Open Water Panic


Panic attacks are no joke. I am the anxiety queen after all, and I’ve had my share of panic attacks on the swim despite being a strong swimmer. I have also seen panic attacks prevent swimmers from even starting their race. So, this is something everyone needs to consider, even if there is no history of panic attacks or panic disorder.

I, however, have a history of anxiety and panic disorder, which means I have had my share of panic attacks that have landed me in the hospital many times. Before I fully understood what was going on, I attributed my racing heart and panic to my heart murmur. I called 911, rode in many an ambulance, and was even hospitalized for my anxiety. I saw a cardiologist, got an ultrasound of my heart, and was told that absolutely nothing was wrong with my heart and to have fun training for my first marathon. Still, panic attacks would strike when I would least expect to be anxious: while watching TV or reading a book at night, while on my morning run, while driving a car, while on vacation, while doing dishes. You name it, and I’ve probably had a panic attack during that event.

Think of a panic attack as your body’s way of releasing built up stress. When you are relaxed, your body thinks that it’s a fabulous time to release all of this worry and anxiety in the form of a panic attack. This all makes sense as it pertains to triathlon. You’ve trained and prepared for months to race, you know you can do it, and then, BOOM! panic on the swim–you suddenly can’t get enough air, your heart is racing, and you feel like you’re going to die and slip below the water’s surface, unseen by a lifeguard.

It’s scary, right? And the worst part about panic attacks is that you don’t have to have a history of them to have one. So, what should you do? Well, if you’re like me and panic attacks are affecting your life and ability to be a regular human being, go and see your doctor, psychiatrist, or health care professional for counseling and/or medication if necessary.

Once you get help, one thing that prevents some panic attacks for me is identifying my fears and making a plan. Be specific. And I mean “be specific” (this is the English teacher coming out in me). Don’t just say, “I’m afraid of drowning” and instead think of what would cause you to drown: is it the lifeguard not seeing you? Is it someone swimming over you? Is it someone pulling your ankles? Is it getting a cramp?

For example, one of my fears on the swim is being able to see the bottom of whatever body of water I am swimming in. I know, I know, some people like to be able to see, but I’m happy in the murkiest of waters because if anything touches me, I can just tell myself it’s another person’s feet or hands even if it’s not true. Yet, I have a coping plan in place if I do see the bottom: study the contours and shapes like it’s an opportunity to visit another planet. Additionally, I bring my focus to my breath: with each exhale, I say, “Relax” in my head. It all seems silly, but it works.

Another fear I have on the swim is having a panic attack and not being able to breathe because of it. So, my plan if this happens is to turn over on my back and bring my focus to my breath. I tell myself that I have trained for this and am a strong swimmer, and if necessary, I flip over on my back and scull. I actually repeat the following phrases: “I am a strong swimmer. I trained for this. Relax.” And you know what? It works. Have a plan. Be specific. And get ready to use it.

So, when your feet ache from the hard concrete, your body is sweating underneath your wetsuit, and you are packed tightly with swimmers like a bunch of sea lions on a solitary rock before the start of the swim, review how you will take action and be in control of the situation.