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:
- Ask yourself, “Do I need to take a break? Am I pushing myself too hard?”
- Remember to smile and think positively.
- Don’t worry about time. You have already accomplished so much. You will be fine whether the clock ticks or not.
- 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.