Q: I am doing my first sprint tri at DCT. The swim is definitely my biggest challenge and I want to be prepared mentally as well as physically. How can I ensure panic doesn’t set in right before the whistle blows? Thanks! – Joanne
Joanne – the key here is to understand a bit more about anxiety and panic. There’s a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond shaped area that controls our fight, flight or freeze responses and it is activated in the face of perceived threat. In other words, it is preparing us to react to danger. Our brain is telling us the there is a tiger in front of us and that it’s time to fight, run or freeze. Of course, there isn’t an actual tiger in front of you before you swim, but the mental tiger is the fears you hold around whether you are able for the swim, whether you can handle the mass of bodies jostling for space around you, perhaps even whether you will be safe in open water.
Any panic here is about perceived threat, and that’s the key phrase. It’s perceived – this isn’t an actual threat. Panic before the whistle goes is about what might happen in the future rather than what is actually happening now. It is an indication that your focus is not in the present moment, which is where we need it to be.
An expression that I often use, and I think will be very useful in your case, is ‘anxiety is excitement without breathing’ (Fritz Pearls). Essentially, feelings of anxiety and feelings of excitement are similar, but when we are excited it is because we are anticipating the task ahead with a sense that we can handle it, whereas when we are anxious it is because we are not sure if we can handle what is ahead of us.
So, one of the best ways to ensure that your mind does not perceive the swim as a threat is to develop your skills and experience in this aspect of the triathlon. Many people worry about open water swimming and about swimming in groups, and the best way to deal with this is by doing more of it, so that whatever aspects you currently feel less able to deal with become more comfortable for you. For example, why is it that you are worried about a triathlon swim? Is it because you do all your swimming in a pool? Is it because you typically swim with no one else around you? It is understandable therefore that you might feel less comfortable competing in that different environment of open water and others around you. So, if you join an open water swimming group or a triathlon club you can get the feel of what it’s like to be in a race environment, but in more controlled surroundings. Once you get used to this, there will be a lot less nerves at the start of a race because you will know that you are able for this rather than fear that you are not.
Another useful tip is to begin to practice a breathing or mindfulness exercise, as this will teach you to stay in the present moment and relax your body and mind. This will enable you to be more comfortable before your swim, as by being in a more mindful state you will not be generating a state of panic, so you will feel more comfortable physically and mentally.
For more information please visit http://www.niamhfitzpatrickpsychology.ie/