It may not come as a surprise that anxiety has been on the rise since COVID-19 swept across America and the world at large. More than thirty percent of American adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression since the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“I think that there’s just going to be such long ripple effects of mental health issues amongst people of all ages,” said TED Talk speaker and mental health advocate Megan Gallagher on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn. “It really breaks my heart.”
Gallagher has struggled with anxiety since middle school and says one of the positive sides of the pandemic is that it’s brought mental conversations to the forefront so that people are able to identify and treat their symptoms.
Gallagher recalls being in the seventh grade when she first experienced what she now knows were panic attacks but did not have the education or resources to know what they were or what to do.
“I would be sitting in class, and my teacher would just be teaching a lesson or talking about the homework that’s due tomorrow, and I all of a sudden would notice I felt like I was blacking out, and I would forget everything that the teacher was talking about,” she recalled. “I thought it was a stroke, and I did not know what a panic attack was.”
“When I was a teenager in high school, that’s when my anxiety was through the roof,” she continued. “Every day, I was having up to 20 panic attacks in my classes, and I’d have to ask my teacher, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ I remember having a moment where I just kind of had a light bulb click, and I thought, ‘Okay, there has to be a way better quality of life I could be living.’”
When Gallagher was 14, she asked her parents for help and started seeing a therapist. Now, at 25 years old, Gallagher not only continues to go to therapy to maintain her own mental health but advocates for others as a speaker, author, host, and writer. She says despite having struggled this year like everyone else, she continues to move forward to overcome her anxiety.
“I think anxiety can be such a liar because anxiety makes you feel like it’s never going to get better,” she said. “My mind tends to want to go backward when I keep on taking positive actions and healthy steps to go forwards.”
Moving forward in the pandemic
A mile marker of Gallagher’s progress in her own mental health journey is that she moved from Los Angeles to a brand new city, Nashville, after the pandemic, where she continues to work in mental health advocacy as a writer for Meditation Magazine, interviewing the likes of Deepak Chopra and other wellness leaders.
“I really think it was the best thing I could have ever done,” she said. “When I moved from LA, it was literally within two weeks. I just did it.”
Within taking that leap of faith to get up and move across the country is a lesson Gallagher offers for others battling anxiety.
“I think that’s the best thing in life with anything: any idea, project, dream. Stop worrying about how it’s going to happen or what ifs,” she said. “We have to realize that as human beings, what we tell ourselves and our inner story really manifests.”
“We have to be aware of, ‘What are my thoughts today?’” she continued. “Because they clearly are manifesting whatever is going on in my reality. For me, I just picked up my stuff and moved, and that’s just how I’ve lived my life with my business, too. When I was 18 years old, I just started. I just self-published books. I didn’t worry about, ‘Oh, it has to be perfect,’ or ‘How am I going to do this?’”
Gallagher says that while anxiety can lead you to freeze up in fear, you have to keep forging on.
“You just start, and you just go, and you will learn along the way, and you will get to where you need to be,” she said. “But just starting and putting yourself out there is the best way I think that we can grow.”
Gallagher’s choice to move was one way she was controlling the controllable during the pandemic. She says when managing anxiety, it’s important to realize what’s within your control and what isn’t.
“It’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of, ‘Oh my gosh, why me?’ and ‘Oh, that didn’t happen’ in all these things, but it’s also so much more productive to go down the other path of, ‘What is working out in my life right now?’” she said. “It can literally be as simple as today; I woke up really early, and I had a great morning routine.”
“It’s just really, really, really powerful when you make that decision and make that choice of no matter what happens, whether we’re in COVID or in a different season in our life, I’m going to choose the path that just allows me to reach my best potential.”
How to stay present & keep going
As someone who often gives mental health advice, Gallagher says the best piece of advice she’s ever gotten is to stay in the present moment.
“It sounds really cheesy, and sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work.’ But it really does,” she said. “I noticed that for me, my mind tends to wander a lot. And although I don’t get panic attacks like I did when I was younger, and my anxiety is a lot better, I still have moments where my mind races, and then I kind of feel just so all over the place in 4,000 places at once.”
When those moments come up, she says she practices an exercise where she slows down and observes what’s around her.
“Really just using my mental power…listing times and what day it is, and where I am and what I’m wearing always helps me kind of come back to the present moment,” she said.
Another tool Gallagher recommends for anxiety is list-making.
“Every single day make lists of things you can control versus what is out of your control, and really focus your attention on what is in your individual power,” she said. “The main cause of anxiety is when you feel out of control.”
She says that in situations where so little is in our control, it’s important to take account of what we have to be grateful for and what is going well in our lives.
“It’s important to remind yourself, ‘Hey, you know what, though? I’m still breathing. I got up today. I woke up, I worked out, I’m dressed,’” she said. “There’s no actual fear. There’s no actual danger. It’s just anxiety that creates that.”
For more tips from Gallagher and updates on her upcoming mental health workbook for young adults, you can follow her on Instagram @meganwgallagher.