Human: Part III

If you separate yourself from your accomplishments, titles, and possessions, then who are you really? At work, I am Ms. Naima, the math instructor. At school, I am an unfamiliar passerby on the campus of George Mason University. And on Instagram, I am Naima, the yogi, contemporary artist, and blogger. But if we tap into our subconscious mind and explore our inner selves– strengths, vulnerabilities, aspirations, fear– then we discover the aspects that truly define us. Apart from being an employee, a classmate, a community member, or otherwise, who are you? We make myriad assumptions about other people every day, an automatic process conducted by the subconscious mind.

As I stood in front of a college class for a presentation today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gaps that my audience may have filled in their minds regarding who I am. I shouldn’t be concerned with directly influencing others’ perception of me; doing so is just as ineffective as beating a dead horse. But observing the nature of perception (of humans and the world around us) is intriguing because our thoughts are presumably flexible, and thus, subject to external influence. It is often that I spend the nights in quiet introspection, as I lay my thoughts on the floor of my mind and pretend to be an outsider. These thoughts are organized based on category: art, religion, culture, politics, academia, and more.

I challenge myself to consider the counter-view of my beliefs so that I may gain an awareness of diverse perspectives. Some may call this practice “walking in other people’s shoes.” My history professor and I call it “mental flexibility.” During this process, I observe the contours of my face and employ the imaginative part of my mind. I imagine myself as a single individual among billions of humans. These people do not have unique countenances– no unique race, religion, background, or character. We are truly a unified human race in this scenario (which only exists in the boundaries of my skull). We do not compare each other on the basis of financial status or ridicule unique gender identities (many of which were recently introduced by the millennial generation). We are mind, body, and spirit . We are one collective whole on this planet. We are not a dollar amount, a simulation of photoshopped magazine covers, or titles upon titles of resume-perfect accomplishments.

We are thoughts expressing themselves through character and action.

We are vulnerability– embraced by the self or not.

We are human.


The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.



Adrenaline Rush

Writer’s Note:  Neurological rewards, such as the adrenaline rush, keep me coming back to the gym for more. This piece is meant to capture that powerful sensation. I love reflecting on my deep enjoyment of physical activity. Hopefully, this piece will motivate you to exercise. Enjoy!- Naima

Adrenaline Rush

Mount the elliptical and don’t hesitate to begin. Hit ‘play’ on Halsey’s “Colors.” The body hits ‘play’ on adrenaline.  Head up, chest out, knees up. Sweat soaks my Under Armour shirt. Pick your knees up faster. The body craves an endorphin rush. The beat quickens. Heartbeat, light, and sound coalesce into a celebration of life. A fire kindles in my quadriceps and intensifies. Faster. The fire ignites an incomparable high. Open your lungs and take it all in. This movement is a dance in disguise. Halsey sings, “You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise.” My vision becomes blurry from sweat dripping into my eyes. Heart beat knocks against the walls of my lungs. Harder. I can feel my pulse in my bicep. Every inch of me has come alive. The mind is stimulated. The body refuses to quit. I increase the incline of the machine, increase the resistance. It’s not enough to spark a stronger high. Speed up. Use your arms! The song reaches its chorus. Techno music flows in, sweat flows out. Energy can be limitless. Energy must be limitless. I continue to celebrate my health, my youth, my happiness. The fire continues to burn through my legs, building heat. Nothing can blow out the flame. I have become the flame. Every muscle in the body is working toward the peak of this adrenaline rush. Light an entire forest on fire until there’s nothing left but hot wax. Sweat continues to soak every inch of my bright red shirt. Sit deeper into your quads and build toward your maximum speed. I can’t see my legs moving, but the fire still kindles. I eventually slow down and dismount the machine. The flame still fuels my pulse, as blood flows to my temples. Happiness floods my veins and is delivered to the heart. Let the fire burn.

Stronger than Mental Illness


The heart speaks louder than the shaking voices of victims who didn’t know how to handle mental illness.

But even as your heart hammers against your chest,

Don’t be afraid to speak.

Surround yourself with supportive people.

Paint the town in wise words you’ve learned from your situation.

Sing the song of your triumph after the storm has passed.

Let the liberation of self-expression run through the flesh,

The very blood stream that connects to a healthy heart.

A beat that was once an unsettled qualm,

Is now a beautiful, steady rhythm

That feeds an honest self-awareness.

I repeat

Your health is a priority.


Your health is a priority

Even before grades and schoolwork,

Nagging tasks and unfinished papers.

You are free to prioritize yourself,

Polish the best version of your personality.

