Strong, Healthy Women Interview Series: Eleni Psillakis
- Created: 19 June 2020 19 June 2020
Eleni Psillakis is a health educator with 30-years experience in education and the fitness industry. In 2016 she was awarded ‘Filex 2016 Inspiration Award Winner’ for her efforts in raising awareness of eating disorders as serious mental illnesses, and her workshop ‘Supporting Clients at Risk of Eating Disorders’ has been approved by Fitness Australia for CEC’s (professional development credits) for exercise professionals. Eleni herself has overcome anorexia and clinical depression and is passionate about bringing an understanding of the connection between addictive behaviours and the underlying thought patterns.www.brazengrowth.com.au
Find inspiration as we talk to Eleni Psillakis in our #StrongHealthyWomen interview.
Hi Eleni! Thank you for being part of the Health and Fitness Travel, Strong, Healthy Women Interview Series, where we are shining a light on the importance of self-care, not as an indulgence but a necessity to reduce stress and general health issues.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you and what does that look like?
My day usually starts anywhere between 5 and 6 am most days. Even when I don’t need to wake up so early, I do! My view as soon as my bedroom blind goes up is the sunrise with the ocean in the distance. I take a deep breath of gratefulness in.
I start my day with exercise, which has been a part of my life for 41 years. In the last 10 years, resistance training being the dominant activity by choice as it allowed me to focus on technique and for each set it gave my mind a break from the many negative thoughts arising from clinical depression that I had suffered from 2006 till about 2016. When I pounded the pavement running, the thoughts ran with me.
Each session is no more than one hour. This contributes to keeping my mind well and sets me up for a positive and productive day. I have over 30 years professional experience in education as well as in the fitness industry. My degree is a Bachelor of Personal Development, Health and Physical Education.
Three days a week I work with women affected by the criminal justice system, assisting them to rebuild their confidence and to find employment. I also have a small business called Brazengrowth, focussing on developing and delivering mental health programs and workshops, including eating disorders. I also provide peer support for people that have experienced poor mental health.
I developed a workshop that has been approved for professional development for the fitness industry called ‘Supporting Clients with Eating Disorders’. Promoting and educating the industry and the community on these serious mental illnesses is important to me as a result of personal experiences I have had.
Regular meals, not eliminating any food groups are part of every day. I do not skip meals and ensure I drink at least two litres of water a day.
My mind, body and health are looked after because of this as well as regular, appropriate levels of exercise.
My mind has difficulty switching off at the end of the day, so I need a good book to get lost in before finally falling asleep. I pray a prayer of thankfulness for the day before I fall asleep.
Can you share a time when you felt your well-being was challenged in the past and what did you overcome it?
There were three times in my life, spanning over 3 decades, where my well-being was challenged. I didn’t realise until I hit rock bottom that these times were all connected by the same underlying false belief. This belief was that I was never enough and not worthy of being loved unless I tried harder to please. The anorexia nervosa I suffered in my late teens and early twenties was not due to poor body image. The unhealthy behaviours developed as a means of what I thought was ‘coping’ with undiagnosed depression. My mental and physical health were compromised as my weight dropped to dangerous levels with no menstrual cycle for 5 years. This was in the early 1980’s when eating disorders were starting to be discussed in the media.
The threat of hospital from my GP frightened me. It was resistance training that eventually assisted to restore my body weight. This was frightening at first, but I enjoyed feeling individual muscles work. I knew that if I wanted to lift more I would have to eat more. It took two years to regain the weight that I had lost. But restoration of body weight did not mean full recovery was achieved.
Fast forward 25 years and 18 years into a 21-year marriage. All the negative thoughts and emotions re-surfaced and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. To unlearn decades worth of unhealthy thoughts about yourself is tough. Things got worse when I made a poor decision that cost me 11 months in prison in 2013. During the 9 months that I was on conditional bail before being sentenced, I was under the care of a forensic psychologist. I had my first light bulb moment with her. My thoughts about myself during anorexia and the moment before offending were one and the same – ‘If I don’t do this, I will not be of value.’
