How I Turned My Panic Attack into a Victory in 6 Easy Steps
You might be wondering what does a panic attack or anxiety have to do with fitness? Well… EVERYTHING. What Im about to tell you could apply to anyone, athlete or not….
Three weeks ago I had a meltdown at a triathlon. By that I mean, my mind and body shutdown when I wanted to move forward. I panicked while swimming. (And I know how to swim. In fact I’ve done it successfully in open water many times). But not that day.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A PANIC ATTACK
Like the wheels of a bicycle careening downhill , your brain can feel like its spinning out of control. It feels like a force beyond you. Your breathing is rapid, heart racing, fatal thoughts mounting. When you’re freaking out, it doesn’t matter if you’re swimming, running or just looking for your keys. In that moment, you can’t see, hear or breathe. You are an emotional tornado. And it totally sucks.
This is not the first time I’ve had swim anxiety during a race even though I’m a good swimmer. When I’m in the water surrounded by chaos, which is, for those who don’t know, how triathlons start. A mad rush of people boulder through the water and start swimming for a lead, often kicking and knocking people over. My strategy is to edge towards the back, let the maniacs go ahead. I don’t want anyone near me. As soon as I start swimming near people I hold back and let people pass. This does not bode well for my race time, but my hope is to make up for it in biking.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Really that should be rephrased to what is uncontrolled thoughts? For me it feels like a evil gargoyle in my brain reminding me–lest I forget–all the awful things that COULD happen. As soon as I start to push away, the gargoyle returns. And in those severe moments I believe him. Whatever is going on, it feels like a permanent situation. The sky is falling and it will always fall.
In the past, when I’ve had bouts of swim anxiety, my remedy was to pick a more relaxing stroke. I’ll do the breast stroke, or side stroke or even tread water until I can breathe normally. During this particular race I couldn’t overcome it. It overcame me. It won that day and it was very upsetting. I just couldn’t breathe calmly and I was gasping and stopping like someone who couldn’t swim at all. The guy in the rescue kayak asked me if I had asthma. I do not.
WHAT CAUSES IT?
Stress. Lack of confidence. Negative thought habits (the gargoyle in my brain)
WHAT’S CAUSING YOUR STRESS?
- Look at what’s causing your stress — it could be general or could be specific
- Too much on your plate
In my case, I’m was training for a Half Ironman. For those that don’t know, its a triathlon that includes: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run. It’s f–king big. When I originally signed up I had all these ambitious ideas of training. I took Master swim classes at 5:45 in the morning 3x a week, then 2x. I signed up for a bunch of running races and I went cycling.
Im also part of a triathlon club. Im older than most in this club… I won’t say my age but I have a good 10 years are many of the people there… maybe more. And… though I am a personal trainer, yoga and pilates instructor and Im in good shape, I am NOT a natural athlete. My big joke is that I work very hard to be mediocre! I joke, but its true. Some people can learn something new and they’re instantly good or decent at it. My endurance is pretty good but Im slow at everything and it can be frustrating. Maybe that’s where the pressure came in. I kept on feeling I need to do more and I wasn’t giving myself enough rest. All this was fueled by two main things. Stress from worrying about not being good enough, lack of confidence and then the negative thought patterns that ensued.
So.. you could be asking, why do this? Why put yourself through this stress and get disheartened about your abilities?
Here’s my answer:
I really love the individual activities. I enjoy swimming, biking and running and most of all … training with people. I love having goals because it’s a motivator for me. I push harder. And… there’s a part of me that’s a little competitive. I’ll admit I love it on the rare occasions I can do something faster than my training buddies.
That said, I realize I’ve gone overboard with self pressure and expectations. I’ve made myself crazy wanting to be a certain speed. Bottom line: if you can’t breathe, you can’t swim or run or bike. Its essential. Its one of the main tenets of yoga. Breathe.
REGAIN YOUR CONFIDENCE:
My first step was to regain my confidence by means of Joy.
For me, that meant connecting my mind and body to the pleasure of the action. I decided I needed to recconnect with my joy in this sport. I went for a casual swim at my friend’s lake house to swim without pressure for the sheer relaxing joy of gliding through the water. It helped a lot. Doing those activities at an easy pace, helped me connect again with the side of me that really loves the activities. And bottom line, isn’t it about enjoying yourself?
BEFRIEND YOUR INNER ENEMY
Here’s another yogic concept. Control your own mind. Just see the Gargoyle for what he is, a nuisance. He is not your truth.
I learned this. Once you “conquer” a particular phobia or anxiety it does not mean its gone. It’s tamed. That inner voice will still try to sway you that the sky is falling. You have to just notice him. I use this in my moment of pending angst:
OBSERVE. TRUST. MOVE.
- Observe the feeling. Notice it as it starts to trickle in. Or boulder in or scare you.
- Trust. Trust that God, the Universe, your higher power, whatever your belief system is, will be by your side. This is a huge one for me.
- Move. Move your thoughs. Tell yourself you’re ok. Then physically Move
This past weekend, I got through a 2-mile swim. Slowly but surely. Last place in fact. (a first). But Im ok with it. I did it. And that’s a Victory to me.
I decided, for now anyway, Im letting go of my competitive side. Well kind of… I want to do well of course, but it comes second to my joy of doing it. Im breathing. Im taking it in.