As little kids, there is a lot we depend on other people for. We have to ask for a lot. “Mom, I’m hungry, can you please make me a snack?”, “I can’t sleep, will you read me a story?” “I don’t feel well, can I stay home?” These questions frequent every child’s repertoire of questions. For most children, there is no taboo around expressing emotions. Shouting, “Hey, that hurt my feelings,” or even the occasional meltdown does not warrant embarrassment for most kids. As we grow up, asking for help or displaying vulnerability often comes with an overwhelming sense of self-consciousness, making it a rare occurrence.
When I first started experiencing symptoms of anxiety, my seven-year-old self had no hesitation about asking for help. Over the course of my childhood, I met with therapists and doctors who helped me learn how to manage the panic, the tightness in my chest, and the hamster wheel of thoughts that constantly occupied my mind. Soon enough, I was feeling like myself again. I could count days, and eventually weeks between having to call my mom from the nurse’s office at school and I often flashed a crooked, toothy smile. Every day was not perfect but I was lucky enough to have parents who normalized treatment for mental health. If I started to feel off, I had a plan in place to help me regain my footing.
Fast forward to high school, things were great. But for an occasional bout of feeling out of sorts, usually induced by a big exam or girl drama, I was able to keep my anxiety at bay. I also found a place where I seemed to be completely unshakable. When I am sitting in the coxswain’s seat, my jitters subside and my mind is clear. I watch. Blades of oars come in and out of the water; on a perfect day, it looks like cutting glass. I speak. It is my responsibility to communicate what, when, and how, things will be done in the boat. When I do my job correctly, nine women move together, flawlessly, as one. I have to be one hundred percent locked in. The margin for error is small and I simply do not have any space in my brain for anxious thoughts to occupy. When I’m on the water, everything else fades behind me. As a senior in high school, I felt like I had it all. I had been recruited to cox at UVA, something I had been dreaming about for quite some time, and I was enjoying the bittersweet list of lasts, and looking forward to what was to come. Mentally, I felt stronger than ever.
Covid-19 brought new challenges for me, as it did for everyone, but I found myself impacted less than many of my friends. Once I processed the initial shock and anger, I felt gratitude above anything else, because, after years of managing anxiety, I had developed a nearly ironclad repository of coping mechanisms. The first semester of first-year went as smoothly as possible given the raging global pandemic. I met with my team sports psychologist a few times but had little to report. Even on tough days, I was able to get through a wave of anxiety on my own.
Breathe in, one, two, three, Hold. Breathe out, one, two, three. That was usually all it took.
While I was adjusting to Covid college relatively easily, teammates of mine were struggling. I noticed behaviors in a few of my friends that were all too familiar. One morning after practice, I sat on the cracked concrete outside of Gibbons with my hand on a teammate’s shoulder. The outpouring of tears and incomprehensible sentences was constant and she was struggling to catch her breath.
The scary thing about having panic attacks is that they do not usually happen just once. When cortisol levels surge, it can take a while for them to come down. Elevated cortisol makes a person more susceptible to feeling anxious or experiencing a panic attack. When I asked them if they would want to reach out to someone, maybe the team psychologist, I was met with a firm “no.” She worried that a coach might find out that she was not at her best and would feel ashamed asking for help. “I can do this on my own.” My stomach flipped. When it came to mental health, asking for help when needed was a habit.
Easier said than done, I reminded myself.
It is important to realize that athletes may have access to the best resources in the world and still struggle. The stifling stigma of mental health is enough to keep athletes away from the support that they need. My experience dealing with anxiety is a perfect example. In February, I found myself with every resource I could ask for and yet, completely alone.
Returning to Grounds in January last year included a seven-day quarantine prior to going to winter camp. Leaving home was harder than I remembered it being in September. Once back in Charlottesville, I made sure to exercise every day and found a new TV show to watch to stay busy. Still, I noticed myself slipping into a funk.
One day at a time.
The beginning of February brought a regular practice schedule and classes. I hoped that some structure would help me feel a bit more normal. I remember a teammate reaching out, she told me I didn’t seem like myself and asked to get dinner. The first big snow came and the Lawn was packed with snowmen and bundled students, I felt a bit shaky but things were looking up.
My phone rang, it was my team’s athletic trainer. My heart plummeted into my stomach. Before I even answered, I knew I would be spending the next ten days in a hotel. Maybe if I had been feeling strong, to begin with, I would have been able to manage my anxiety better during my second quarantine in six weeks. Maybe if I had made more of an effort to connect with my teammates in the preceding weeks, I would not have felt so cut off from the world outside my 16’x13’ hotel room.
My coping mechanisms were becoming fragile in this time alone and my once steel grip on my anxiety was slipping away. No matter what I tried, I could not seem to find my balance. Like I said earlier, when cortisol is released, it does not disappear at the same speed at which it spiked. As I approached the end of my ten days, I knew I was not ready to go back to practice.
I stared at my coach’s name on my phone with my finger hovering above the call button. I could not believe what I was about to do. Mental health had never interfered with rowing before. Normally, going to practice felt like an escape. I felt weak like I had given in to my anxiety. At the same time, I knew that I needed a break. Blood pounded in my ears from the moment I heard the dial tone, he answered, and I began explaining my situation. I felt like I was going to be sick but then, my coach said something that offered a new way of thinking about treating mental health. Health, he said, is physical and mental. He needs his athletes to take care of both aspects so that we have a healthy team. I took the time that I needed, and slowly, my extroverted personality returned.
For collegiate athletes, there is a unique feeling of disappointment when we miss the mark. There is an unfathomable amount of pressure to be fitter, faster, stronger, and comparison is inevitable. High-stress environments wear on our bodies, both physically and mentally. When someone gets hurt, everything possible is done to accelerate the healing process, but at the end of the day, it is not completely in anyone’s control. No amount of Advil or ice baths can make a sore rib or a sprain vanish. Teams, coaches, and trainers know this and make plans for injured athletes accordingly. What if mental health was treated the same way? Why does asking for help seem so much more unreasonable when it comes to depression and anxiety?
Athletes are often hailed as “the best of us” because of our physical abilities, but we are not immune to mental health issues.
Even though I had years of experience dealing with anxiety, I am still prone to bad days. Anxiety will never completely vanish and I can’t say that I will never be “low” in the future. Needing help is a normal thing, reaching out and asking for it is often the biggest obstacle to tackle. Just ask.