You are not your disorder,

You are a living triumph,

A beautiful song that continues to play

Even after the drumbeat of your heart has grown weary.

You will wake up to another day

When you will expand your lungs to fill them with oxygen.

Tell me,

How amazing is this freedom?

The space

Between this inhale

And the next exhale

Is the greatest liberation I know.

The mind

And the heart

Are no longer weighed down by shackles.

Rather, they have grown stronger from having carried them for so long.

So parade in this wonderful freedom.

Beautiful green and blue veins ignite euphoria,

A liveliness once unknown.

Red blood traveling through the temples,

And eventually to the mind.

Tears of joy collect along your eyelid,

Tipping over the edge slowly.

You are free.

A living triumph,

A walking warrior,

Liberation personified.




The Drive to Personal Freedom

I started this blog in 2014 to share my experiences related to running. Thoughts of the sport occupied my mind most of the time; I always had ideas for original content. Running liberated my heart, mind, and body in ways that no other sport could. But as my blog unravels, I realize that I can achieve personal freedom through activities besides cross-country and track.


My blogposts are like a stereo. I hit the pause button on cross-country and hit ‘play’ on the music that echoed off the walls of my yoga studio. I awoke a wave of liberation as I struck countless asanas. The peace and contentment of meditation cannot be found on any cross-country course. So I stretched my calves in downward dog, pointed my toes as I sat in a split, and encouraged myself to breathe deeply. I wasn’t able to achieve this improvement in wellbeing by running. But I was blessed that my mental health climbed to new heights.

My yoga track now intertwines with the sound of poolside waves, as I learned how to swim today. I floated above water and performed graceful breaststrokes, wishing my oxygen capacity were unlimited so I could stay underwater. The smell of chlorine still lingers on my skin, the image of cool blue water is the wallpaper of my mind. As I swam, I turned my freedom’s volume to ‘max.’ Although I’ve stopped writing about running, I combined every one of my freedoms today as I floated in four feet of cool water.  My body absorbs the impact of strides on merciless pavement. My lungs breathe into mindful asanas. And my legs kick through powerful breaststrokes. I was a swimmer, runner, and yogi all at once. I swam through clear blue water, ran from waterslide to pool, and struck a dancer’s pose underwater. As I write these stories, I gently play the notes on this keyboard. My blogposts record my every song of freedom.


Movement frees the body and heart, but what’s missing? The mind. I may have stumbled upon liberation as I cartwheeled throughout the yoga studio. But in order to free the mind, I open the gates of my thoughts. I carefully type drafts onto a Word Document, often covering the pages in controversial thoughts. It’s easy to write a personal narrative, but arguing takes serious work. The current Presidential race fuels fire between our two candidates, as the United States of America become a little less… united. Minorities are under attack on a daily basis, as the LBTQ  community fights for their right to love and to feel safe in our (supposedly post-modern) society. The Black Lives Matter Movement strives to eradicate the harsh shortcomings of systematic racism. And the list goes on.

Writing Header

We associate the American flag with “freedom”, but the actions we take to achieve personal liberation can lead us to live meaningfully. Write, whether your ideas are popular or not. Exercise, whether you are “fit” or not. Dance, tumble, run, swim, or do anything that frees you.  I’m thankful to say that, today, as I finished my last breaststroke before leaving the waterpark, I truly lived up to my meaning of “freedom.”


Keep beating

Inside my chest.

A steady rhythm when I’m running,

A gentle beat when I’m meditating.

Stay healthy

As you pump blood to green and blue veins.

That remind me

I am awake,



Whatever you do,

Protect yourself

From fear.

Just be the same soft, gentle beat

I feel during meditation.

Let this serenity forever be with me.

Can I perpetuate this calm,

This honest self-awareness?


Unequivocally Beautiful

Dark skin

Or light skin.

But still so beautiful.

Size 15.

Or size 5.

But still so beautiful.

Thick thighs

Or thigh gap.

But still so beautiful.

Well over 6 feet

Or just shy of 5 feet.

And everything in between.

And still so beautiful.

We gaze at the picturesque women in advertisements

And crave.

Crave the narrow standard of “pretty” that media promotes.

But whether or not you look like what you see in billboards and magazines,

You are


And unapologetically


Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Beyond the Surface Level

Writer’s note: This blogpost was written in response to the photos that Hayfield CTE Teacher John Finneman took of shirtless female students. Mr. Finneman states that his intent was to promote health for “Wellness Week.”

