Understanding Intense Pre-Meet Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Understanding Intense Pre-Meet Anxiety and Panic Attacks

By Dr. Alan Goldberg//Competitivedge.com  | Tuesday, May 15, 2018

How nervous do you get before your big meets? Are you the kind of swimmer whose butterflies seem to quickly multiply out of control as your best event approaches? Do you sometimes suffer from pre-race panic attacks that steal your confidence and sap your energy? Do you notice that your anxiety isn't just limited to the pool and racing, but often shows up in academic or social settings as well?

Pre-meet nervousness is a normal occurrence and the accompanying butterflies and physiological activation can actually help you get yourself up for a great race. This is what I call “good nervous.” However, for some swimmers there is nothing “good” about their pre-race jitters. Their anxiety is so strong and disruptive that they are left with feelings of dread and a strong desire to flee.

When your anxiety is at a more “normal” level, there are specific things you can do to help settle your nervous system and calm yourself down so that you have a good performance. You can switch your concentration away from outcome and negative thinking. You can distract yourself by having a conversation with a teammate. You can even employ breathing or relaxation techniques that you may have learned and practiced. All of these “mental tools” are useful to have in your mental toughness toolbox when it comes to handling pre-meet anxiety.

However, what if you're the kind of swimmer who has tried everything to calm your nervous system down, and no matter what you've tried, you just can't seem to tame the panic that is always quietly lurking there whenever you get ready to race? 

Understand this about anxiety: Everyone has a uniquely designed nervous system and therefore a different response to stress. How much anxiety we experience under stress is affected by our genetic inheritance from our parents. Anxiety, like depression, is definitely a characteristic that gets passed down through generations. That is, like our parents before us, we may be naturally more nervous than other people.

Our nervous system and its response to stress is also affected by our family history and experiences of past traumas. If we have had upsetting events growing up (family stress, loss, accidents, hospitalizations or experiences with abuse of any kind) then this history will heighten our nervous system's sensitivity to and response to stress, making us more vulnerable to feeling intense anxiety when we have to compete. If your nervous system is already more heightened because of family genetics and past traumas in your life, then this will leave you with less capacity to effectively handle anxiety before it becomes overwhelming. That is, it won't take much stress to send your nervous system immediately into the “red zone,” flooded by anxiety and even panic attacks.

So if you struggle with debilitating anxiety, what can you do about it?

The first step would be first to try to learn some “surface techniques” that may help you calm down before your meets and races. You can learn to become much more aware of your pre-meet concentration, because what you focus on before your races will have a significant impact on the amount of anxiety you experience. Included in these techniques, you want to spend some time learning HOW to relax. There are numerous mindfulness and relaxation techniques out there that you can learn which will help you take a bit of the edge off of your anxiety. They range from Progressive Muscle Relaxation to meditation to relaxing imagery. However, for some athletes, they will need more help to manage their anxiety because their  nervous systems are continually revved up into the “danger zone,” making them unable to use  these more conscious, mental skills.

If that is the case for you, then you might want to consider seeing a mental health professional, a psychologist, sports psychologist or a psychiatrist. In many situations, athletes have benefited greatly from anti-anxiety medications and a qualified mental health professional can help you assess if they may be right for you. When the anxiety is directly related to past traumas, working with one of these mental health practitioners on these past experiences is critical and can help you lower your overall response to stress.


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