Growing up, there were glimpses of the anxiety disorder I would be diagnosed with later on in life. I constantly wanted to be the best at everything I was doing– in school, sports, and in my relationships with friends and family. I was also a worrier. I worried about everything. If I was going to be late for soccer practice, I would start to feel sick to my stomach, worried my teammates and coach would think I wasn’t a committed and responsible player. I was 10 years old when this started; too young to be worrying about what other people thought of me. Sometimes, I would get so nervous before soccer games that I would throw up. The funny thing is, I had amazing coaches, teammates, and parents that were supportive and didn’t pressure me. They just wanted me to love the sport and have fun playing.
This undiagnosed anxiety eventually caught up with me and I developed vocal cord dysfunction. Vocal Cord Dysfunction is when the throat inexplicably closes during exercise. This makes breathing difficult, causes panic, and diminishes performance. This first started happening when I was around 13 years old. I would be playing the game seemingly fine, then I would have to be subbed out because I couldn’t breathe. At first, everyone thought it was asthma, so we went to countless doctors. I got an inhaler, but nothing was working or making it easier for me to breathe. Finally, one doctor realized that I didn’t have asthma, but vocal cord dysfunction. We quickly made the discovery on why this was happening. I would let my anxiety and nervousness build up so much during games that I would unknowingly make my throat close up. I would be terrified to make mistakes in a game and I would end up hurting myself even more. This obviously put a bump in my sports career, but with the help of doctors and my parents, I was able to control my breathing and my mentality during games. Eventually, I had my vocal cord dysfunction under control and it rarely affected me during exercise.
I tell you this story because it puts in context my journey with anxiety. It wasn’t until last semester that I was diagnosed with anxiety, but this has been something I’ve been struggling with for years –I just didn’t know that I was.
I ended up falling in love with soccer. I loved every aspect of it. I loved watching soccer games with my family, playing with my friends, playing outside with my dad, and I loved running around the field. I was on countless club teams growing up, but eventually my sophomore year of high school, I made the switch to a more “elite” team. At first, everything seemed perfect. I had just made it onto one of the best teams in my region. I should’ve been happy and grateful. And I was, but eventually, I realized that this team might not be for me. The higher standard of play and the coach got to me. I’m sure many athletes have experienced being on a team with a coach that constantly yells and leaves no room for mistakes. That was my experience with this particular coach and I had a hard time adjusting.
The tendencies I had tried so hard to get rid of earlier in my sports career were coming back. I would constantly worry about having to go to practice. I would rant to my friends at school about how I didn’t want to go. I would cry on the way to practice, terrified of making a mistake and getting yelled at or ridiculed. I loved soccer, but this environment was making me despise it. I wasn’t having fun anymore. Halfway through the season, I eventually told my parents I didn’t want to play anymore. They were supportive, but they made me finish the rest of the season. I hated that. I just wanted to be done. Looking back I understand their choice. Some things in life aren’t easy, but you still have to do them. I ended up finishing the season, but I was lost and sad. The sport I loved so much was gone. I was still playing high school soccer, but I had to let go of my goal to play in college. High school soccer was vastly different. My high school coach had high expectations for us (we ended up being state runner-up’s), but he still made it fun and enjoyable. I ended up having a talk with him and he convinced me to keep playing soccer. I ended up moving to a different club that helped me fall in love with the sport again.
As this was going on, I was also involved in cross country and track at my high school. This became my escape. I was good at it, enjoyed it, and it was a lot different than soccer. It still had the team aspect, but it was an individual sport. This allowed me to be less nervous about making a “mistake” because there wasn’t anyone to let down, only myself. The excitement I used to feel before soccer games transferred to excitement before races, before workouts, or when I got a new personal record. Running became my life. I was still playing soccer, but running had become my top priority. Junior year, I realized I wanted to pursue running in college. I worked hard and had a great coach and teammates that believed in me and allowed me to reach this dream. I ended up signing to run at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. I hadn’t struggled with vocal cord dysfunction in years and I thought everything was looking up.
