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Friday interview | Sara Phillips on building a business after a mental health crisis

Sara’s approach to wellbeing stems from her personal experience of grief due to losing both parents in a short space of time, plus a mental health crisis almost five years ago. She told us more about her life, business and passion for alternative therapies...

By Helen Bowman

Tell us a little bit about Altruis Living?

I provide natural wellbeing products, gifts and advice to help people look after their wellbeing. I work with a small group of hand-picked partners to design, make and supply natural products such as candles, essential oil diffuser bracelets and bath salts. I also run workshops and give presentations to encourage people to be proactive about their self-care. I’ve used my personal experience of mental health issues to develop my approach to managing time and prioritising wellbeing and self-love. A few years ago, I hit rock bottom with my mental health. I had a crisis, and I quickly realised that, while I could seek outside help, my recovery was ultimately in my own hands. I developed a toolkit of products and activities that would help me recover, and I still use it to this day.

The smallest things in life can have a considerable impact, both positive and negative. I work to educate my customers about nurturing their wellbeing and why it’s essential, but I also provide toolkits that help people proactively build time into their lives so that prioritising their own needs becomes just that, a priority. Taking care of yourself is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. And it’s so personal to each person – what works for one person may not work for the next.

We all know that taking time out to look after ourselves is not selfish. It can have a direct impact on everyone around you positively. I always say that you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you take the time to look after yourself, even for as little as ten minutes a day, the impact on positivity, productivity and stress levels can be huge, enabling you to look after others too. I’ve always been fascinated by the impact of life on us as individuals, internally and externally. I love helping people with the problems they come to me with, finding products to help them, but also using my knowledge of the body to guide them towards lifestyle changes that might alleviate their symptoms. I love helping people get to the bottom of their issues so they can be treated directly at the source as well as helping ease any symptoms.

We all know that taking time out to look after ourselves is not selfish. It can have a direct impact on everyone around you positively. I always say that you can’t pour from an empty cup. 

What has your journey been to get to this point?

I started my working life in our family marketing agency. I climbed up through the ranks from the age of 17 before ending up as company director. It was a stressful time in my life, but I was so used to the flexibility of not being an employee that when we shut the company down, I knew I didn’t want to go back into full-time employment. My husband and I had both worked in the family business. Closing the company around 12 years ago gave us both a chance to reassess our lifestyle and head in different working directions. Geoff remained in marketing, and I retrained in beauty. Heading back to college reignited my previously discovered passion for alternative therapies. 

I discovered the Eve Taylor oil blends in my second year and still use and sell them now, as part of my overall range. My aromatherapy tutor took us well beyond the curriculum on the subject, and she became my inspiration for essential oils, natural products, ethical and sustainable sourcing and reducing waste, and the benefits for just about every area of life. I decided to start on my own and went on some specific Eve Taylor training and met Eve herself – she was incredible. She could look at a person and tell them about their family history and ailments just from their skin and the lines on their faces. Her skills are based on ancient Chinese principles and involve looking at people’s physical issues and mapping them back to their roots. It’s a little bit like reflexology, but her system relates to whole body mapping with lines or marks relating to different issues in the body.

What is the Altruis approach?

Our bodies are made of 70% water and water has a memory. Our bodies are like biological computers that record what has happened and present symptoms in specific areas.

Some of us suffer blemishes and pains in one area, while others feel them elsewhere. For example, if someone has dry lips, my first thought would be digestive issues. If the digestive system is fine, I will look at the emotional side of things, including anxiety or nervousness, which all have an impact on the stomach and bowels. 

I’m passionate about the science behind what first appear to be physical symptoms, and I love being inquisitive about what’s going on in my customers’ lives that could be causing those physical symptoms.

I don’t just sell products to help with those issues but pride myself on digging a little deeper and helping alleviate the deeper problems.

Our bodies are like biological computers that record what has happened and present symptoms in specific areas.

You’re obviously very proud of your business. What sort of challenges have you faced?

My mental health crisis, almost five years ago, has been my biggest challenge. My anxiety can still be crippling, but thankfully I manage to keep myself ticking over by putting time aside every day to nurture my wellbeing by doing something that brings me joy.

The biggest challenge from a business point of view was a trademark infringement case brought against me recently by a large company in Europe. They claimed my company name was too like their own, even though I’d been trading under the name for many years.

They were very fair and gave me plenty of time, but I had to change everything. It was a scary time which involved shutting the online business temporarily for a few months while I spent time and money changing the company name, logo, branding, product labels. It was a huge job and presented me with all kinds of legal and technical problems. Thankfully I got some excellent advice from organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses and the free IP surgery at the library, who kept me straight on trademarks and legal issues.

It was all for the best because I love my new brand and the name, Altruis, is an anagram of my original name and is based on the concept of altruism too – it was meant to be. My customers often tell me that the new brand looks more premium than the old one, and I now offer wholesale to therapists, shops and salons.

I’ve also faced smaller challenges such as having to work around my son. I set this business up to work around having a child, and I quite often work while he’s around. It can be problematic when he needs my help or doesn’t quite get that I’m working even though I’m sitting on the sofa. Thankfully I’m most productive in the evenings so I can be flexible around him. Isolation and having to be a jack-of-all-trades are both problematic. But surrounding myself with a network of other self-employed people helps with both.

Do you have any advice for other women who suffer from anxiety and struggle in the workplace?

Everyone’s different, so there’s no single answer, but if you choose to do something you love, that’s the biggest hurdle.

After that, if something is going to impact negatively on your health, don’t do it. Learn to say no. It can be challenging to say no, but if it impacts negatively on your health, it’s imperative to make a change.

Manage your time – looking after your wellbeing doesn’t have to mean taking a week off work, booking a spa day or putting aside so many hours per week. Everyone has a minute at some point in the day. Stop and allow yourself to breathe.

Write a list of small things that could help you feel better. One minute of deep breathing, a 15-minute walk around the block in your lunch hour, going to bed an hour earlier and reading your favourite book. There are so many small things we can all do to fit in some self-care, every day.

Keeping ourselves topped up, emotionally, is so much easier than hitting rock bottom and having to start from scratch to build up our emotional resilience.

And finally, what are your North East favourites?

My absolute favourite place to go in Newcastle is Waterstones. I love it. I love sitting in the café, looking at the books, watching people walk by. It’s such a beautiful building too.

To eat, I love The Bake in Gosforth. The food there is incredible. I love loads of flavours, so their menu is right up my street. They also recognise their customers and treat everyone as if they’re their favourite customer. It was one of the only places I felt safe when I was deep inside my mental health crisis too, so it’s special to me.

Tynemouth is my favourite place for a walk. King Edwards Bay is such a draw, especially in bad weather. I could stand and watch the waves crash with the Priory in the background, forever.

The Quayside, especially on a Sunday. I’ve always loved the Quayside and enjoyed watching it all develop over the years. It’s great for a night out, the market on a Saturday, the street food, the bridge. When it’s sunny, I could sit there for hours.

Finally, there’s a tiny place called Vicolo at the side of the Tyneside Cinema. They make the best hot chocolate, ever, and it’s so cosy and welcoming. I love the fairy lights, and the art deco feel of it. I could sit at the outside tables at any time of year, drink hot chocolate and watch the world go by.

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