Beyond the Surface Level

I deeply appreciate the H2N Newsmagazine’s effort to promote First Amendment rights, as students did in an article titled “Point/Counterpoint: Were the pictures taken for ‘Wellness Week’ appropriate for school?” I acknowledge our community’s effort to promote an inclusive environment in which students are safe to disclose their thoughts on issues that concern them. As a proud member of the Hayfield community, I make a conscious effort to contribute to this inclusive, respectful, and uplifting environment. I would like to discuss this article in a way that fosters mutual respect and acknowledges diverse points-of-view.

In the article, Senior Alexis Beard condemns the objectification of women in these photos, the students’ lack of parental permission, and the fact that a young male teacher was alone in a room with shirtless females (the great majority of whom are minors). To acknowledge the counterpoint, Lizzy Goldsworthy’s central argument was that we should, “…see these amazing women as athletes and not sex objects.” I appreciate Lizzy’s positive attitude toward female athletes, but let’s evaluate this statement. Her goal is to dissuade students from viewing these women in a sexual way, which I support. But let’s consider the psychology of the human mind and body. If a female views an image of a muscled man in minimal clothing, she is likely to have some kind of sexual response. This inherent aspect of my nature as a female is the reason why I choose not to look at explicit images as they do not promote a dignified view of the opposite sex. Simply informing males not to view the girls in the photos in a sexual way is to ask them to do something that is contrary to their nature. Neither men nor women can blame themselves for viewing an exposed body in a sexual way because we are biologically programmed to perceive them that way. It would be ideal if we could feasibly shift our point-of-view so that we don’t sexualize these individuals, but it contradicts human nature. This aspect of who we are as humans does not justify the objectification of either gender. Rather, it condemns the promotion of images that appear to have been intentionally made sexual. The images draw the most attention not to the workout equipment or the sports drink that one of the students carries. Instead, the focus of the photos is on the females’ bodies whose physical features are made prominent by water that has been sprayed onto their midriffs. We certainly cannot deny the inherent sexual nature of the images.

Beyond the H2N article, I find several incongruities in the argument that supports the promotion of these photos. While Mr. Finneman argues that the administrative decision to remove the photos from Twitter is “sexist,” we must evaluate the photographer’s attitude toward individuals of the female sex. During the first semester of the school year, Mr. Finneman said the following statement to a male student: “Stop being such a girl.” As one of the four females who was present at the time, I was deeply offended. I don’t understand why the word “girl” holds a negative connotation to some individuals. I acknowledge that Mr. Finneman’s comment may have been intended to be lighthearted, but making comments that enforce the dominance of a particular demographic is not conducive to an inclusive environment. Such remarks can lead female students to feeling subjugated, as the class consists of almost thirty males and only five females.

Another contradiction I have found in Mr. Finneman’s argument against the administrative decision is a comment he made in the instructions of an assignment that pertains to modeling. The assignment requires students to create a PowerPoint presentation that incorporates custom animations which demonstrate tasks for models to perform. Some of these tasks include basic responsibilities for a model, such as proper eating, learning the catwalk, and more. In the instructions, which Mr. Finneman typed himself, he states, “While these models are beautiful, they are not always very bright.” Although this comment may seem harmless at the surface-level, we see a connection between the comment he made to his male student, the sexualized photos, and these instructions. They all degrade the female sex.

We are aware of the stereotype that models lack intelligence. These women are solely acknowledged for their sex appeal and physical appearance (unjustifiably, of course). With the comment Mr. Finneman made in his instructions, he subtly agreed with this degrading notion. I absolutely respect all women regardless of the way they dress, but we fail to recognize the possible coexistence between beauty and intelligence. I’m sure that women in the modeling industry may have had successful academic careers. But we reduce these women to nothing more than just a beautiful body, not a human with real thoughts, aspirations, and values.

Another pressing issue relating to this subject is the fact that we don’t pay much attention to mental health.  As someone who has struggled with social anxiety as a freshman and still battles other forms of this issue, I find that it is crucial that we promote mental health. These photos have ultimately reduced the idea of “health” to nothing more than females in sports bras. But do these pictures truly promote all dimensions of health? Do they foster diversity, a value that my school prides itself on? Have they yielded a positive impact on the school community? They have not made a discernible difference in promoting the general welfare of the Hayfield student population. We must pay close attention to the result that they produced. Countless staff members feel unsettled. Students have been put in an uncomfortable situation in which they wonder, “Should I say something?” Members of our community have had to repress their ideas to avoid being the subject of backlash. In no way are these consequences healthy for our school, as we value inclusivity and freedom of expression.

Allow me to ask, why weren’t males included? Is a beautiful female body all health really is to us? And that leads me to wonder, if I’m not wearing a sports bra, would I be viewed as being just as healthy as any of the females who are? We need to make a conscious effort to promote diversity and inclusivity.

