Everyone always prattles on about how great exercise is for mental health. What they don’t tell you is how difficult playing sport can actually be when you suffer from anxiety.
My boyfriend is President and Coach of the local dodgeball club and despite my protests that sport and me don’t exactly mix, it was only a matter of time before I gave a dodgeball a try.
I really struggled to find my feet when I first started playing; dodgeball games are quick and trying to take in what was happening, pick up rules and avoid incoming dodgeballs proved tricky when my brain already had hundreds of thoughts flying through it. Getting hit out was an instant relief because it meant no one was watching me fail miserably and my anxiety finally subsided a little. So for me, progress was super slow, because I had no intention of ever really trying.
What made things even worse was that I freaked out even more if my boyfriend was close or watching, it just intensified the pressure. There were training sessions when my adrenaline kicked off my fight-or-flight response and I had to bolt out of the gym hall 5 minutes in.
The worst anxiety attack I suffered was after I had been playing dodgeball for a few months and had a burst of confidence that convinced me I could play competitively in the upcoming league. I was still ropey on the rules and not really sure what I was doing because I counted improvement as just attending a whole session!
The first couple of matches my team played in the league went pretty well and I felt quite proud that I had faced my anxiety head-on. However, our final game was against the top guys in the club and because I had already played a few hour’s worth with my adrenaline pumping, the stress finally got to me and I could feel the usual signs of an anxiety attack coming on: the shaky hands, the overwhelming sense to get out of the situation, the sweating (ya know, all the fun stuff!).
I usually burst into tears when I have anxiety attacks so in order to avoid potential embarrassment, I darted off court (I was worried that people would think I was crying because I was scared of a few guys brandishing some cloth balls!). Luckily one of my friends noticed I wasn’t okay and helped me find a quiet spot so I could regain control.
Despite all of the stress and anxiety that it has caused, I’m still playing dodgeball now. What I realised from that anxiety attack was that even if things get really bad during a game or training session, the worst that was going to happen was that I would need to leave the room to calm down. This in itself helped with controlling my anxiety when I play sport because I don’t feel like I need to hide it and I have a plan for what to do if I need a minute – I just excuse myself from training sessions if things become too much.
Dodgeball has given me a safe place to learn to manage my anxiety, whilst forcing me to get out of the house, socialise and exercise, all of which are so helpful for people who have mental health issues. As I have become more familiar with the sport and rules, my skills have slowly improved and my anxiety has become much more manageable – to the point where I can now enjoy myself!
What I learnt from this particular experience:
Progress for you might not be the same as progress for someone else and it’s never linear. If just showing up to a training session is a massive step for you then this should be celebrated! On the flip side, not being able to go to a session isn’t a failure; missing one session isn’t going to affect things and it’s okay to take a break when you need one.
Letting people in your club know you have anxiety, especially those in charge, might be a good idea. Coaching people with anxiety can very different to coaching people who are naturally sporty and confident.
Learning new skills, like a sport, can trigger anxiety but it will subside over time, just stick with it!
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