I worked hard to retrain my thoughts using cognitive behavioural therapy under her guidance and antidepressants. However as soon as the handcuffs went on and I was stripped of all my identity and locked in a cell, it was extremely difficult to maintain all the healthier thoughts I had of myself. All your freedom is taken, including choice of food. About three months into prison time I had my second light-bulb moment as I sat on the grey floor of the cell, hating myself and wanting to die. I recognised that these thoughts were exactly the same pre anorexia, pre diagnosis of depression and pre offending. What would I have unlearned if I continued to be consumed by these? NOTHING.
From that point on I refused to be defined by any of these circumstances. Your thought life directs everything so I purposed to fight to keep my thought life as healthy as I could in that environment. I became stronger from the inside out. Ironically, I was set free behind bars from a lifetime of thoughts that had me imprisoned my whole life. I vowed to do all I could for mental health when I was released.
What does being healthy mean to you and how do you keep this at the forefront when life gets unavoidably busy?
I believe the five aspects of health - mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual, are all dependant on one another. From my experiences I believe health begins with your thought life, particularly thoughts you have of yourself. Thoughts and emotions can direct our behaviour and consequently our physical, mental and social health. If one of the aspects of health is negatively impacted, then it can affect the others.
During the years of anorexia, my idea of what was healthy was actually not healthy. The behaviours were driven by fear, anxiety and false beliefs. I thought I was looking after myself, but I wasn’t. Guilt would consume me at the thought of resting. ‘Dis-Ease’ to me means ‘no peace’.
The health of my mind and thought life is my priority. Appropriate levels of exercise have been part of my mental health plan, so I prioritise exercise into my day as the first thing I do when I wake up 5 – 6 days a week. I also listen to my body and if I am feeling unwell, injured or tired, I rest, without guilt or anxiety. This to me is a major marker of health. No guilt leading to unhealthy thoughts and cycles of behaviour patterns.
The same can be said for healthy eating. We may think that our nutritional habits are healthy but if ‘rule keeping’ around nutrition causes anxiety, then how healthy is it? I eat whole foods from all the food groups, enjoy food that I have not prepared and enjoy going out with friends to eat.
I find when all these things are in balance, I cope better with life no matter how busy it gets. And I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get everything done in a day that I set out to do.
Have you ever taken a holiday specifically for your well-being? Can you share what the experience was like?
I consider any holiday that is a break from my usual routine as beneficial for my well-being. My last holiday was a road trip up to the far north coast of NSW. I had not been to Byron Bay for about 20 years. I spent a few nights over the 10 days with friends I had not seen for a long time.
I planned to not exercise except for walks that I did to get to a beach from the airbnb where I stayed. Reading a good book on the beach in between diving in the ocean was all I wanted and expected to do. Wondering through the boutique shops and galleries of Byron was a treat in itself as well as the mojitos at Miss Margarita as I sat and people watched.
This is what I could afford financially. One day I would like to experience what a well-being retreat has to offer.
Every woman's idea of self-care is different, tell us about yours?
Self-care for me started with believing I was worth looking after myself. I think so many women feel that they need to look after others before they can even consider looking after themselves. It took months of work with a psychologist to help me see that self-care is not being selfish. It is actually empowering so that I can give my best to others. Again I would like to point out that what I once believed was self-care was actually fear and anxiety driven.
Self-care for me is now driven by respect for what my mind, body and emotions need.
Being near the ocean for a walk and especially diving into it is one of my self-care practices. So is singing! I love singing at the top of my lungs. This might be at home, when I am driving in my car or out at karaoke where there is a public audience! I find it liberating to do so. Going out for dinner and a dance to a live band with a group of girlfriends is what I enjoy to do. Self-care for me is enjoying resting either within a day or having days off usual routines.
Above all, I find that my best ongoing self-care has come from being authentic in all situations and finding my assertiveness to speak up when I feel I need to. I used to shrink away, not knowing if or how I should say what I was feeling. I have learned to do this in an appropriate and timely manner. I have learned to control things that are within my capacity to do so given each differing situation I am faced with. This includes the people I choose to be part of my life. Having had an experience of prison brings the opinions of many. I learned that those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter. This attitude is part of my self-care.
I have become stronger from the inside out, knowing that it is ok to not feel on top of everything. It is ok and normal to not feel positive and upbeat 100% of the time, acknowledging these moments, sitting with them but knowing what to do to not stay there. I now love who I am, despite all that I have experienced. I am me and I am proud that I have overcome and now helping others.