In this case, the effect of gender on our point-of-view is evident. In the photos, all of the girls are considered “thin” and are undeniably petite. Girls around the world grow up with the idea that they have to live up to the narrow perception of “beauty” and “health” that our media promotes. If you look up “model” on any search engine, it will be difficult for you to find any females who weigh more than 120lbs. What does that imply? Our culture supports the long-standing notion that beauty is an exclusive idea. I would not want my child to think that she has to have fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, etc. to simply feel beautiful. It’s clear that girls are negatively impacted by our media’s strict ideal of what “healthy” looks like. The number of females who suffer from eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, is far greater than the number of males who struggle with these issues. The photos would have truly made a positive impact in our community if we promoted the idea that we can be beautiful and healthy without stripping layers of clothing, without meeting up to ideals that may seem out-of-reach to young females.

I am distraught by various factors of this issue, but I hope to encourage you to do a few things. Look beyond the surface level. Mull over the incongruities I discussed earlier.

As a cross-country athlete, I understand that females have the right to dress liberally, and I completely respect those who choose to run in sports bras. But we must understand that there are different rules within a classroom environment. I acknowledge that the girls whose photos were taken gave Mr. Finneman permission to do so. But consent cannot be given when there is a power imbalance.

Although the H2N article provided two substantive points-of-view on this issue, we should certainly read between the lines. We need to not only evaluate the information that was disclosed in Mr. Finneman’s letter but also pay attention to what is said. Telling a male student to, “stop being such a girl,” and then complaining about sexism invalidates the complaint itself.

If we truly aim to promote health, we should take some action that will produce a discernible difference. We should reach out to our peers and ask them how they’re doing, support members of our community during difficult times, and promote an inclusive atmosphere. I genuinely wish that you feel safe and comfortable at Hayfield Secondary. Whether our beliefs align or not, I respect your point-of-view and thank you so much for reading.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about the modeling assignment that I discussed, please click the link below. Please pay attention not only to the comment that is made in paragraph three but also the condescending language. Thank you.

LinkModeling Assignment

More: Read “Why Did I Speak out Against the Wellness Week Photos?










How Much is Too Much?

Writer’s Note: As you may have noticed, this piece is one of my most substantive works of writing. In this post, my target audience includes anyone who is interested in understanding mental health disorders as well as those who struggle with this issue. We don’t talk about topics that many perceive as “taboo,” but I realize that it’s crucial to discuss them. Thank you so much for reading!- Naima 🙂

How Much is Too Much?

Two years ago, I experienced one of the most satisfying and challenging sports seasons I have ever completed. As a cross-country athlete, I could see the hope in my coaches’ eyes to help the team reach new heights with the sport. But our goals slowly became an obsession. My coaches’ desperation to help the team become more competitive was obvious. With our unhealthy attachment to winning, we reduced the sport to nothing more than numbers. After races, all we heard was conversation about race times. We only focused on achievement, not effort. A consequence of our obsession was that half the team was injured on the day of the 2013 Conference Championship.

As I look back on the 2013 cross-country season, I will never be sure if I can describe it as a positive or negative experience. For one, the season was truly life-changing. Months after our last race, I still replayed my favorite race memories in my head countless times until they filled my happiness to its brim. I had never felt so healthy and strong in my entire 15-year-old life. On the flip-side, I think of the season as a time when my teammates and I were overworked. We completed painstaking interval workouts three-times-a-week, “recovery” runs that truly didn’t help us recover, and long-runs every Saturday. The only rest-day was Sunday, but it failed to balance work and rest. Our season was defined by overexertion and an obsession with personal records. But I don’t regret a single day of practice.

I will never regret being present for the long-runs when a rush of euphoria reminded me of how blessed I am to be a runner. I will never regret the interval workouts when my sore muscles would twinge after every turnover. I will never regret the tears, the sweat, the heat cramps, or physical exhaustion. I know what you’re thinking. Naima, that is absolutely ridiculous! Why would people want to do that to themselves? Well, consider this. In a graduation speech I wrote last week, I stated, “We learn the most not from our successes, but our downfalls.” The 2013 cross-country season was ultimately a time of learning and personal growth, so much so that I highly doubt that I would be the same person if I hadn’t been an active member on the team. I’ll admit, it was nice being a varsity athlete for my first cross-country season, and even two years after that. But there are crucial lessons I’ve learned from the sport that transcend the value of being a varsity athlete.

