Trigger warning: Performance anxiety, catastrophic thoughts, self-esteem
It’s happening again. My belly starts to flutter, my sight is flickering and I’m shaking. A quick, dreadful shaking that won’t stop when I try to relax my body. To make sure the person next to me in the press box doesn’t understand what’s going on I ask him “It’s really cold in here! Aren’t you freezing?”.
“No, I’m fine”, he says.
“Wow, I’m freezing like hell!”, I respond. I keep pretending, but I’m well aware that my shaking has nothing to do with temperature.
The first time I experienced strong anxiety I was 25 years old. I worked as a sales manager in a department store, and I was working on something in the warehouse. Suddenly I felt the floor become liquid and the tall shelves starting to sway. My chest emptied to a painful vacuum, I had trouble getting the oxygen to flow all the way down to my lungs. Panicking, I started breathing faster and harder to try to fill them. I managed to step into my office, where my legs just crumbled under my body. With my back against the wall, my body weak and in distress, I started crying and called my dad to tell him something was wrong. One of my co-workers found me and called an ambulance. At the hospital, they told me I was fine and that nothing was physically wrong with me. After I told them about my experience at the warehouse the doctor concluded I had suffered a panic attack.
That was a long time ago. From that day on, anxiety has become an unwelcome, but regular part of my daily life. Back then I linked the anxiety to exhaustion and not being satisfied with the big things in my life. For every major change I went through, the anxiety was always present. Since then, catastrophic thoughts and a negative “what if” mentality is something I struggle with on a day-to-day basis. I’ve seen therapists and psychologists to learn about the phenomenon of anxiety and emotional distress, and I’ve learned great tools to handle them. Today I’m not as afraid as I was before when the vacuum unfolds behind my ribs.
Today my anxiety is almost always linked to performance. I have issues with my self-esteem. When everyone else is convinced I can do something, there’s always a little devil behind my ear that whispers “can you really handle this?” and “what if everything goes to hell?” If I reach some kind of success or progress I have about ten minutes to be happy and proud before the devil takes charge of my thoughts. It doesn’t matter if I successfully managed a task two thousand times before – when it’s time for the two thousand and first, the doubt is there to question me. What if I make a fool out of myself? What if somebody thinks I’m incompetent or unintelligent? What if I come off as a not nice person? What if I ask a stupid question? What if I haven’t researched enough? What if I throw up or faint? What if I mess everything up?
It drains me. It steals all my energy and weakens me. But somehow I’ve learned to live with it. I try to see that type of stress, catastrophic mindset, and performance-based anxiety as something that makes me more alert, more attentive and more prepared for unexpected situations. If I actually were to throw up (hasn’t happened so far), I’ve already gone through that disaster in my mind, so it will probably be less dramatic when it happens in real life. Yes, of course, I would rather meet a task with the feeling of confidence and free from worry, I’d rather have the devil boosting me with “you can do it!”:s and kind words so I didn’t have to be mentally exhausted after I’m done. But then, I might not have been as prepared.
And then we have the shakings. The insidious, unignorable shakings. It doesn’t matter what press box I’m in, what player or person I’m about to talk to, or how well prepared I am – those shakings will always steal control of my body sometime in the beginning of the third period (or second half if I’m working at a soccer game.) They can show up when I’m about to do a phone interview or meet someone for a business lunch. The shakings are my performance anxiety manifested physically, reminding me to stay sharp and be ready for things to go south. I can’t talk myself out of them and I can’t hold them back. But I know what they are and what they want and I’ve learned to live with them. If things go south, then things go south and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Kajsa Kalméus, 32, sports journalist