big swim dh 15 rescue

Dealing with panic attacks

Aquagirl's top tips

Rachael from the twitter verse threw up an interesting question this week regarding panic attacks: “Any tips on embracing the mid-race panic attacks? What can you do to get through it?"

Panic attacks could happen at any time, in training or when racing, getting in the water, running out at the end or smack in the middle of business. So why do we have them and what can we do about them?

Our bodies have the incredible instinct of the fight or flight mechanism, a natural, innate response that occurs when we find ourselves in a situation when we are acutely overstimulated. Open water swimming races are the perfect scenario for this to occur. In fact, the very conditions or combinations of conditions that we face when we open water swim are also the very draw cards that lure us this sport in the first place. The excitement, the exhilaration, the frenzy that we find ourselves in, the unpredictable nature of each race, the beach, the new location; these all make our sport fresh and new every time we enter the water.

These can also be counterbalanced by the hypnotic rise and fall of the water, the marine life that distracts us, the fun of being with friends, the competition, the solitude we feel while stroking away, etc. But for some, put these all together in one melting pot, or add in some unpredictable factors that we can't control, and the panic attack swoops in from nowhere and paralyses us in a possibly life-threatening situation.

So what exactly could tip the scales and bring this on?

For some, it's the new environment, vastly different from a pool or your regular training ground.

Wind can be an open water swimmers worst nightmare: it stirs up the waves and the swell. The temperature, particularly cold water, can shock your body and send your heart into overdrive. Speaking of overdrive, that rapidly increased heart rate at the start of a race can increase breathing and cause much stress. Add the restriction of a tight wetsuit and you have a perfect recipe for that heavy, suffocating feeling. This restriction can be overwhelming.

Overcrowded water and the cage fighting for space in the water, the odd kick or shove or toe tap messes with a person's mind. Poor navigation and lack of familiarity of the race course, that sudden disoriented feeling of being lost, or alone or caught in over powering water. Fatigue or fighting against your body and that voice in your head that all of a sudden just screams at you, "I CAN'T DO THIS!" Unexpected marine life like jelly fish, getting stung or swallowing large gulps of water...

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Every single one of these plus loads more can tip any swimmer's stress levels over the top and bring on that gasping, out of control feeling that grips you from the insides. So, let's try to "embrace these", as Rachael put it so beautifully.

The faster you can ascertain what's bringing on the stress, the faster you can "get through it". First, breathe slowly, draw in big long ones and take a moment. Slow... it... down, but keep on gently swimming. When we're stressed, we tend to act quickly. It's the adrenalin talking. Try to curb it a little; harness it. Stroke slowly but long. Rein it in. Block out the noise around you and take it inside for five seconds. Find your inner voice. Listen to it quietly, and ask yourself simply, "What's up?" Straight away listen to the fearful answer that your inner self you tells you. Act on it now. If it's about being crowded, move out of the way of others and remove yourself from the chaos. Keep the breathing slow. Starting at the back of the pack may lose you a little time in the race, but it may give you clearer water without a panic attack kicking in, in the middle of your event.

The warm up swim is important before the race, even if it's just a small one. Try to read the water and decide how it's behaving. Watch other swimmers around you. Are they drifting out? Being pushed back in? Are there rips? Where are the waves breaking? Are the buoys pulling in one specific direction? This is all advantageous to your race and your coping strategies. Acclimatise to the water temperature. Wear a wetsuit if you feel the cold or just need the reassurance of extra buoyancy but be aware that when you heat up, it can feel tighter and restricting.

Find a swim buddy, talk to others on the beach who have swum there before. If you can't find anyone, look for the life savers or water safety: they should be experts at reading this beach. Swimming with someone is always reassuring. If you need to draft for some time to get yourself together, do it. At this point, it's all about survival not results.

Look for landmarks; pay attention to the course map; ask the water safety out there for directions (that's their job). For that matter, hang on to the water safety craft until you feel calm again.

Waves and swell: we can't control them but we can read them and use them to advantage. Rather than hope that the waves will change for us, we need to change for the waves and swell. Feel for the rhythm, for the rise and fall. On the crest or height of the swell, look ahead and sight your landmarks and buoys. Breathe on the opposite side to avoid drinking the salt water. Think of it as a drum beat to dance to: cha-cha-cha your way around the race.

I'll admit I'm no fan of jellyfish. In fact, I'm more afraid of them than sharks. They wig me out A LOT. What could motivate you more to swim faster than to get out of their way? If there are a lot around, try scooping them out of your way so they don't brush over the rest of your body, provided they're not the really nasty (stinger) type. Most will give a little tickle, just enough to let you know they're there. If it gets any worse, there's always the wave to the lifesavers to assist in removing you from the course if you just can't handle it. Personally, I'd rather not let a lump of jelly beat me on the day. It's mind over matter at its best.

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For the complete Glistening Dave photo essay from The Big Swim... Click here

Break the race down into compartments. Tick them off or close the lids as you go. Ask yourself, "How much worse can it get?" Fist pump the little things: you've gotten this far; you're already this part of the way through the race; it's not really too bad; this is kind of exciting; imagine the stories I can tell other people when I get back onto the beach, etc. Look for the positives: no dwelling on the negatives.

