I was on set in Los Angeles with my best friend – who just so happens to be actress and model Suki Waterhouse. We'd first met in a nightclub and, six years on, we had launched our own accessories label, Pop & Suki. We were filming a promotional video that day, but as the bags shone bright in candy colours under the studio lights, inside I felt darker than ever.
On the surface (and if you were judging by my social-media accounts), I had it all: my own fashion brand, Pop & Suki, loved by the likes of Jessica Alba, a hugely popular Snapchat show, Pillow Talk With Poppy, and a successful presenting career that I’d been pouring my blood, soul and tears into since the age of 19. I was known for my positive and upbeat interviews with celebrities on MTV and attended red-carpet events in both London and LA, the two gorgeous, demanding cities that I split my time between – ones that as a schoolgirl growing up in Leamington Spa I could only pray I’d visit one day, never mind live in. But on that afternoon, when I should have been flying especially high, none of that mattered. Physically, emotionally and mentally, I was nothing short of empty. Suddenly the tears came thick and fast.
I managed to get through the rest of the day with the support of Suki and the crew, before slumping into a taxi home, but the next morning was a different story. I was done. My body felt so beaten that I could barely peel the duvet off myself. The bloating in my stomach, a permanent fixture for the last few months, had got so bad I looked heavily pregnant. Shivers ran through me and my tonsils felt like rusty nails scratching my throat. I’d reached breaking point without even realising I was close, and finally my body rebelled against the punishing diet favoured by my generation: stress, coffee and adrenalin.
FROM LA TO A&E
I lay on the floor of my apartment unable to move, a million miles away from my family but too drained to even make a phone call. As I cried at how alone I felt, every muscle pulsed and ached. A cocktail of tiredness and sadness had seeped into each cell and I had absolutely no idea what was happening to me. It was terrifying. Eventually I dragged myself to an emergency doctor who took blood and urine samples, ran saliva tests and asked me questions about my lifestyle. Almost immediately he delivered an unexpected diagnosis: I was suffering from adrenal burnout.
This was the moment when, for the first time in nearly eight years, I stopped to take stock. Country-hopping and years of hustle meant that I never, ever switched off; I was constantly plugged in, be it to my inbox, Instagram or social scene, as I was crushingly afraid of missing out.
Dividing my time between two continents meant that as soon as the work messages from London stopped coming in, LA woke up to bombard me with more. I’d regularly pass out in bed with my computer on my lap, or phone in my hand. As a teenager, I told myself that if I wasn’t the most talented person in the room, then at least I could be the hardest worker – and somehow it had almost become an addiction. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, but I was truly hooked on inhaling emails, compelled forward by four very strong coffees a day.
In my love life, too, I felt compelled to compete – this time not with myself, but with the seemingly endless pool of beautiful, available women who filled the dating apps I pored over. Even here, like so many other men and women my age, I felt the pressure to self-promote, to "sell" brand Poppy to the masses and hope to God they bought it.
All of this came tumbling out in that sterile doctor's office – and I wasn’t alone, he said. Currently, rates of anxiety, stress and depression are at an all-time high, with millennials reportedly being the generation most at risk from all these. Stress weakens the immune system, inflames the body and brain, and yet our culture tolerates it – celebrates it, even.
Ever had a friend moan about how busy and stressed out she is, only for you to respond with your own longer list of spinning plates? Ever had that small, quiet thrill that you are actually the busiest? Me too. But if you’re constantly under high levels of stress and feeling anxious, your adrenal glands can’t continuously produce the extra cortisol your "fight or flight mode" demands. That’s when burnout occurs.
I realised there were signs of it among many of my friends too – subtle things, like our collective lethargy. We’d all been grafting so hard since the age of 18 to smash our career goals that when we finally did, we weren't able to enjoy all the incredible things that were happening to us.
We’d host or attend astonishing parties and spend the time networking, exhausting ourselves rather than enjoying them, then flop into bed early. I’d repeatedly listen to friends panic that they were afraid they were becoming depressed after feeling unable to celebrate their hard-earned wins when, in actuality, what they were feeling was burnout – a total depletion of energy. As an eternal people-pleaser, I found myself taking on everyone else's stress on top of my own, too.
A NEW VIEW
After I crashed and burnt, I spent months retreating from friends, desperately trying to claw back some of the buoyancy most people expect you to have in truckloads in your twenties. The doctor prescribed me antibiotics for my throat and sent me to see a diet specialist who gave me an eating plan and supplements to reintroduce nutrients into my body. Sometimes I’d lie in bed and watch old clips of me interviewing, and feel sad that I’d lost "my flame". I’d call my parents, who would urge me to fly home, but I didn't.
It was a slow process, but gradually my stripped-back schedule took effect. A turning point came when a friend recommended I try a breathing class. (When we’re stressed, we stop taking those deep belly breaths that tell our body we’re relaxed. It was partly why I looked so bloated, too.) The teacher asked us to scream at the top of our lungs like a wild animal. As the noise rose up from my stomach, set my lungs ablaze and flew out of my mouth, a slow sense of freedom rose through me, too.
We spend so much of our lives trying to maintain a sense of control that disregarding societal norms, even for a few hours, sparked a sense of liberation. I cried for hours after that first class, but not for the reasons I'd been crying for months previously. It moved me so much that I’ve since trained as a breathwork instructor myself. But recovery wasn't as easy as just taking a few deep breaths. For months afterwards I couldn’t even walk into a coffee shop without shaking – the mere smell of caffeine set off internal panic alarms. My body was still protesting against stimulants.
Before I burned out, I thought the expression "self-care" sounded indulgent for all the wrong reasons, but I’ve worked hard to rewire that mindset – we can’t change our behaviours until we change our beliefs first. Crucially, I realised nobody else could make me feel enough until I made myself feel enough. I would wake up, scroll through social media, tap-tap-tapping, scheduling meeting after meeting, worrying about work and friendships, agreeing to every social event because I felt obligated, and then still feel guilty that I wasn’t doing enough. All the time my self-esteem was non-existent, to the point where I believed I only "deserved" a good night’s sleep when I’d reached peak exhaustion. Around this, I'd try to cram in intense exercise in the hope of reducing my inflated stomach. I still love work and push myself, but no longer to breaking point. When I feel myself edging towards bad habits again, I’ll take a step back.
The process made me realise that while we’re taught to clean our teeth and brush our hair, nobody really teaches us how to take care of our brains. It took me until the age of 26 to figure this out, as well as the importance of creating positive daily rituals for yourself. That's why I’ve spent over a year developing my app, Happy Not Perfect, which pulls together all the strands of my experiences and outlines the steps to recovery from millennial burnout and daily anxiety. I used to just ignore the tiredness, over-emotional reactions and other clear signs I was running out of gas, and yes, I still have days when stress feels overwhelming, but they’re much fewer and further between. Self-care is not selfish. You cannot pour from an empty glass.