We frequently mention that freelancing can be incredibly rewarding, and it really can. You can work with a lot of freedom and flexibility, deciding which sorts of projects you want to work on, when to work and where to work from. Freelancing can also present its own particular problems, bringing with it spikes when you will most likely be working irregular/long hours on multiple projects, and droughts when there will be very little work coming in. You need to be able to be persistent, resilient, and cope with stressful situations; as well as the sense of isolation which can sometime creep in when you go solo. Being able to face up to these difficulties can be the difference between tackling them head on and falling foul of episodes of depression, so it is important not to ignore them!
(As should be clear, the advice here should be taken as supplementary to and not a substitute for the help of a trained professional. You would see a GP for a regular check-up, making sure your body is ticking over nicely, why should it be any different with your mental life?)
Don’t let your stress stress you out:
Stress is going to be a part of your life, freelancer or not. No one is able to live a life totally devoid of the stresses and strains of an unpredictable world. It isn’t avoiding stress entirely which leads to a healthy mental life, it is learning to deal with this stress effectively and not letting it spiral towards oblivion. You need to accept that this stress will feature in your life – although it is granted that less stress would be preferable to more – and try to not build it into anything worse than it is. You can actively take steps towards changing how you think of these stressful episodes so that you don’t fear the stress as well as the situation the stress is a symptom of. The feelings of stress can be viewed in a more positive light, as a sign of resilience and as a force which is enabling you to get more out of your body, which is allowing you to carry on working towards some end. Making an effort to consciously reframe the scenario in such a way can be the difference between ‘a difficult period’ of work and a whole host of stress related illnesses.
Make time for exercise:
This step can seem tricky; when you start to feel stressed and incredibly busy those exercising activities can quickly seem superfluous. You might expect other people to be less sympathetic: “How stressed can you really be? You still have time to go for a run every day!”
Of course, people might react this way, but that only goes to show how poorly our society understands issues around mental health. Exercise is a great stress-buster! It kicks up production of endorphins (little ‘feel good’ factors), it can help to regulate your sleep, and help to reduce the symptoms of (mild) depression. Almost paradoxically this regular exercise can also boost your energy and help you to remain calmer and more focused when you return to work. It is true that people often cut out exercise when the going gets tough, thinking that they don’t have the time for this anymore, but all this does it start off the spiral downwards. Once we appreciate the benefits of exercise it becomes clear that its absence will only make matters worse. Try to schedule it in like a meeting, whether you go to classes, go to the gym, or simply go for a jog. Find a time when you aren’t very productive and try exercising then, or use this time to get more rest and then exercise in the morning before work! Make the time and you will reap the rewards.
Spend time with friends and family:
Without the traditional office hours/space, freelancers can lack the boundaries in space and time that separate work from relaxation. This blur isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you’re really enjoying what you are doing, but when stressed it can create the feeling you’re never working properly but you’re never really relaxing either. This is detrimental to the better working of your whole mental life which needs periods of complete relaxation in order to operate at optimal levels.
The response we have to stress is similar to the evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ instinct, but in the world of work fighting a client or running away from them aren’t really viable options. In the sort of society we have moulded for ourselves we need to approach this survival instinct differently, and when we feel stressed and vulnerable we need to reach out for some social interaction rather than shutting ourselves away. If you can do this and use the stressed feeling as a push towards making more social connections rather than isolating yourself you might just ward off the worst of the stress-related illnesses which could rear their heads.
But what about the work that needs doing? Yes, we do still need to send time focusing on the work and situation causing the stress, but after a certain number of hours of work (which will change slightly from person to person) productivity starts to drop, as well as your health. You need time to be social in order to be happy, but this doesn’t necessarily mean going out and meeting new people. It will depend on what makes you happy, it may be that you just need to spend some time with family, with friends or a loved one, or even just on a personal project.