What It's Like to Have Anxiety as a Competitive Athlete

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain rampant. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, Aria Dimalanta shares how her anxiety has impacted her life as a competitive athlete.

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Photo:

Stocksy

Growing up, I never noticed my anxiety. There were always things I worried about and obsessed over, but I saw it as a normal feeling that everyone experiences.

In high school, I went through events most teenagers go through and worry about, but the way I took it was pretty intense. One of my first major anxiety attacks was when I was 16; I was preparing for the ticket of teenage freedom—a driver’s license. Almost everyone in my class was driving already, and I wanted to start on this new chapter too. I would drive the same routes I knew I was going to be tested on every day after school.

As the test came closer, I had trouble sleeping; when I did, all dreamt about was taking the driving test. When it finally came time to take the test at the DMV, I had a mental breakdown and cried outside while my mom tried to calm me down. It may not have seemed like a big deal—even when I look at it now, it wasn’t. But while pre–driving test nerves are normal, I knew my anxiety was different. Still, after I received my license, I thought that was the last time I would freak out like that again.

I moved to Woodland Hills, California, when I attended college at California State University of Northridge. Down the street from my apartment, I saw a mixed martial arts gym and was so intrigued by learning how to fight. For those who don’t know, jiujitsu is a form of mixed martial arts that originated in Brazil. It’s a grappling sport that doesn’t consist of any punches or kicks, and the only way to win is to dominate or submit your opponent by breaking a bone or choking them.

It’s what you see when you watch a UFC fight and they’re on the ground finding ways to overpower their opponent. I took one class and immediately felt this rush and empowerment I hadn’t experienced before. Jiujitsu has been a huge part of my life for about two and a half years, and I now train about five to six days a week. However, when I welcomed jiujitsu into my life, I didn’t know I was also welcoming a somewhat new (but familiar) feeling of extreme anxiety I thought I left behind at the DMV.

After six months of training 90 minutes every day, six days a week, my teammates and jiujitsu professor convinced me to participate in their next competition in two months. Now that you know how I prepared for my driver’s license, you can imagine how hard I trained for my first fight. While also balancing school and work, training became my first priority. I was going to nine jiujitsu classes per week, skipping work and school once a week and traveling 20 miles to squeeze in extra morning training sessions.

My body wasn’t used to the sudden increase in training, and as the competition got closer, I became a restless zombie. I would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, and headaches became common. All I could think about was the competition and what my first fight was going to be like. As each month passed and my fight grew closer, the pain in my chest became more pronounced. It got so uncomfortable I would have to step outside or excuse myself from class to be in a quiet place so I could catch my breath. I didn’t understand why I was so anxious, but I figured it was normal for a first-time competition.

The day arrived, and I was questioning why I was even there in the first place. I could have been relaxing at home and not be putting myself through all of the anguish and anxiety to prove I was good enough. My biggest fear wasn’t my opponent; it was if everything I put myself through was going to be worth it in this five-minute round battle. My name was called to step on the mat to fight a complete stranger who didn’t know the extent of what I was feeling. On my third and last fight for gold, I thought I had it in the bag when I managed a triangle choke I thought was going to seal the deal. My legs ended up giving out, and I took home the silver.