The summer before college started, I was a nervous wreck. I mentioned earlier that I’m a worrier, and I worried a lot that summer. I was nervous to move away from my friends and family. I was nervous to meet new people. I was nervous to be a student athlete. Everyone around me seemed excited to start college, but I was the complete opposite. I didn’t understand why I was so anxious to start school. I kept this hidden because I didn’t want people to know how anxious I was. I wanted to be like everyone else who seemed excited to start another chapter of their life.
When I made it to college, the transition was hard, but I liked my teammates, my coach, the university, and the city. Being a student athlete is hard work, but I was able to handle it. My first year was interrupted by COVID and my second year too. When I went back to university the second semester of sophomore year, everything seemed amazing. I was improving and having a blast doing it. Then the semester ended and I went home for the summer. I love going home for the summer. I like being with my family and in a place I feel comfortable in. I always have a hard transition when I come back to school from breaks. And the start of junior year was no exception. Everything seemed to be going fine, but then my hair started falling out.
At the beginning of last semester, I noticed that my hair was falling out in excessive amounts. This obviously took a toll on me. Why was this happening to me? I researched and found that stress can cause this to happen. My parents took me to a doctor and we found out that I have alopecia, a condition when your immune system attacks your hair follicles. This condition is often triggered by stress. I’ve always been a stressed out person. I tend to worry about the smallest thing. You can imagine how I felt as everyday more and more hair started to fall out. I became depressed and my anxiety was at an all time high. How can I stop a condition that’s triggered by stress when my hair falling out causes even more stress? Fall semester was hard. I was still running, but it was not my priority. I had to figure out why this was happening. I think many athletes have the same mentality of being tough and pushing forward even when things get hard. But it’s okay to take a step back and prioritize yourself and your wellbeing.
All the tendencies I had growing up, all the worrying I did, all the crying I did, my mood changing, it all finally clicked. I was struggling with my mental health. I had always ignored these tendencies because I thought I needed to be strong. I thought I should be grateful that I was playing a college sport. I thought I should be grateful to have a supportive family and friends. I told myself I didn’t deserve to have anxiety, as nothing bad has ever happened to me. I’m sure many people feel like this, but anxiety can affect anyone.
It took me until my hair was falling out and I was nearly bald, for me to realize this. It’s not okay if you’re constantly worrying, if you’re constantly stressed, if you’re often crying for no reason. Don’t suppress your mental health until it turns into a physical problem. As much as we train and take care of our physical wellbeing, we have to prioritize the mental side of being healthy as well. This whole experience made me realize I needed help.
With the help of my parents, I reached out to a psychiatrist that diagnosed me with anxiety. I almost felt a sense of relief from this. Finally, everything I was feeling made sense and I could take steps to make myself feel better. I started taking an antidepressant that helps with anxiety. I think it’s important to talk about medication in regards to mental health because there’s stigma surrounding it, and there shouldn’t be. The stigma surrounding psychiatric medication causes people to suffer in silence. Managing our mental health is an important aspect to living a healthy life. Medication is taken to help treat physical illnesses, and medication is also taken to treat mental illness. The only difference is that the symptoms that come with anxiety or depression are invisible –the emotions, the thoughts, the sadness. There shouldn’t be a stigma surrounding medication that is intended to better someone’s life. Stigma causes people to ignore what they are going through in fear of being judged. There’s countless people suffering in silence, which is why destigmatizing psychiatric medications will allow people to seek out the help they need.
I was able to seek help and although my anxiety will never go away, I feel better and healthier. Mental health should be something coaches talk about openly. I was blessed to have a coach that understood what I was going through, but many athletes don’t, and they are forced to suffer in silence. We have to do better. Starting conversations about mental health and fostering safe and comfortable environments for athletes is just the start of how we can break the stigma surrounding mental health. Don’t wait until your hair is falling out to ask for help.