Share Your Story Series: Expectations and Dealing with Anxiety.
Let’s talk about “firsts,” as in your first kiss, first bike ride, first trip away from home.
Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute wrote about a study “by British researchers Gillian Cohen and Dorothy Faulkner [which] found that 73 percent of vivid memories were either first-time experiences or unique events.”
I’m sure we can all think of a handful of joyful “firsts.” However, just as easily as we can remember happy first-time moments, unfortunately, we remember the less than joyful one’s just as well. First heartbreak, first rejection letter, first run in with the law, whatever it may be we all have those vivid memories of some first time gut wrenching moments we wish we could forget.
This story features an athlete and her first encounter with anxiety.
My name is Gabrielle Ewing and this is my story.
Professional Soccer Player & Concordia University – Portland Women’s Soccer Alum.
Founder of The Athlete Confidential.
Senior Year of College
I was sitting up on my bed, back against the headboard, legs pin straight out in front of me, wide awake at 11:00 pm on a Monday just staring blankly at the wall. My mind was racing, but not landing on any single thought, just bouncing around from thought to thought like a fly trapped in a car with the windows up. All of a sudden, my heart started going mad, just buzzing while my chest squeezed at my lungs. My breathing became short and panicked. Then the buzzing moved from my chest to my arms and then to my legs until my whole body was buzzing. My lips went numb, my hands got clammy, and my breath continued to spiral out of control until I couldn’t sit still anymore. I popped up and started pacing the room just trying to catch my breath, but I couldn’t. I was scared. I remember thinking, Am I having a heart attack? Do I need to go to the hospital? What the actual fuck is going on? I had no idea what was happening and why I suddenly felt like my body wanted to jump out of its own skin. I grabbed my phone and started googling. I typed in all my symptoms, hit search, and there it was in big bold letters, “Symptoms of an anxiety attack.”
I had never experience one before but I just knew. I was having an anxiety attack.
My FIRST anxiety attack.
After a quick chat with my roommate, a much-needed phone call to my mom, and a good old-fashion cry I was so mentally and physically drained I sunk into my bed and passed out.
Waking up the next morning was a struggle. My body felt like it weighed five-hundred pounds and my eyes were tired and heavy. Although I got a full eight hours of sleep, I felt like I hadn’t slept in days. After snoozing my alarm about seven times I finally dragged myself out of bed after realizing I was going to be late for class.
I was unfocused in class and felt “off” all day. I was fatigued, moody, unsociable and I couldn’t stop thinking about my episode the night before. I just kept asking myself Why did that happen? What caused it? I don’t even have anxiety; how could I have an anxiety attack?
The thing about anxiety is you never know exactly when and how it is going to present itself.
During this time of my life there were a lot of external and internal stressors I was trying to manage. Couple that with no proper outlet, sleep deprivation and lack of mental health awareness. I was basically a sitting duck in a pond of anxiety waiting for the bullet that would drown me.
Let’s break it down so you can get a good picture of where I was at mentally, prior to my attack.
College courses – Two classes per day, Monday through Friday so, ten classes per week. Six out of ten of those class periods were one hour and the other four lasted two hours. This clocked me at fourteen class hours per week.
Internship – Three days a week I was putting in time as an intern where I was committing an average of twenty hours per week.
Work – You can bet my internship wasn’t paying the bills so, I also had a part time job. Work had me punching in an average of twenty-five hours per week.
Training – During this time I was also pursuing a professional athletic career.
I had performance training for soccer three times per week, minimum one hour per session. Then, I had field sessions at least twice a week, minimum one and a half hour per session. This brought me to a minimum of six hours per week.
On the low end, all of those hours came out to about sixty-five hours per week and that is not taking into account, commute, homework and study time, or internship assignments.
2. Social Life: Despite my demanding schedule I still made time for my friends. It was my last semester of my senior year, and I didn’t want to miss out on the fun. So, on weekends and even some weekdays I partied, drank, stayed up way too late and attended every social event I was invited to.
3. Sleep: With all the working, studying, training, and partying I was doing there was no time for sleep. I was a young ignorant college student at the time, we were all sleep deprived. It was “normal.” Getting five hours of sleep at night felt like a win. I didn’t realize the value of a good night’s rest.
Although these three factors contributed to my anxiety attack, they were not the root cause. Ultimately, my anxiety stemmed from this:
4. Soccer: Just like most college seniors in their last semester, I had to start thinking about life after college. I decided I was going to pursue a professional career in soccer. I trained hard, I went to combine’s, I contacted coaches and agents and in March 2019, just one month away from graduation I had no offers and even worse, no back up plan. I put all my eggs in the professional athlete basket. The pressure to have something lined up had never felt heavier and of course EVERYONE was asking, what are your plans after graduation? My answer, NO FUCKING CLUE!
The immense amount of pressure I felt to have my life figured out became my downfall.
My need to be the best came at a very young age. I was always gifted athletically, I picked up new sports easily and usually stood out from teammates and opponents. I often naturally fell into leadership roles partly because of my confident, outgoing personality and partly because of my work ethic and athletic abilities. Over time my coaches, teammates, and parents just expected me to perform, to lead, to succeed, to win. The expectations I set for myself were no different. There was little room for error in my mind.
As an athlete I was always more successful than I was unsuccessful. I found myself on talented winning teams that didn’t lose very often. Winning and success became the standard. My transition from middle school sports to high school sports and even to college athletics was a fairly smooth transition. I always had a plan, I always knew what was next and I knew I was going to be successful, which I was.
When it came to the transition from college to professional, I expected nothing different. I was wrong. It was much more challenging. I got little to no interest for a while. I started to question my worth as an athlete and a person. I was embarrassed and scared, scared of failure, scared of letting down my parents, scared to face a world without soccer.
These negative thoughts about myself and my future got louder over time until it was all I could hear. I had no outlet. No one taught me that it was okay to talk about my feelings or ask for help. My pride and my ego always got in the way of that.
My lack of knowledge about mental health at the time meant a lack of priority for my own mental and emotional well-being. At the time my only focus was my physical health. I neglected myself by pushing down any negative emotions I felt and burying myself in work, school, training, and friends. Ignoring the problem didn’t make it better and eventually came to the surface on its own in the form of an anxiety attack.
I’d like to point out that when I look back on this period in my life, despite my struggle with anxiety, I was still very happy most of the time. I had and still have loving and supportive friends and family. I enjoyed all my social outings. I loved my job and my internship, and I always looked forward to training. Just because you are happy doesn’t mean you can’t have anxiety. This is what caught me so off guard. It wasn’t a bad terrible life I was living that pushed me over the edge. It was an accumulation of small things that I chose to ignore.
Since my first anxiety attack, I have learned more about myself and the importance of self-care. I learned to recognize when my mental health is deteriorating and gained the ability to understand why I may be feeling, overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or fearful. I learned that I am not alone, and it is okay to ask for help.
I have grown so much as an athlete and more importantly as a person. I am not perfect, and I still have my struggles with anxiety, but I have gotten much better at managing it.
Reflecting on this time in my life there are so many things I wish I would have done differently. I wish I had the resources and knowledge I have now. However, without this experience I would have never had an opportunity to learn from it and tell my story. I know there are other athletes that will relate to my story, and I hope it will inspire athletes who struggle with their mental health to ask for help. You are never alone.