Zahra Opens Up About Anxiety, Because Mental Health Is "Nothing to Be Ashamed About"

Zahra (aka @muslimthicc) has 2.9 million TikTok followers, but she'll be the first to tell you the truth: that social media is only the thinnest, most curated slice of our lives. "Social media is like a highlight reel," she told POPSUGAR after speaking at a virtual webinar for Hollister's World Teen Mental Wellness Day. "I don't want people to look at me and be like, 'Wow, she's so happy all the time. She doesn't have a problem in her life.'" Because in reality, "I don't think anybody's life is truly like that."

Zahra, 21, exudes positivity on her feed — that's who she is — but it doesn't mean she won't get vulnerable or open up about serious parts of her life. Take last year, for example, when she posted a video talking about her anxiety over college, life, and "how I don't really know what I'm doing." Unexpectedly, it went viral. "So many people DM'd me just saying, 'This video just put into words exactly what I've been feeling,'" she remembered. "It was a huge help for me because I felt really alone."

In high school, a similar kind of anxiety, brought on by stress over the future, led to Zahra experiencing intense anxiety attacks. "I wouldn't be able to breathe, and it felt like I was having a heart attack," she said. "I used to skip classes and go to the nurse's office and lie there. I felt so numb and stressed that I couldn't even focus." And growing up in a Muslim and Afghan community, she said, mental health issues felt like a foreign concept, a taboo, or something that could just be brushed off — a familiar story for many BIPOC people. "My parents were like, 'What's going on? Stop making a scene. Things are fine.'"

But Zahra's anxiety was taking a toll on her physical health, and when her family saw that ("It was very visible," she remembered), the conversation changed. She went to a doctor, started having some "difficult, uncomfortable conversations," and opened up a channel of communication with her family that's stayed strong ever since. It came into play again last year, when the pandemic upended her life.

"Being cooped up in my bedroom, doing classes from home, it got really difficult to deal with the stress and anxiety of college," Zahra said. She wouldn't leave her bed and started losing her appetite. Her parents noticed and broached the topic with her. "I know this is difficult for everybody," her mom said. "You have to push through and uplift yourself." Zahra's solution was to dive into hobbies: journaling, drawing, embroidering shirts, watching Netflix.

"Your thoughts and emotions are completely valid."

Sometimes she'll take social media breaks too, because reading comments or scrolling past one person after another who seems to be doing better than you "can make you feel lonely and a little worse." At the same time, she appreciates the way platforms like TikTok provide a space for creators to speak about mental health. "There are so many TikTokers that openly discuss their experiences and share their coping mechanisms," Zahra explained, while other accounts are totally dedicated to mental wellness and resources. "Those pages can be life-changing," she said.

Zahra's biggest piece of advice to anyone who's struggling: "Know that you're not alone." Start a dialogue with friends and family and don't just dismiss your feelings. "Your thoughts and emotions are completely valid," she said, "and it's nothing to be ashamed about if you're struggling with your mental health."