“Why are you even bothering,” the voice says “You’re never going to be able to do it. You’re going to let everyone down. You’re useless, fat, unfit…” 

The voice continues. And my body responds in the only way it knows how. Tears burn the backs of my eyes before spilling over in a torrent almost as strong as the words that caused them. 

Then, it hits. I can’t breath. I’m trying to. But I can’t. I try to take a deep breath. But it gets stuck in my throat. I think I’m dying. Am I dying? My bike falls to the ground from where I’d been pushing it up the dirt track which was too steep for me to cycle.

I drop to the floor. My chest hurts. I can’t see. I try to get my backpack off, hoping it will help alleviate the pressure that seems to be constructing my windpipe. But my hands don’t work.

Suddenly, I hear a voice. But it’s not the voice that caused this. It’s the kind voice of my race partner Joelle. She’s come back for me. And here I am, a useless lump of nothingness on the ground. 

Realising what’s happening, she races towards me, pulling off my backpack and helping me to get my head between my knees. I can breathe. It’s not a heart attack. I’m not dying. But it is one of many panic attacks that plague my life. The voice saying all those nasty things? Well, that was my own.

The history of my panic

I’ve had panic attacks for around the past seven years, with the original trigger being crowds. My self-appointed coping mechanism was to avoid crowded areas such as clubs, pubs, train stations etc. And on the rare occasion I went to a gig or a festival, I skirted the crowds and watched from afar. It worked. They were in control. But only because I avoided places that triggered me. 

I turned to the outdoors and began hiking, camping and adventuring. It was my saviour, and I felt that I had finally found my place in the world. But now, the panic plagues me here too. The only difference? Instead of being triggered by crowds I’m triggered by my own self doubt. 

Take the above for example. I had signed up for a beginner’s adventure race with a very good friend of mine. The distances were incredibly short, and we had both agreed it was for fun, not to try and win. I’d been looking forward to it for months, yet the moment we started all I could think of was how much faster and fitter my race partner was and how I was going to let her down. And let’s just say the words my subconscious used weren’t exactly nice.

Another time, on a challenging multi-day hike in Africa I had another panic attack when I realised I was slower than others. And on a mountaineering course, I fought off panic attacks every time I struggled with something. Yet most of it was in my head. About three days in, I explained to my instructor what was happening and she said: “Brooke, you’re telling yourself you can’t climb that rockface…yet you are already halfway up. You need to change your thought patterns.”

Let’s hear from the professionals 

Mindy Simpson, sports performance psychologist, Condor Performance
Mindy Simpson, performance psychologist, Condor Performance

Mindy Simpson is a performance psychologist from Condor Performance. “Emotions such as nerves, fear and panic can often be triggered when an individual’s confidence in their abilities do not align with the challenge they face in front of them,” she says. “This challenge can be physical and/or mental and adventure sports definitely test athletes in various ways. When there is this discrepancy between confidence and the perceived challenge it leads to greater uncertainty which opens the door for these emotions to come rushing in.”

If you’ve never had a panic attack it is very hard to explain. Often people think that it’s just a bit of shortness of breath. But for me personally, it genuinely feels like I may suffocate. I’m mentally and physically wiped out afterwards, sometimes for days. And I’m not alone. Up to 25 per cent of Australians will suffer from panic attacks at one point in their life. 

While my trigger is confidence, another trigger is of course fear. I helped a friend of mine through her first ever panic attack whilst climbing a chain ladder attached to a cliff face for a particularly challenging Africa hike (yep, the same hike I mentioned above).  

“Panic attacks are short periods of extreme anxiety,” says Mindy. “They come on suddenly and are usually based around intense fear or terror.  Generally, the intensity of the fear is inappropriate for the circumstances the person is in and typically reaches this point due to unmanaged nervous symptoms and overthinking.”

Know the symptoms

Panic attacks reach a peak within 10 minutes but can last for up to half an hour. Symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack and can include chest pain, dizziness, increased heart rate, trembling, and shortness of breath.  

Like me when I started to avoid crowds, once a person has had a panic attack, they will often avoid places or activities that trigger them. 

“That approach is not really ideal for anyone partaking in sports or adventure,” continues Mindy. “Panic attacks could really impact performance because the avoidant motivation they feel overrides their desire to push forward towards their goals and overcome the challenges of the sport. If you’ve had a panic attack on the side of a mountain, then you are not likely to go back there again.”

So what can be done?

For me personally, I’ve been working hard on minimising my panic attacks through finetuning what the triggers are and working on strategies to deal with them. 

I’ve realised that I only ever have them in team situations where I compare myself to others; I can hike for days on my own and not get so much of a flutter. The good thing is that – unlike crowds – I will never avoid the outdoors because of my panic attacks.

“My advice would be to speak with a psychologist who can educate you about what a panic attack is, and the symptoms and treatments available,” says Mindy. “Panic attacks may feel really scary, but they don’t actually cause any physical harm nor are life threatening. There are a number of strategies people can use, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and relaxation techniques to manage them and reduce any limiting impact they have on their sporting performances or life in general.”

I took up this advice a couple of years back and spoke to a psychologist who gave me some practical tactics on how to deal with panic in the moment it happens. But my main challenge continues to be changing my own damaging thought patterns. For that, I’m trying a CBT course and throwing myself in the deep end by joining more team-related activities and expeditions. 

“The cognitive model is based on the idea that the way we interpret situations (thoughts) determines how we feel and behave,” explains Mindy. “At times these thoughts can be irrational and untrue, leading to emotions such as fear.  Fear can then cause physical responses also known as our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response.”

Well, I don’t know about you. But I plan to fight…until the panic is firmly in my past. Do you suffer from panic attacks? We’d love to hear your experiences. Let us know on Facebook or Instagram.

Main photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash.