Jewel shares how her struggle with panic attacks and agoraphobia inspired her mental health advocacy

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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Songs like "Foolish Games" and "You Were Meant for Me" have earned her multiple Grammy nominations and an enduring pop legacy, but Jewel is quick to introduce herself as not simply a singer and songwriter; she's a mental health advocate, too. 

Having launched the Inspiring Children Foundation in the early 2000s to give at-risk youth struggling with financial hardship and mental health issues resources to therapeutic practices, mentoring, schooling, sports and more, Jewel is also now settling into her new role as an ambassador (aka "Champion") for the mental health and brain health nonprofit One Mind.

"Our goal is to use science, use data, use society [to] create connection all around mental health so that anybody struggling with mental health issues — which is one in four people — [is] able to have thriving, happy lives," says Jewel, who also sits on the organization's board. "We all have to understand mental hygiene, because we have a brain! It's nothing strange. We're taught dental hygiene, and I think it's bizarre we're not taught mental hygiene."

She adds, "Nobody's ashamed when they have a cavity — why are we ashamed when we're struggling with negativity or anxiety or bouts of depression? And why aren't we taught mental hygiene? It's so ridiculous to me that that's an issue, and that we lost [our coping skills]. What do we do with pain? How do we handle having thoughts? ... My advocacy work with One Mind is really about that."

Jewel speaks about her work as a mental health advocate. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Jewel speaks about her work as a mental health advocate. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

As she shares in the above video interview with Yahoo Life, Jewel commitment to mental health causes stems from her own experiences with anxiety as a young woman. She says her panic attacks started after she left home at 15 and grappled with the stresses of paying rent and "trying to hold down jobs" for the first time. At 18, she became homeless and started shoplifting, at which point her anxiety "hit a whole new level." She began experiencing agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder in which a person avoids places and situations in which they feel helpless or fearful.

"It was scary," the singer, born Jewel Kilcher, says of that time. "And so it was then that I really realized I had three choices: kill myself, stay how I was or change — and I wanted to change. And so my entire life has been: All right, I don't want to kill myself. Now what? What am I going to do different today than I did yesterday, so that tomorrow can be different?"

She took a "studious" approach to improving her mental health, taking notes and experimenting with practices that, over time, she's built into an emotional fitness "curriculum" which she now shares on her Never Broken website. 

"My goal was to have a better life, have a better experience," she says of developing techniques to help her cope. "And so I needed to find things that I could practice, because mindfulness won't change your life. Meditation won't change your life. It just builds the muscle of being consciously present."

In order to keep herself consciously present, Jewel now spends about an hour each day practicing meditation, but notes that that may be unrealistic for a beginner. "I'm 47 and I've been doing this a long time," she says. "So my practice has evolved a lot." That said, she's confident that mediation and mindfulness aren't as daunting as they're often made out to be. 

"Meditation isn't the absence of thought," she says. "A lot of people think they're failing at meditating because they think about their grocery list or whatever it is. How meditation works is that when you notice you're thinking about something, that's winning; it's not avoiding it. If you realize, oh my gosh, I've been thinking about my test, realizing that and coming back to the present moment is what builds new neurological pathways. So the more you have thoughts and notice it and come back, that's when you're winning... 

"Everything that we consume changes us, including our thoughts," she continues. "And so we have to realize we're in the position to decide which thoughts we want to consume. Not every thought and feeling is a fact. And it's not that you're going to stop having thoughts [while meditating]. It's that you're going to start curating your thoughts better. You're going to have better discernment, going, That thought is scaring me, but is it true? And would I rather think something else? And then it becomes a choice, because we have to think something, we have to do something. We have to have actions. And so it's kind of like, Will I reach for the apple or will I reach for the candy bar? You're going to eat something. What are you going to eat? That's how to start thinking about mindfulness."

A simple way for newcomers to start their own practice, she suggests, is by making it a point to make yourself smile first thing in the morning, which the singer says "changes your physiological state." Having some quiet time in the morning before switching on your phone is another peaceful habit.

"I do think it's important for people to make time and space for a relationship with yourself, even if you're not meditating," Jewel tells Yahoo Life. "What makes something sacred is making time for it. We have a relationship with ourselves, and it's so funny that we don't cultivate it. We'll spend time on our job or we'll spend time with a boyfriend or girlfriend or a partner, but we don't cultivate a relationship with ourselves."

For her, having that hour each day is a non-negotiable, even as a single parent; she shares 10-year-old son Kase with ex-husband Ty Murray. 

"For me, it was just insisting that it was an essential part of my life," she says. "It wasn't a negotiable part of my life. The same way, if I have to be on a business call at 2, I'm on that call because it's my job, But I didn't take my self-care that seriously; I wouldn't keep the appointment, and it was just my own fault. It's so hard, especially when you have a young one, but finding [the time] and making it that important, where you have a friend [or partner] come watch your child for a half-hour or you find a solution. And you will find one... This is an essential part of my life. I'm not willing to not brush my teeth. I have to brush my teeth. I can find [time] even if it's two minutes to sit and breathe."

As one might expect from a Grammy-nominated artist and New York Times bestselling writer, her hour of meditation might also include taking a moment to listen to music, write or simply be by herself. Journaling in particular has become a powerful tool in keeping her consciously present. 

And while being out in nature is another guaranteed salve, she's careful to distinguish a joyful activity or quick fix from the real work of mental hygiene. 

"Real self-care actually has to be looking at, how do I create a life that is so in agreement with me that I'm not wanting to escape being in my own body?" she says. "I was so uncomfortable in my body, in my thoughts, that I just wanted to escape all the time. I was just wanting to disassociate. And so thinking of self-care in a much deeper way, in a much more profound way, is really helpful."

She adds, "We don't practice mindfulness or engage in a spirituality so that we can control life and get to a static place where no more bad things happen — that doesn't exist, so bad things are gonna happen. But I know I have multiple tools to choose how it changes me. 

"And that would be my wish for anybody watching, is to realize we can't control what happens in life. We can't choose what happens in life. We do get to choose how it changes us. So instead of trying to control your environment, start deciding to go, How do I want to react? How do I want to change? I want my life to make me more loving, more kind, more resilient, more generous instead of the opposite. I don't want to become more bitter, more mistrusting, less loving. And that's my choice. That's my active practice."

Indeed, both as a passionate mental health advocate and as an individual who was weathered her own issues with anxiety, recognizing the power of change as it relates to feelings is paramount. 

"Nothing is permanent," she says of her approach to life. "Your bad feeling has to change because you're part of physics; everything changes in the universe. And so your terrible feeling, even your depression, can't last forever. You're not the only thing in all of the universe that is going to be constant forever. That helped me a lot; that got me through a lot of bad moments in my life. I call it buckling myself in. I just had to buckle myself in and sometimes just wait it out. And while I was waiting it out, I started to develop tools that would help me wait it out and maybe might help it pass sooner. 

"But it's like the weather," she adds. "It's going to pass. It will pass. It has to pass. One of the biggest tools we teach in my [Inspiring Children Foundation] is that idea of the impermanence, because one of the things that a lot of kids with suicidal ideation struggle with is, of course, this feeling of 'this is forever.' 'I can't live the rest of my life this way.' That's against physics. It's impossible that that'll happen. We can help, we can teach, we can learn and you can definitely make a huge impact on it."

—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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