Conquering Fear and Living in the Moment
Imagine it’s race day. You’ve been preparing for this for the last few months or longer. This is the day where you can show off all your hard work, maybe with your first race finish or a new personal best.
You should be excited, but instead your stomach is in knots. That little voice in your head, the one that loves to tell you how much you suck, is at it again. It’s whispering that you’re not as good as the people around you. It tells you that you’re going to finish dead last and be a laughingstock. It shouts that you’re not prepared.
The race starts, and as you begin to move, that little voice cries, “Look at all those people who are passing you!” Your knee twinges a little, and the voice starts in on how you’re not even going to be able to finish. You still have forever to go!
Does this sound familiar?
Every person who has ever competed has felt these things to some extent.
Anxiety has always been a part of my life. It doesn’t take much to push me from my equilibrium, causing me to cave in on myself. I become paralyzed by fear, which prevents me from doing the things I enjoy. In recent years, however, I have decided that enough is enough: I’m not going to let anxiety rule my life anymore.
Letting go of my anxiety means doing things that scare me. It means finally treating my needle phobia and making sure I get my flu shot every year. It means reading my work in front of a room of over a hundred people. It also means registering for all kinds of events, like fun runs, obstacle races, swimming meets and even a couple of open ocean swims.
When I step onto the blocks or toe the starting line, I am gripped by fear. Even though winning is never my primary focus, I still fear that my performance will be sub-par. I fear having to bail out or, worse still, be brought in on a rescue board. To distract myself, I focus on my training. I envision all of the ways I have prepared for this event, whether by long runs or intense swim workouts or picking up lots and lots of heavy things.
I also use these moments as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness has its roots in religious practice such as Buddhist meditation, but has evolved into an established psychological technique used to reduce depression and anxiety. Mindfulness involves bringing awareness to the present moment instead of getting “hooked” on the mistakes of the past or the possible failures in the future.
While there are many ways to practice mindfulness, the form that resonates best for me is observing my feelings and my environment as if I were a scientist studying a strange new thing. I tell myself, “This is fear. The rumble in my stomach is how my body deals with it.” I accept those feelings. I let them exist within me.
Then I consciously place my feet or complete each stroke. I focus on my body’s strength as it pushes against the pavement or pulls against the water to remind myself of how strong I truly am. I look outside myself to observe the world around me.
When the starting gun goes off, adrenaline pushes me forward. Occasionally my brain switches off and my body just springs into action without the painful pangs of fear and anxiety. How great it would be if I could complete every event this way, but usually my nerves follow me beyond the starting line.
The Bridge Run is a 9 kilometer run across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and around Sydney. It was the first fun run I’ve participated in since I was eight years old. While my training runs were solid, I was so nervous about the logistics of the race that it overshadowed everything else.
The morning of the race was a blur of nerves before I even arrived to the starting line. Due to an administrative error I was placed in a faster group than I believed I should have been in. To add to my growing anxiety, now I was worried that I would be trampled by the other runners, or at least get some filthy looks along the way.
When I crossed the starting line, I felt sick to my stomach and shaky as all hell. But I concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to judge myself by the people whizzing by.
I started consciously focusing on what was going on around me—the other runners, the view from the bridge, the way my body felt as I moved forwards. By the time I was halfway across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, I had calmed down considerably. I had a very strong run that day; to my surprise, by “slowing down” and practicing mindfulness, I was able to finish well within the time allotted to my start group!
It would have been easy to shut down on the start line, so easy to just turn around, get back on the train and go home. But by concentrating on the experience of the race as I was experiencing it, instead of my self-doubt, I was able to surpass even my most optimistic expectations.
But sometimes the panic is overwhelming. Sometimes I feel like I’ve just trapped myself into the biggest mistake of my life. The waves are high or the hills are steep, and conquering them feels insurmountable. In those instances, thinking about my training just makes me feel even more unprepared for the event at hand, believing that I should have trained more.
When I swam the Cole Classic this year, I was nearly overcome with panic. I didn’t train in the ocean as much as I would have liked (read: at all), which didn’t help my confidence leading up to the race. Once my face hit the water I lost all belief in myself.
I hadn’t even swum 100 meters before I wanted to turn around and give up. Instead, I forced myself to focus on moving forwards. I told myself that my time didn’t matter, only finishing, and that I could take as long as I needed. I reminded myself that I could swim this distance; I had done it before, I could do it again. I tried to focus on the other swimmers, the sun on my back, the temperature of the water. This time, these thoughts and observations were barely enough to cut through the panic.
The swell was high that day, and every time I turned away from shore to breathe I saw what appeared to be a twelve-foot tall wall of water. (I may be exaggerating.)I calmed myself by saying “It’s okay, just breathe towards shore for now.” As I weathered each wave, I relaxed a little, remembering that I had the skills I needed to get through this.
Eventually I made my first turn towards shore (heaven!), then my second turn back to parallel with the shore (agony!), then finally, the last turn towards the finish line. One stroke at a time, one breath at a time, I made my way to the finish. I bit back tears of fright and frustration and anger at myself for not training in the ocean like I should have. But I kept propelling my body forward, bit by bit.
When I clambered out of the water and ran to the timing mats, I didn’t feel the elation I normally do, only relief that it was over. I staggered past the finish line and accepted a warm cup of Gatorade. I found my wife, who waits for me at the finish every time, ready to give me a towel or a snack or a hug, whichever I need. When she told me how proud she was, I decided to believe it. After all, half an hour earlier finishing the race felt impossible, and yet I had done it.
These are the experiences I will carry to my next races. I will remember those feelings, the good and the bad, for what they were: moments in time. Some of those moments were longer than others, yes, but they shared something in common: they all came to an end.
For that’s one of the most important lessons that mindfulness has taught me. My struggle with anxiety had meant the belief that unpleasant feelings like fear and frustration could overcome me, the belief that I would never feel anything else ever again. That belief further fed my anxieties, causing me to avoid anything that could possibly incur those feelings.
By avoiding those experiences, though, I was also avoiding things that made me feel alive. I was missing out on experiences that could make me stronger, both physiologically and psychologically.
Part of mindfulness (or at least the way I practice it) is not labeling feelings as “good” or “bad” but rather observing them as they ebb and flow. Just realizing that a feeling I don’t enjoy is not going to last forever can be the difference between shutting down and pushing through.
So when I find myself at the starting line for the City2Surf this August, I will remember that every time I’ve raced, I’ve finished. Every time, I pushed away each physiological and psychological barrier I came across by remembering my training and focusing on the experience. And I will remember that there’s no reason I can’t do it again.