China McCarney was 22 when he was first diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. And in the eight years since, he’s worked tirelessly to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and to connect people to the resources they need to fight it. He encourages people not to fight or ignore their conditions (as he had done), but to accept their conditions as part of who they are.

In March 2017, China founded the nonprofit Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression (AAAD). “I realized that I needed to take on the responsibility of helping create a platform where people could share their story,” he says. “I realized that I needed to help create a community where people were empowered to embrace 100 percent of themselves.”

In its first donation campaign, the AAAD raised funds to support the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), which he credits with giving him the focus and information he needed to tackle his mental health head-on. We caught up with China to learn more about his journey with anxiety and what mental health awareness means to him.

China McCarney: The first time I had a panic attack was in 2009. I had experienced normal anxiety and nerves up until that point, but the panic attack was something I had never dealt with. I was going through a lot of stress with a transition in my baseball career, and while on a road trip to Northern California, I felt as if I was going to die. I could not breathe, my body felt as if it was burning from the inside out, and I had to pull off of the road to get out of the car and get air. I walked for two or three hours to try to gather myself before having to call my father to come and pick me up. It has been a touch-and-go experience since that day eight years ago, and an ever-evolving relationship with anxiety.

CM: I struggled with anxiety for many years before getting help. I had dealt with it off and on, and so I didn’t think I needed help because it wasn’t consistent. Starting at the end of 2014, I began to deal with the anxiety consistently and started to avoid things I had done my whole life. Things that I had enjoyed my whole life suddenly began to terrify me. I hid it for months, and in the middle of 2015, I was sitting in my car after having a panic attack and decided that enough was enough. It was time to get professional help. I reached out to a therapist that day and began counseling right away.

CM: The biggest reason I did not want to be open about having anxiety is because I was ashamed and felt guilty that I was dealing with it. I did not want to be labeled as “not normal” or anything like that. Growing up in athletics, you are encouraged not to show emotions, and be “emotionless”. The last thing you wanted to admit was that you were anxious or nervous. Funny thing was, on the field, I felt comfortable. I did not feel anxiety or panic on the field. It was off the field where I began to feel worse and worse over the years, and hid the symptoms and trouble from everyone. The stigma attached to mental health issues led to me masking the insecurity of anxiety by abusing alcohol and living a reclusive lifestyle.

CM: The breaking point for me was when I could not do normal, routine, daily tasks, and when I started to live an avoidant-type lifestyle. I knew I needed to get help and start the journey towards the real me. That journey is still evolving every single day, and I no longer fight to try to hide or battle my anxiety. I fight to embrace it as a part of me and embrace 100 percent of myself.

CM: That has been an interesting transition. Some people were very receptive, and some weren’t. The people that can’t understand eliminate themselves from your life, or you eliminate them. If people add to the stigma and negativity of a mental health issue, there’s nothing good about them being around. We are all dealing with something, and if people can’t be understanding, or at least try to be, the stigma won’t ever go away. We need to empower each other to be 100 percent of ourselves, not try to tweak other’s personalities to fit our own lives and wants.

CM: Empowerment, communication, and warriors who are willing to share their story. We have to empower ourselves and others to share our stories about what we are going through. That will begin to build a community of people willing to communicate openly and honestly about their mental health battles. This will enable more and more people to come forward and share their story about how they live their life while also battling a mental health issue. I think that is one of the biggest misconceptions: People don’t feel that you can live a successful life while also battling a mental health issue. My battle with anxiety is not over, far from it. But I refuse to put my life on hold any longer and wait to feel “perfect.”

CM: I believe that the issue has to do with people wanting to reach out to get treatment. I think the stigma discourages a lot of people from reaching out for the help that they need. Because of that, there is not a lot of funding and resources created. Instead, people medicate themselves and don’t always get the true help they need. I am not saying I am against medication, I just think people turn to that first before exploring counseling, meditation, nutrition, and information and resources provided by organizations like Healthline and the ADAA.

CM: One hundred percent. If growing up there had been more education and openness about symptoms, warning signs, and where to go when you were dealing with anxiety or depression, I do not feel the stigma would be as bad. I do not think the medication numbers would be as bad, either. I think people often head to a private doctor’s office to get medicated instead of seeking counseling or talking to their loved ones because they are embarrassed and there is not a lot of education growing up. I know, for me, the day I began to feel better is when I embraced that anxiety was a part of my life and began to share openly about my story and my struggles.

CM: My advice would be to not be ashamed. My advice would be to embrace the battle from day one and realize there are a ton of resources out there. Resources like Healthline. Resources like the ADAA. Resources like the AAAD. Do not be embarrassed or feel guilty, and don’t hide from the symptoms. Successful lives and mental health battles do not have to be separate from each other. You can fight your battle every day while also living a successful life and pursuing your dreams. Every day is a battle for everyone. Some people fight a physical battle. Some people fight a mental health battle. The key to succeeding is embracing your battle and focusing on doing your best every day.

Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults in the United States alone — about 18 percent of the population. Despite being the most common form of mental illness, only about a third of people who have anxiety ever seek treatment. If you have anxiety or think you might, reach out to organizations like the ADAA, and learn from the stories of people who are writing about their own experiences with the condition.

Kareem Yasin is a writer and editor at Healthline. Outside of health and wellness, he is active in conversations about inclusivity in mainstream media, his homeland of Cyprus, and the Spice Girls. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram.