The Power of the Breath

In February 2020, I was accepted into the University of Virginia. I had everything I needed to succeed - a laptop, the internet, and a willingness to learn. Due to Covid-19, Zoom classes began and I felt overwhelmed by the world. Negative thoughts raced through my mind and it felt like they were suffocating me. I struggled to breathe as my anxiety took over me.

I have always been an overachiever. I came from a working-class, southern, black family. Therefore, it was all A’s or nothing. Throughout the years I added sports, clubs, and a busy social life to the mix. It felt good to have many things going on and in the words of my father “pressure builds diamonds.” I started pulling all-nighters in the fifth grade, and going to sleep at midnight was normal. Even though I didn’t need to, I brought all my books to school despite how bad my back would hurt. I pushed myself beyond what I could handle to achieve success.

Anxiety began to build. That angst carried into classes. For example, I would overanalyze all my answers on tests and would be the last student to finish. This angst also harmed my mood and performance while playing sports. I thought about everything that could go wrong in the game rather than having confidence in my ability.  I had trouble enjoying myself and being in the moment. 

When I reached my senior year of high school, I felt that I had it mostly figured out. I was confident in my grades because I got accepted into one of the top colleges in the United States. Academically I was achieving, but I still lacked confidence in my social interactions. I always wanted to say the right thing at the right time. However, imperfect interactions would derail my day and make me wonder if anyone truly liked me. I just attributed it to being a perfectionist in all aspects. The ultimate challenge to my mental health would arise right after my 18th birthday. We were all sent home from school and my life would change forever

The summer of 2020 was traumatic for me. The Covid-19 virus had me fearing for the lives of everyone. The Black Lives Matter movement made me nervous about my own identity and angry at the responses of others. I came from a small conservative town with a school makeup of 11% black students. Therefore, being a black student felt like I was a caricature due to all the stereotypical assumptions thrown at me.

 The conversations I heard centered around black people were not about our history or culture. Black people were the butt of the joke. I would constantly have to defend myself against racist jokes in which no one (not even teachers) questioned. Therefore, during BLM, I felt very alone and unsupported in my own small community. 

Life spiraled out of control with the loss of my Grandpa. However, college was starting soon and I needed to focus. My learned behavior was to just suppress these feelings and keep it moving. During the first few weeks of class, I channeled my passion and anger into learning more about Black history, joining clubs, and working my hardest to receive A’s. Unfortunately, after my grandpa passed, I started having panic attacks. They would occur at random times of the day or at night when I could not escape my thoughts. It wasn’t until I had a more public panic attack during class that I started to take my mental health seriously.

In the Fall of 2020, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and mild Depression. I received counseling and medicine to ease my symptoms. Eventually, my feelings were more clear. I could speak my thoughts without feeling as anxious. This experience was transformative because mental illness was not often discussed in my family. I was known as the “gifted” kid and my mental health was supposed to reflect that. Treatment inspired me to help myself and help others.

I did not want my peers to go through what I went through. Therefore, during my first year of college, I came to the campus with a purpose; to heal myself and to heal others. I joined a mindfulness group through the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC). We also learned about different types of meditations through the apps Insight Timer and Calm. I had a great meditation leader through the CSC, Martha Rouleau. She inspired me to use my breath to empower myself. So, I did.

I gained a passion for meditation at UVA. So, I joined the student-run mindfulness club, Mind and Body, and eventually became the Meditation Leader. I guided meditations at different facilities on grounds and for a plethora of people. At these meditations, I received positive feedback on my teachings which made me feel proud of what I was doing. This year I was elected Co-president of the organization. I am proud of this feature because I would not have been able to achieve this accomplishment if I still was having panic attacks. Meditation eased my anxiety that was caused by years of pressure and perfectionism. That anxiety pushed me to be successful, but trapped me as well. Meditation was there for me when I needed it. 

Today, I still struggle with anxiety and I may have it for the rest of my life. But I decided to use it as a strength. That anxiety pushed me to seek help at my breaking point and led me to see the beauty that is in advocating for yourself. My healing was through meditation and centering myself in the present moment. So, now I know it's okay not to be okay. But it is necessary to find a way to deal with those challenges before they encapsulate your life. I had accomplished a lot when I hit my breaking point. However, utilizing my resources to help myself was my biggest accomplishment. I meditate the anxiety away by closing my eyes and allowing myself to breathe.

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