The sport of cross-country encouraged me to ask, How much is too much? I can easily remember the countless instances that my coach advised my teammates to keep running despite their injuries. Sounds pretty inspirational, right? Wrong. In life, we laud those who push through pain to achieve a better version of themselves. But we need to identify when pushing ourselves is hurting us.

As you can tell, I invest a great deal of energy in maintaining my physical health. But mental health is often overlooked. We struggle to understand the reality of mental health disorders because they’re not tangible. They don’t have a physical existence. When a victim of mental illness tries to explain to you what he’s experiencing, it’s easy to dismiss his thoughts as irrational. But the negative thoughts and behaviors that dominate his life have a legit psychological basis. Do not label them as “dramatic” or “crazy” because there are some factors of mental health that are beyond difficult to alleviate.

I would like to share with you my journey to overcome anxiety. Let me put things into perspective. Anxiety does not control my life. Because I overcame social anxiety years ago, it’s slightly easier for me to understand what triggers it and how I can control it. Lately, my anxiety has stemmed from irrational thoughts related to my academic success. I refuse to receive anything lower than a ‘B’ on my report card. Sometimes, if I’m struggling with an assignment, I’ll tell myself negative things, such as, “What if I leave class without getting anything done,” or “What if no one will help me?” Ultimately, it’s a fear of loneliness, poor grades, and a lack of progress.

Let me just leave myself bare on these pages. I have nothing to hide because I not only want to help those who experience anxiety but also help you understand it. Countless times throughout this school year, my anxiety has led me to crying, so much so that I may struggle to breathe. From that point forward, I’m left to accept that my anxiety has defeated me, and that I have no choice but to wait for class to end. Do I understand that there is no logical basis of my emotions? Absolutely. But this observation should not negate the fact that it’s okay to feel low. It’s okay to not feel happy 100% of the time. And I’ve only recently absorbed these words of wisdom. Here’s the goal: to find a solution. To overcome anxiety so that I do not have to return to the helpless state that I have experienced time and time again.

With all of the fears that I disclosed, I have found myriad personal suggestions to help myself. If you find that they work for you, then by all means, go for it. If not, that’s fine, but please understand that I’m not a doctor. Some of these suggestions include:

  1. Breathe
  2. Ask yourself, “Do I need to take a break? Am I pushing myself too hard?”
  3. Remember to smile and think positively.
  4. Don’t worry about time. You have already accomplished so much. You will be fine whether the clock ticks or not.
  5. Do something you enjoy (i.e. have a snack, spend time with friends, etc.)

I understand that there are various triggers of anxiety. Thousands of people nationwide have a fear of public speaking. Other people are afraid of social interactions because they fear being judged or criticized. And the list goes on. When we sense that our anxiety has been triggered, we need to respond to it immediately. You do not need to feel pressured to keep exposing yourself to the subject that is hurting you. Take a break. Be kind to yourself. Understand what triggers your anxiety so that you may find a logical way to address the issue. Regardless of what your fear is, talk to someone you trust. We also need to evaluate patterns in our thoughts that produce negative emotions. If we associate public speaking with thoughts like, “What if I stutter,” or “What if I get so nervous that I can’t talk,” then we must shift our thoughts in order to condition a better state of well-being. Instead, you can practice strong posture and picture yourself having a successful presentation. We must recognize the powerful connection between our thoughts and emotions.

My advice to you about how to respond to anxiety brings us back to my experience as a cross-country athlete. During the sports season, I often wondered, “How much is too much?” My teammates became injured because they never responded to their stresses in an appropriate way. Our fear of lacking the level of competitiveness for major races led us to neglect proper rest. We must remind ourselves that we don’t need to place undue pressure on ourselves. The last time anxiety drove me to tears, I kept telling myself, “No, I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to cry today.” But the idea is not to work against anxiety. We need to work with anxiety. We don’t need to fight our emotions to the point that they get the worst of us because that truly won’t help the situation. In the future, I will praise myself for my effort. I will tell myself that the hard work I’ve put forth is enough and that I am intelligent. And as needed, I will take breaks and remind myself that it’s okay to relax. It’s okay to not be working 100% of the time.

With my advice, I truly wish the best for every individual around the globe who struggles with mental illnesses. We certainly should not deny their existence or ability to affect our lives. I do encourage you to take care of your physical well-being but certainly not at the expense of your mental health. And if I can leave you off on one last note of advice, I want to inform you of the power of meditation. This practice is scientifically proven to help individuals cope with anxiety and other mental health issues. It encourages us to put our life into perspective and breathe deeply. For more information, please feel free to read my post titled “Meditation”. Once again, I wish you all the best. You are powerful beyond measure.