly neighbours a few times a week at the same time as starting worry knot and definitely feel better for it. I think now is a perfect time to reach out and be kind to others, we have a lot of opportunity to do so and in turn, it really will make you feel better too. Win-win.
I now seriously plan to finally build regular volunteering into my life again, knowing it will make me feel better and I urge anyone who can, who may be starting to feel low in mood but still very much functioning, to do the same. This weekend I will knock on my neighbour’s door. Not just for them, but for me and my health too.
For more on my blog: www.worryknot.co.uk/blog
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