A Cure for Panic: The Potato Chip MethodThe Panic Attack

I shiver as water laps against my ankles. The neck of my black wetsuit feels too tight on my throat. I pull at it nervously.

The sunrise brightness is crisply clear over the water. Three orange buoys bounce in the reservoir lake water like ridiculous kiddie pool play toys. Lifeguards are moving into position in kayaks.

This is a final practice before my first triathlon next week. Today is a race day simulation.

Because I re-learned to swim as an adult, swimming is not my favorite activity. I’ve been practicing open water swimming for the last couple months with my triathlon team, though.

I wade into the murky water and splash around a bit to warm up. Up the hill, my bike stands waiting for me in the transition area, along with my running shoes.

Our coach offers a few encouraging words and reminders. She smiles brightly. My heart beats hard in my chest. I adjust my goggles for the 7th…9th…13th time.

Did coach just holler, “Go?” We start. One hundred women jump into the water with various levels of enthusiasm and trepidation.

My body moves through the motions I’ve been taught. I start a rhythm that feels steady enough. I look up to sight the first buoy, and I see that most of the other swimmers are already yards ahead of me.

Overcoming triathlon swim panic

This isn’t good.

I pick up my pace. What if I’m the only swimmer left? Talk about embarrassing! I kick harder. My arms cut into the water.

Pull. I look up again. My goggles are fogged. Where are the orange buoys? Why are they so friggin’ tiny? They should make those stupid things bigger. I decide to swim a little farther and try sighting again.

My chest feels fluttery but I ignore it. I need to get moving. There was another swimmer around me a minute ago but I don’t see her now. Crap.

Stroke, stroke. I pop my head fully up from the water and see I have swam off course. Way off to the left. No other swimmers around.

I’ll be behind! I’ll be the last one out here! All the lifeguards will stand around waiting for me!

I bet they all laugh at me and think what a stupid swimmer I am. They think I am ridiculous to sign up for this event.

I put my head down, aim the correct direction, and pull harder. I have to breathe with every stroke instead of every three. I kick harder still.

I have *got* to catch up with the others. What about the bike? My bike will be the last one standing there! And the run? Will everyone wait around for me to finish the run? I’m one of the slowest runners.

There is no air. NO AIR. I flip over onto my back. I start the back stroke. I’m trying to breathe. My brain says, “Slow down” but my body moves fast. I’m confused.

Our coach paddles over to me in a kayak. “Hold on to the edge and catch your breath,” she instructs me. I have no idea why she is telling me to do this. I am perfectly fine.

I cling to the edge of the boat. She slowly paddles toward shore. I take in great, gulping breaths, but the air won’t go down. I think I’m sobbing but I’m not totally sure.

Calm reassuring words from my coach sound like they are coming from far away. I can hear her but I cannot see her. “The water is really cold today. It takes breath away. Totally normal. Happens to many people the first time.”

I have no idea what she is talking about. Why can’t I finish my swim? Why is she moving me towards shore? This swim isn’t going to count. This race won’t count!

Why can’t I breathe?

It’s Just More Potato Chips

It isn’t until after the event that I fully understand what happened. I had a panic attack while swimming.

This is a practice event, but my first “real” triathlon is just one week away. Do I withdraw from the event that I trained so hard for? There would be even more swimmers, more adrenaline. How in the world will I overcome my fear?

At the end of every triathlon there is typically food for the racers to replenish our nutrition — watermelon, gatorade, bananas. Sometimes they offer potato chips for the salt.

As I talk with one of the coaches and share my experience, she is sympathetic. Although she’s a strong swimmer, she says, “Oh yeah, I swim off course sometimes. I just figure, I burned some extra calories. I tell myself, ‘It’s just more potato chips I get to eat at the end!'”

It’s Just More Potato Chips. This becomes my mantra for swimming.

Note: If you deal with panic attacks or any other mental health issue, please see a trained professional. This is what worked for me, but your experience may be different and require different care. Check out helpyourselfhelpothers.org as one possible resource.

Wherever You Are, Be There

Earlier in the triathlon season, I attended a powerful workshop by Melon Dash, swimming instructor for adults, and I pulled out her materials again. Here is her website: Melon Dash’s Miracle Swimming Institute. Melon’s 5 circle method (you can see a picture of it here) changed everything for me. (Link to the book: Melon Dash Miracle Swimming)

Your mind and body have to stay connected in order to prevent panic. Look back at my panicked swim. My mind was everywhere but where I was — it was at my bike, worried about the lifeguards’ thoughts, worried about the finish line, worried about the other swimmers. I blocked out what was going on within myself.

Wherever you are, be there.

In order to heal panic attacks, you must promise yourself that you will always do whatever you have to do to keep yourself safe. You must stay in the moment and be aware of what is going on with your body.

Keeping myself safe matters more to me than any race, any finish line, or worries about what anyone thinks of me. If I need to slow down, I slow down. If I need to stop and rest, I rest. If I need to get a drink, I get a drink. If I’m last, then I’m just last.

Since then, I have never had one panic attack moment in the water or anywhere else.

When I start to get nervous, I remind myself, “It’s just more potato chips.” That’s my cue to stay in the moment, pay attention to my body, and take care of myself in whatever ways I need.

Sara first triathlon swim

The full story and pictures of my first triathlon are here: Why The Finish Line Is Not the Toughest Line

The Cure for Panic Attacks: The Potato Chip Method

The Hope Toolbox

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hope for depression

Today’s Bible Verse:

Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.

John 14:27

Today’s Journaling Prompt:

Have you dealt with panic attacks or high anxiety moments? What is your take-away from the Potato Chip method? Check out the 5 Circles photo here: http://www.5circlesteachingmethod.com/index.shtml.


Melon Dash: Miracle Swimming

Melon Dash: The 5 Circles Teaching Method

Melon Dash: Miracle Swimming

Today Was a Good Day: How to Not Take Any Day for Granted

Hope in Hard Times: The 1 Question We All Want Answered

Rosie: 5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

5 Ways to Deal with Anxiety and Depression

Verses of Hope

University of MN: Anxiety and Depression

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