Career Advice

6 Important Mental Health Tips That Will Help Freelancers Stay Sharp

By Jenni Miller October 24th, 2014

The freelance lifestyle is incredibly tough, and managing mental health on top of everyday concerns like invoices and deadlines can feel overwhelming. As someone who’s lived with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive order since I was a child, I’ve found that working as a freelancer has an equal amount of benefits and drawbacks when it comes to self-care and mental health. On one hand, it’s extraordinarily helpful to be able to make my own hours. If I am having a really bad day, I know I can take a few hours off and finish up a project later that night or over the weekend. At the same time, the isolation of working by myself and for myself can push all of my most vulnerable buttons.

Dealing with those drawbacks can be challenging, but over the years, I’ve relied on a few tactics that keep me healthy and productive even as the ebb and flow of freelance work swirls around me.

1. Meditate

There are many different ways to meditate, but one of my personal favorites is guided meditation. Tara Brach has written a number of books on meditation, and you can buy collections of some of her guided meditations on iTunes. She also has plenty of wonderful free meditations on her website, which range in length from about 10 to 30 minutes.

For another option, check out Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), also offers excellent books and guided meditations that you can buy online or on CD.

These suggestions are just for beginners. Once you dip into the meditation rabbit hole on YouTube, prepare to become an expert.

2. Take a walk

I know when you’re feeling bad it seems hard to even move, but just putting your feet on the ground is, well, grounding. Since so many of our work days consist of just emailing, pitching, creating, and completing assorted tasks that don’t require human interaction or leaving our workspace, we get stuck inside our heads. But once you start moving, it’s easier to keep moving.

3. Network online, network offline

To me, networking means making friends with people who do the same things you do. Maybe you can help each other with ideas or contacts, but mostly you just want to have coffee and commiserate. If you prefer the digital route, Facebook groups and Twitter chats are a few possible ways to communicate. Tweeting at someone who liked your article isn’t just a nice gesture in a world full of nasty comment sections; it can be a great way to connect as colleagues. If you feel like bringing that into the real world and talking face-to-face, even better.

4. Get help if you need it

Finding a therapist can be overwhelming, not to mention downright scary, even if you have gold-level insurance and buckets of money. Factor in our freewheelin’ insurance-optional lifestyle, and it can feel hopeless. There’s no shame in asking for help when you’re struggling, no matter what anyone thinks. There are resources for the uninsured, and there are plenty of support groups and advocacy organizations, as well as community centers that offer sliding scale and/or low-cost treatment. Google it. Heck, now, you can even Yelp it.

If you are in crisis, please call a support line or log on to a site like CrisisChat for immediate help.

5. Budget or barter for more expensive forms of self-care

Mental illness convinces you that you don’t deserve anything, even commodities that can help you feel better and healthier. Combine that with the urge to budget all the time, and it’s hard to justify any purchase that’s not a tax write-off.

However, even though, budgeting is important, you should always prioritize taking care of yourself. I’m not necessarily talking about a vacation or new shoes. A splurge can be anything from a new chair for your home office to a massage. Some find a light-therapy box to be immeasurably useful during the winter, and although they are pricey, it’s not the sort of appliance you have to replace every year.

People with anxiety and depression have also found acupuncture to be hugely helpful. It’s easy to think of acupuncture as something frivolous, but Western medicine is finally catching up with research that suggests there are tangible healing benefits.

If paying full price for acupuncture is a non-starter, check Yelp for community centers that offer sliding-scale services or even schools that need people to practice on. Or try bartering. Put the word out you’d be happy to trade services with a massage therapist or acupuncturist—perhaps you’re just a whiz with CSS and Blogsmith templates or write copy for company websites. If you chose that route, be careful to work out the terms in advance so no one feels exploited.

6. Take a mental health break

This isn’t a popular idea among some of my freelance friends.

I know if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. But one of the perks of setting your own hours is even if you play hooky to go outside or catch up on sleep, you can eventually compensate for that time lost.

Sometimes, I work best late at night, but other days I’m comatose by 10 p.m. Find out what works best for your mind. It doesn’t have to be nine to five, Monday through Friday, and you shouldn’t make yourself feel worse if you need a few hours to yourself during “normal” work hours. Trust that you’ll get the work done, in time and in great form. It’s too easy to feel like we should always be working. It’s equally easy to burn out, and who does great work under those circumstances?

Image by Santos Gonzalez
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