How a Holiday Freakout Inspired One Woman's Anxiety Breakthrough

Health Writer
Courtesy of CNN

Kat Kinsman has lived her whole life with what she calls her shadow twin, “nervous.” “Worry and its physical manifestations are part of who I am, from soul to skin,” she writes in her twitchy 2016 memoir, “Hi, Anxiety.”

Yet despite a litany of paralyzing fears — of talking on the phone, leaving her apartment, getting her hair cut at a salon, driving — she’s become a beloved and respected figure in the world of food journalism as well as an outspoken advocate for people in the restaurant industry who are struggling with mental-health issues. Here she talks to HealthCentral about making peace with her “weird brain,” managing her anxiety, and launching her pioneering site, Chefs With Issues.

HealthCentral (HC): How’d you come to write “Hi, Anxiety”?

Kat Kinsman: I was in a really bad spot a few years ago around the holidays — I don’t particularly fare well around Christmas. It all came to a head as I was trying to walk through midtown Manhattan to pick up a present for my mother-in-law. The streets were so crowded, it took me 45 minutes to go a few blocks. I ended up collapsing into a chair at Tiffany, just freaking out, and I thought, I can’t live like this anymore. So I wrote an essay about living with anxiety for CNN, where I worked at the time, and it went viral.

An editor called my agent and said: “I’m going to make a blind offer if Kat writes a book about anxiety.” And I said, I don’t want to write a book about anxiety. I don’t want to be the poster girl; I’m afraid of how people will think of me. And she said, really, you need to do this. And I’m so grateful that I did, because of the conversations that the book has opened up in my life and the discussions I’ve been able to have around it — just to give people a jumping-off point to talk about a subject that is taboo and painful.

HC: Why is there so much stigma around anxiety?

Kat Kinsman: People are afraid of what the pushback is going to be — from their loved ones, their employers, their religious community, their family, so they just suck it up and deal. And because everyone’s doing that, no one knows that the person next to them is suffering as well. As I was writing the book and talking to other people about their experiences, I realized I’m in a deeply privileged position. I'm a straight, white, cisgender, married woman with a job and access to healthcare and no cultural impediments for me to seek help. And it was still hard for me. And if it was hard for me, it’s got to feel insurmountable for people who might be LGBTQ, or who don’t have insurance or a supportive partner. So I thought, I can take the hit on this because I’m so lucky.

HC: One thing that struck me in reading your book is that you’re able to do things that would terrify other people, like appear on national television. But everyday life is incredibly difficult for you. How do you reconcile that?

Kat Kinsman: That was the hardest thing for me — thinking I’m not a functional person; thinking, how is this easy for everybody else? How is it that I sometimes can’t leave my house? And yet, I can go and speak in front of hundreds of people. Brains are weird! I can sometimes separate the notion of my brain from my being. “Brain, you’re dumb today — what’s going on with that?”

HC: How do you manage your anxiety?

Kat Kinsman: For a time, medication did get me to a good place, but ultimately it wasn’t right for me. I’ve found talk therapy helps a lot, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. I do a lot of taking three deep breaths, and I make people breathe with me all the time if I see they’re stressed out. In through the nose, out through the mouth — I learned that from a therapist ages ago. I really love L-Theanine — it’s derived from tea leaves. My nutritionist recommended it to me and it’s worked pretty well. Walking helps me a lot. Everything really goes sideways for me if I don’t get enough sleep and I’m very bad at sleeping so it’s a whole chicken-egg kind of thing. Yoga happens to stress me out but it works for other people. Whatever works. You might get frustrated if something doesn’t seem to be the solution for you but it just means you need to move on to something else. That’s true for medication too.

HC: Can you talk about Chefs With Issues? How’d it start?

Kat Kinsman: I’ve been a food editor for the past 10 years and I’d started being really open about my own mental health. And I’d be interviewing a chef and there would be a point afterwards, when the cameras were off, when the chef would say, off the record, I want to talk with you about this thing that is happening to me or someone in my kitchen. When these conversations started happening more and more, I began to realize there was something pretty serious going on. And then there were a couple of high-profile deaths and I thought, we really have to do something about this. So I started a blog, basically, with resources for people in the industry — free mental-health care kind of stuff.

I also started collecting stories. Sother Teague, an incredible bartender in New York, shared the story of his depression. People started reaching out to him saying, I had no idea. Or, I have depression, too. And now he’s speaking at conferences.

Chefs have a macho culture, but that’s starting to change. Sean Brock, the Charleston superstar, came out about his recovery in The New York Times; you can’t get bigger in the restaurant world than that. People looked to him as a good-time guy who always had the best bourbon. For him to channel his energy into helping other people and ensuring that the future is going to be brighter for others coming into this industry — it’s a huge undertaking and so generous.

I think chefs are going to save themselves. They just needed to realize they’re not the only one struggling.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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