Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.
According to the CDC, one out of every five Americans struggles with mental illness. But in reality, that number is likely much higher. Here at mindbodygreen, we know that a mental health struggle—whether it be anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, or a diagnosis like bipolar disorder—can teach us more about life, health, and ourselves than we ever thought possible. So in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re sharing personal stories and lessons from those who have been there. Together, we’ll continue to add to the honest and open conversation about mental health.
Five months into my freshman year of college, I was lying on my lumpy dorm room bed staring at the ceiling, nauseous and petrified. It was 5 a.m., and I had an 8 a.m. class, but I had yet to fall asleep. From midnight on, my thoughts had been uselessly circling one another as I wondered if I would ever make real friends here, if I should transfer schools, and above all what was wrong with me. This was college. Why wasn't I having the time of my life?
This night, like so many others in that difficult year, had started innocently enough—with one fleeting, not-so-great thought. That had snowballed into three or four irrational thoughts, and soon enough my chest was tightening, and I was sick to my stomach, not to mention worrying about how completely exhausted I would be the next day.
I wish I could go back and give that debilitatingly anxious girl a hug and tell her that not only would everything be fine but that there was nothing wrong with her: Nearly 16 percent of college students suffer from anxiety. Not a lot of things went right that year, but one thing miraculously did: My dorm room was a mere 100 feet from my campus' gym and a running track.
Washing my anxiety away with sweat.
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Growing up, I didn't move around much. I had always been on the leaner side, and back then people were mainly focused on exercise when they wanted to lose weight. If I didn't have weight to lose, why bother? But on those anxious early mornings, I found myself inexplicably pulled toward my campus' 24-hour gym.
As my feet hit the treadmill and pedaled on the stationary bike, I would find these tight, anxious thoughts loosening up. Things weren't that bad, I realized: I was just anxious. I was fine, and everything would work out. As I started making exercise a daily habit, adding in long walks around my hilly campus and runs on the track, I felt like an entirely different person. This cloud that had been hanging over me for as long as I could remember (and had gotten particularly dark in recent months) seemed to be all but gone.
Looking back, I realize how much sense this makes. Exercise has long been prescribed as an anxiety-buster and stress-reliever, and one study even found that depressed adults who partook in aerobic exercise saw an improvement in their mental state that was as great as those who took the SSRI Zoloft. Slowly but surely, I was pumping happy chemicals into my brain—of course I was less anxious.
Taking wellness one step further.
Fascinated by what exercise had done for my mental state, I decided to give a few other "healthy" things a try, swapping my hot Cheetos for avocados and my after-dinner ice cream for nuts and fruit. Yet again, I was amazed. There's a brain-gut connection that I had yet to understand—all I knew was that I was in a way better mood.
I had more energy. I slept better. I was nicer to people, including my parents, who were still traumatized by my teen years, and even the people who made fun of me for loving vegetables and exercise. Yes, I still struggled with anxiety at times throughout college, but it felt manageable. A yoga class and an apple didn't necessarily guarantee that a bad day would suddenly become a great one, but it helped.
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How I lean on wellness now.
After college, I took a leap of faith and moved to New York City, where I launched my dream career, made tons of great friends, and found a partner who loves me for my ambitions, quirks, and weaknesses. My 19-year-old self would have been pretty happy with that and wonder what there was left to worry and be anxious about.
But the truth is, I still struggle with anxiety almost every day. I still find myself in moments of irrational thinking or spend nights tossing and turning and worrying about the next big thing there is to worry about, because that's the thing about anxiety: There's always something.
So no, my anxiety isn't gone. But thanks to an incredible wellness tool box I've cultivated over the years—Ellen Vora's mbg class on controlling anxiety, magnesium, meditation, CBD oil, and stress-relieving essential oils were excellent late 20-something adds—I know how to manage it. And knowing I have that is enough to allow me to close my eyes, smile, and take a very deep, very non-anxious breath.