Imagine you're sitting in your lecture class in college while you're taking notes and listening to your professor speak. All of a sudden, you feel this intense fear. You realize your breathing is getting shorter and faster, and your heart is racing as if you just ran a mile. You feel adrenaline rushing all through your body. Your chest feels so tight that it seems as if you can't catch another breath. Your fingers tingle, your face feels hot and your palms are sweaty. You might feel a little dizzy, all the while hoping that no one realizes that you're FREAKING OUT inside.
Anxiety is something that I've personally struggled with for years. The earliest memory of anxiety I have is from about 15 years ago when I was in 6th grade. I remember sitting in class and having a full-blown panic attack. Of course, I had no idea what it was until years later. And even then, it wasn't until my college years that I researched more about what I was going through.
If you're familiar with "fight or flight", you know that this rush of adrenaline is our brain's natural reaction to danger and fear. When faced with danger, we either acquire this rush of adrenaline to fight or to take off. Everything I described above is completely normal and rational-- if there is real danger. But when there isn't, that's when it becomes a problem--an irrational fear.
During my senior year in college, I was going through several life changes. It was my graduating year, I was worried about finding work and paying my loans. My personal life was a bit all over the place and my family as a whole was going through some tough changes. It was during this time that I found myself having recurring panic attacks. I decided to seek out counseling, and I was eventually given anxiety medication.
After a couple of months, I realized that the anxiety was still present. I decided to stop taking the medication and just "deal with it." My thought was, “I had been dealing with it since I was a little girl, so why not now?” During this time I wrote it off as "a cross I have to bear.”
A couple of years later I joined a mission ministry called Hard as Nails. Working out is part of the ministry's charism and it is mandatory (to the level of what you're physically capable of doing). I was told, "working out will help with your anxiety" but honestly, I didn't believe it.
After about a month or two of consistent exercising, I realized that my anxiety had significantly decreased. I wasn't extremely nervous all the time, I wasn't anxious for no good reason, and I was definitely not having the panic attacks.
Though I continued to work out once I came back home, currently, three years later, I am finding myself constantly plagued with anxiety and certain moods. Writing this article has reminded me of the enormous difference exercise has made in my life.
I truly believe working out has a positive effect on one’s mental health. According to the ADAA (Anxiety & Depression Association of America), there are studies which show that regular exercise can work just as well as medication in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, just like therapy and medication, results can vary. For some, it might work short-term and for others, it might not work at all.
I am no doctor, but I did study psychology, and I want to encourage you that if you suffer from anxiety or depression-- diagnosed or not-- firstly, seek help and secondly, exercise! The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year. That's a huge number! Mental illness is a real issue and it should be treated as such.
Do not be afraid to seek help or to reach out to someone you trust. Forget about the stigmas and focus on what you need and what's best for you. If you don't suffer from mental illness, remember to always be sensitive to the topic. Just because someone seems to have it all together, does not mean they do.
According to Mental Health America, 1 out of 5 adults in the U.S. has a mental health condition, and the rates of depression in youth continue to increase.
We serve a God who does not delight in our suffering but desires to work with us, so as St. Joan of Arc once said "act, and God will act." Let's take the best measures possible to help ourselves be as healthy as we can be.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI(6264)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being, by Michael W. Otto, PhD, and Jasper A.J. Smits, PhD (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Naturaleza Perez is a Jersey girl with a traveler's heart and love for nature. She was a missionary for a year with Hard as Nails where she realized her love for working with the youth. She worked as a Youth Minister for two years and is currently working for the Family Life Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of NY. You can find her on a hike somewhere, reading a book, or enjoying some warm chocolate chip cookies.
Image by: [Marisel Rodriguez https://www.flickr.com/photos/mariselrod/]