How do I learn to let go?

Anxiety can be a motivating factor or a debilitating one. For me its debilitating. Today I was swimming 200m timed sets with Mat Reid, my swim coach, working on improving my endurance. I’ve been learning how to flip turn and I was supposed to be flipping at the end of each lap but by the end of the second set I was feeling anxious and I was struggling with my swim. We decided to cut out the flip turn and poof, suddenly I’m swimming faster, stronger and more confident. I reduced my time by 20 seconds between my 2nd and 3rd set. I actually continued to get stronger with each set, having by best time in the 5th set.

The panic I was starting to feel with each lap is the same panic I feel during a race in open water. I’ve struggled since that first race when I was 5 months pregnant with youngest swimming in open water. Granted swimming in open water is daunting for most triathletes. There are no little black lines to follow along the bottom of the lake, the water is murky, it can be wavy, there are weeds, it’s freezing and you are swimming with 100-1000 of your closest friends. For most that anxiety gives them that extra adrenaline rush that they need to get through the swim. When the gun goes off I run into the water, dive in and start to swim to only pop my head up around 50-100m in a 750m swim feeling like I can’t breathe, can’t settle my heart rate and can’t calm my thoughts. Notice all the can’ts.

The worst time was during the provincial championships this year. That morning there had been a massive thunderstorm roll through. It delayed the race and compressed the waves. The water was churned up and choppy. Plus we were boxed in by a ferry and a break wall. I was wound before I even got in the water. When the gun sounded I started to swim but I didn’t even make it 25m before I was popping my head up and hyper ventilating. I could hear Peter screaming “YOU ARE FINE!” I’d try to put my head back in the water but two strokes later I was up again saying I could’t breathe which is ironic because I could breathe enough to talk. Somehow I managed to get to the first buoy. The leaders in the second wave had passed me and I was just trying to survive by this point. I was begging with myself to just start swimming. To just put my face in the water. That I can’t give up. I was terrified of disappointing everyone who believed in me, had sacrificed for me and most importantly I was terrified of realizing every insecurity I was secretly trying to ignore. You know, that little voice in the deep recess of your head smirking at you with that I told you so look.

Just when I was going to give in to the smirk a different voice started to filter through. It was the voice of my friend Jen who keeps me company in the pool and during open water swims. She lovingly swims over, under and around me to help with my anxiety. I could hear her to tell me: “breathe every first and third stroke.” I held onto her voice until I dragged myself out of the water. When I got to the bike rack there was only 5 bikes left on the rack and one of them was mine. All the 30-39 women were out of the water and I had a lot of work to do. But instead of throwing in the towel I rode my bike with absolute determination. Every person in front of me was just another target to hunt down. I gained my advantage back on that bike course, and ended up coming in third.

How I did that was by not giving up when I was having a full blown panic attack. But what I realized in the pool today is that although I overcame my anxiety that day, it hasn’t gone away and I need to conquer my fear for good.

Mat and I started talking about how I feel when I do a flip turn. How is it similar to when I’m swimming in open water? Why am I slowing in anticipation of the turn? I know I feel short of breath, like I can’t breathe. I think part of it is that instinctual need to breathe and I believe I’m not skilled enough to do the turn and get enough air in time. In other words, I don’t believe in myself. The other part is the control, perfectionist, all around annoying part of me that needs to get it right. I put pressure on myself to get it right the first time while telling myself I can’t do it. In a race scenario I build myself into a ball of anxiety.

Mat said I need to let go of the emotion. What I heard is: I need to let go of the baggage. But how? And I really need to figure it out because I see the same need to be perfect and in control in my daughter. I watched her break down into tears practicing her spelling words this week. I asked her why she was crying and she said “I just wanted to get it right. All of it!” She broke my heart and I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t until I was walking away from the pool today that I realized her and I are two peas in a pod for better and worse. I need to learn to let go so that I can be a better role model to my daughter, to teach her how to relax and let go.