Think about what you do of an evening to unwind and sleep. Some people count sheep, deep-breathe, take their mind to a happy place. Do it now to change the balance from out of control, to in control.

Mantras: they work for some. Mine is "Strength in every stroke". Say it over and over again until it feels like you're on autopilot. If you need to get tough with yourself and take yourself into the room of mirrors to have a good hard look at yourself, try a flat out, "Stopping is not an option... Stopping is not an option".

Train in the conditions you're racing in. Marathon runners don't just run on tracks. Cyclists don't just train in velodromes. Ocean swimmers don't just swim in pools. They are vastly, vastly different. The times you do in pools also vary incredibly from those you will do in an ocean swimming race. Also make sure you can swim the distance of the race... and some. Mother Nature is excellent at sapping your energy. You always need extra in the tank when you're swimming in her back yard. Find a group of like-minded swimmers to train with. They'll surely be a wealth of information and a wonderful security blanket if you need them.

Writing a training/racing journal is also important. Mark down the location of the swim, the temperature both in the water and out, how you were feeling before the race, what you ate the night before and what you had for breakfast. These all are excellent elements to note down. Reflect on the race and look for patterns comparing them to others. Give yourself a rating out of five for bravery. Note down what you did to get yourself through the tough moments.

Look at the big picture. If all races were the same, calm, peaceful, flat, etc, and, well, "uneventful", we'd be bored. Look for the variations from one race to another and celebrate the differences. After all, that's the beauty of open water swimming. You can swim at the same stretch of water day after day and feel like it's a new experience every time. It's one of the gifts our sport gives us.

I hope all of these thoughts and ideas give Rachel and other newbies to the sport some valuable ideas that can help you enjoy this sport for all it's worth. Once these little hiccoughs are ironed out, you'll surely enjoy a long and prosperous time in the sport right until you're a ripe old age of "fossil".

Here's hoping for many, many more years to come in this amazing sport, panic free.

Nicole Chester

Controversy Corner

What do you think about panic attacks whilst swimming? How do you keep your cool? Are there other things that disturb or distract you in a race? Tell us here, and we'll have a discussion... Click here

Winning the mental race

Thanks for talking about this as I am physically capable to ocean swim it this mental challenge that gets me. Followed some of your strategies this weekend and swam my first race without stopping to breaststroke or to have a calming 'chat' with a lifeguard. I did a PB but more importantly I won the mental race.


Jenni Burgess

I'm a dolphin

I am an experienced ocean swimmer and have done many swims between 2 km and 20 km and frequently win/place my in age group. I have had a number of panic attacks and they usually occur at about the 800m mark. I finally realized that the common denominator for me is twofold. 1) a sense of being trapped between swimmers in a big wave-start, and 2) insufficient warm-up.

My strategy now is: I will do a 1200m or 20 min warm up before any ocean swim up to and including 10km events. I will start at the front and side so that I can swim out of the way if many people are passing me. I try not to sprint too hard or for too long as this brings on the panic attack. If I do get it, I swim backstroke for a while until it passes. For events longer than 10km, I make a conscious effort to swim at warm-up pace for the first 1500m before I start to concentrate on stroke technique and speed/effort. All of this seems to work for me.

I also have a mantra that I repeat over and over again in my head when negative thoughts start to impinge. It is, "I'm a dolphin, I'm a dolphin, I'm a dolphin". This can be seen in this short video of me swimming the Rottnest Channel Swim... Click here... As odd as this seems , it gets me into the right frame of mind to continue.

Damon Kendrick

Blow it out

Thanks for your weekly emails and updates and for your jaunty style and extensive commentary. All good and also "allgood allgood".

Over 15 years, as an old guy, I have done about 65 swims in Victorian waters and 2 in NSW – Mollymook and (dare I say it) Manly Cole Classic 3 years ago. Aquagirl gave some good ideas for the panic if it hits, all useful, maybe too many for a novice.

May I offer one extra very effective hint? I have done 12 Pier to Pubs, rarely in big seas. (Gotta mention the finish this year by Sam Shepherd in Superfish wave. One of best finishes ever at Lorne.) Back to advice, given over microphone as we walked down the ramp at Lorne a few years ago for a rare bigger and untidy sea. Microphone said, "Think about this one – Blow it out and draw it in. Blow out hard, then suck it in."

That is the best single advice, simple, immediately effective that I have ever had, and not included in Aquagirl's comments. Interpretation, which I am sure you know: when struggling for breath, either in mind or physically, or with tight neck on wetsuit, or needing to hold 'cos being smacked in face by wave, the reaction is to want more air. Don't breathe in, instead blow out hard, then big breath in, easy and not hyperventilating. Repeat for only about 3 or 4 times with each breathing stroke – simple, that's about all you need.

I have mentioned this advice to maybe 6 or 8 friends – return comments on the quick transition to rhythm and breathing, and still follow this strategy when necessary.

Cheers, keep up all your good news,

Malcolm Cocking

Veteran panicker

As a veteran panic-ker, can totally relate. Brilliant advice here!

Fiona Horn

Always a pleasure

Great article on panic attacks – thanks. It’s good to know that other people have experienced these and the sensible advice is much appreciated.

Also enjoy receiving your emails/newsletters – thanks.

Raymond Schwartz

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