For a long time I didn’t understand anxiety disorders. Since it was something I never struggled with, I thought anxiety was a trifling matter that could be overcome with a little mental hardiness. I’d think, Whatever, man. Everyone has a little bit of anxiety. Just get over it. When people would tell me they wouldn’t want to go out because they had anxiety, or they would avoid certain situations because of anxiety, I thought it was a cop-out. An excuse. Bullshit.

That is, until I started having issues with anxiety myself. It started when I was in my early twenties. There was no significant event that triggered it; it just started happening. The natural nervousness I’d experience before new situations or when I was expected to perform started to get worse. I wouldn’t say it was crippling, or even all that severe, but definitely stronger than what it used to be. I’d be on edge, but I never went over it.

This past Thursday I took a yellow belt test in my self defense class. I was already tense due to a few things that happened before. But it really wasn’t a big deal. So, we start the test. I guess I was doing alright, but the trouble started during the take-down defense part. This is when the instructor tries to take me down and I try to defend against it. While it’s obviously not a real attack, he still comes at me with a decent amount of speed, aggression and strength. All along I’ve had trouble in this area, and I started to choke. I could tell that I was not doing a good job. Also, fighting/wrestling is very physically taxing. After going at it two or three times I felt extremely out of breath. I was frustrated and nervous.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I could NOT catch my breath. I felt my chest constricting to the point where I was making some weird wheezing/gasping sound in an attempt to regulate my breathing. Tried breathing through my nose, but I couldn’t calm down enough for it to be effective. I felt like I was suffocating, and I was also painfully self-conscious of looking like a stupid, weak girl. I realized I was having a panic attack, and I proceeded to freak the fuck out.

Cue the tears. Ugh. The instructor had me sit down with my legs out until I relaxed. I’m going to be honest. I felt like AN ASSHOLE. It’s one thing to freak out, and it’s another to have an audience to your breakdown (there were 3 other people there). After about 10 minutes we resumed the test. I was crying the whole time. I HATE HATE HATE being the crying girl in any situation, but I was still a nervous wreck. I couldn’t gather the control I needed to stop it.

I still passed the test. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I know my instructor is not the kind of person to bend by way of pity, and despite his reassurance that I had earned the belt, I couldn’t convince myself of it.

Fast forward a few days. I’m still a little embarrassed about what happened, but more than anything, this experience has made me want to succeed even more. I could give you some spiel about perseverance in the face of adversity, but I’m not much of a motivational speaker. All I’ll say is that I got over it. I don’t regret that it happened. I will be back in class on Tuesday and it will be business as usual.

(Apparently panic attacks are somewhat common in martial arts.)

For people who seriously struggle with anxiety, I’m sorry for my previous ignorance. Having a moment of weakness does not make someone a weak person, it just means that they’re human.

2 comments on “Panic at the Dojo”

  1. Oh Allie, thanks for sharing this. I know firsthand how terrifying – and frustrating – sudden anxiety can be. I’ve always erred on the side of anxious, but had my first real anxiety/panic attach when I was 24. It was terrifying and humiliating at the same time – I didn’t know what was going on because it hit me out of nowhere while I was watching TV after work one day – my heart started racing, I started shaking, I couldn’t catch my breath – I thought I was having a heart attack or something! I was so scared I went to the hospital to get checked out – and was mortified when my diagnosis was “anxiety attack”. (But when I heard the man in the curtain next to me getting the same diagnosis I felt a little better!)
    8 years later I still struggle with anxiety & am not ashamed to admit I’m on medication for it. Anxiety can be absolutely crippling – and I’m sorry it happened to you during your belt test. Be proud that you finished and PASSED the test, even in the face of a panic attack.

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