Feeling panicked and depressed yet too overwhelmed to understand why, writer Kara Perez knew she needed professional help. Here, she recalls how she took the first steps toward treatment and healing.
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Three years ago, I was a recent college graduate living with my three best friends in Texas. I had a loving and supportive boyfriend, and I was in a city I loved.

Still, I found myself gripped by anxiety and sadness. My life consisted of part-time work as a caterer and a receptionist, which brought me $900 a month and made me feel worthless. I felt like all my friends were doing better than me. These feelings began compounding, and I started questioning myself. Maybe I wasn’t smart. Maybe I wasn’t talented. Obviously, I was struggling to get my life together.

I also had crushing student loan debt, to the tune of $18,000. And I found myself changing. I’ve always been a high-energy, outgoing person. Now, I felt down, avoiding seeing people and hiding in my room. I was depressed and anxious every day.

One day, I found myself crying behind the wheel of my car, and something clicked. I realized that I needed help handling my emotions and figuring out where they were coming from. I needed help processing my anxiety, tools to deal with it, and learn how to still live my life.

The answer was clear: I had to get back into therapy.

I’d gone to therapy when I was a senior in college for anxiety. Back then, I was experiencing a tightening in my chest every time I thought of classes and socializing. My therapist and I ended up talking a lot about my stress levels, time management, and creating my own definitions for myself rather than relying on others. It was a generalized anxiety, and therapy helped me dial it back.

This time around, I was dealing with things I had never had issues with before. My anxiety was a constant companion; I ran through my stressors over and over, like a song stuck on repeat. It felt like I couldn’t escape my own thoughts, all of which centered on how bad of a person I was. It was deeply unhealthy, and I wanted out.

Seeking help—and sticking with it

I did a Google search, looking for a therapist who worked with low-income people. I found a psychologist less than 10 minutes from my house and made an appointment. At our first session, there were two boxes of tissues on the coffee table, and an orange couch pillow that brightened up the room. I was glad to be there, but I knew it was going to be tough work.

My therapist asked me to talk about what had brought me in. My financial anxieties just spilled out. I spent the entire time talking (and crying) about money. I told him that I wasn’t capable of earning more because I didn’t bring value to anything in life. If I was truly smart, someone would have hired me. If I was truly good, I wouldn’t feel so bad. I viewed my situation as proof to justify my bad feelings. It was a vicious cycle.

Each subsequent weekly or bimonthly session, my financial anxiety was front and center. Finally my therapist said, “What are you actively doing about your debt?”

He had recognized that my biggest stressors revolved around money. I worried about being able to pay my monthly bills. I felt panicky when I thought about the future; I couldn’t see past my debt. It felt like a weight around my neck. I realized that all my other problems came back to one truth: my debt made me feel not just broke, but isolated and powerless.

Taking steps toward healing

Recognizing that my debt was the source of all my stress and anxiety was freeing—but it was also awful. I was still underemployed. I was still broke. Someone had handed me a flashlight, but I still needed a way out of the cave.

Continuing therapy provided that map. It helped to explore how my personal history with money informed my actions in the present. I grew up watching my mother have a hard time with money. That left me with the impression that money was hard, and the only want to relate to it was to struggle with it. Money wasn’t something for me—it was for other people. My mindset was, ‘I don’t deserve money,’ so I didn’t seek it out, and I spent it when I did manage to have it.

Once I had that understanding, I could take steps to right the situation. I felt deeply trapped by my student loan debt, so paying it off became my new challenge. I also needed to stop tying my self-esteem and sense of worth to my income. My therapist and I worked on changing that mindset together, and I worked on raising my income individually.

Happier—and healthier

By taking actionable steps, things began getting better. I asked for a raise at my catering job, and I started looking for more work. Having more work to do left less time for anxiety to run in circles in my brain, and it gave me more money to put toward debt payments. Each time I made a debt payment or put money in savings, I felt myself moving farther away from where I’d started.

In 10 months, I'd paid it all off. I felt in control and powerful. My self-doubt didn’t run my life anymore; I made decisions that were right for me on my own accord. I saw the impact that my actions had and it was all good. I was making myself happy, which made me trust myself.

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Although I left therapy after six months, I'm glad that I went. It was a safe space to open up, and I learned very helpful coping tools. For example, when I start to feel anxious, the first thing I do is remind myself it's temporary. This feeling has an end. That's important, so that it doesn't take control of my brain and start to escalate.

The second thing I do is get outside. Anxiety makes me claustrophobic, and being outside is very helpful. Next, I breathe deeply for a few minutes, until it goes away or until I can tell someone, "hey I'm feeling bad, I need support right now."

For anyone struggling with their own depression or anxiety, I recommend finding a therapist in your healthcare network who specializes in those conditions specifically. Ask a lot of questions to find the best fit for you. Know that it’s okay if you have to meet with a few therapists before you find the right one.

Therapy gave me the springboard to build my life into what I actually wanted it to be. I have a thriving career as a freelance travel and finance writer, and a much healthier relationship to money—plus a lot less anxiety.