Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Anxiety and Panic

Another recent conversation with a friend has inspired me to write this blog. It's not something I like talking about. And it causes anxiety. What is it?

Panic attacks. When you feel like you can't breathe and every time you try to relax, it's like another round of electric shocks going through your body. That's what happens to me regularly before races. Not right before like at the starting line, but at the times that it's most important to be resting -- the night before. And even worse -- the night BEFORE the night before.

It never happened in high school or college. Eight years of swim meets and four years of track meets and not a single panic attack. Oh sure, the nerves kicked in just before I got up on the blocks or walked onto the track. If it were a "big" meet, I might feel some nerves the "day of," but never the night before. And I would not have described it as "panic."

The real panic attacks started in 1991 before my first marathon. By 3 a.m. that morning, all my near-nod-offs had been thwarted by extreme anxiety and the feeling that my heart was pounding in my head. I was so desperate, I tried drinking shots of vodka. At THREE A.M! And THAT didn't work either. So I arrived at the starting line of the 1991 Cleveland marathon on no sleep with remnants of alcohol in my blood and extreme anxiety. But, in retrospect, over the years, I learned that sleeping the night before a marathon probably does more damage to your mind than your body. It's the sleep you get TWO nights before that matters.

Fast forward to the 1998 Chicago Marathon. I was close to a qualifying time for the Olympic Marathon Trials and put enormous pressure on myself. The result? You guessed it -- the anxiety set in TWO nights before the race. In a hotel in Gary, Indiana. We were not even in Chicago yet and I was sleepless for 24 hours. (And to this day, I still feel anxiety anywhere NEAR Gary, Indiana). I could barely eat the next day because of nausea, so I went into the race not only sleepless for two nights but also depleted. By mile 13, I was hitting the split button in every Porta-john on the marathon course. Over the years, I would learn that lack of sleep almost always manifested itself as stomach distress. NOT something I wanted to deal with in my future Ironman endeavors.

I finally explained it all to my doctor. His antidote? Anxiety drugs. The drawback? By the third day, I was so relaxed I couldn't get out of bed. Yeah, it was great, but I couldn't run in this condition. Dosage adjustment did the trick, and by the time I ran my next marathon, a Trials qualifying time was back in my sights and I was able to sleep.

Then came the night before the Trials and a whole new level of anxiety. You guessed it, drugs or no drugs, this was a fight I would not win. At one point during the night, I swore I heard a fire alarm go off in the hotel. No one else heard it, not even my husband. People must have thought I was a raving lunatic when I asked. The Trials marathon was a disaster (for more reasons than just anxiety). The year was 2000.

That year I decided things NEEDED to change. My doctor asked me to see a sports psychologist. It was probably the singular best thing I ever did to get control of my anxiety. He taught me how to relax using breathing techniques and relaxation tapes. I learned how to let go of things that I had no control over. I learned to have confidence in myself and run my own race. It was amazing. In September 2000, I arrived at the starting line of the Quad Cities Marathon with a full night of sleep. I even forgot to bring my gel for the race, but it mattered not. To my surprise, I didn't even feel nerves at the starting line. I ran the smartest marathon of my life, negative split, and won the women's race.

So what happened? I started racing triathlons in 2001 and didn't lose a single pre-race night of sleep until Ironman Hawaii in 2002. I dodged anxiety right up until the moment it really mattered and then had the worst panic attack of my life. I spent two nights of no sleep in Hawaii which resulted in a vomit-fest during the marathon. You'd think the first thing I would do is go back and re-learn relaxation techniques, but I never got a chance. In 2003, I was hit by a car and took a four-year hiatus. And now that I'm back, my relaxation techniques are so far gone that it feels like I have to start all over from scratch. And training for Ironman, I feel like I don't have the time. But, I need to make the time. It might be the most important time I make. Maybe writing this blog will point me in the right direction. Otherwise, I may never get a chance to go back to Hawaii and have that perfect Ironman race I missed out on.

No comments:

Post a Comment