I don’t know if you caught it, but this year at the season-ending PGA tournament, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, something miraculous actually did happen. Tour rookie Charlie Beljan, needing a big weekend to finish in the top 125 and thus keep his card for next year, not only accomplished his goal, but won the tournament. In doing so, he jumped from 160th on the money list to 64th, more than doubled his earnings for the year, snagged a two-year exemption on the Tour and saved himself from returning to the dreaded q-school, the Calvary of all Tour wannabes.
But, that’s not the miracle.
The miracle happened on Friday. Not feeling well before the round with chest pain and shortness of breath on the practice tee, he nevertheless chose to play, largely because he was cleared by the Tour medical staff, who found nothing “medically” wrong with him. But, at several points in the round, he was seen hunched over with hands on knees, or resting on the ground, or trying to take huge gulps of air. As he acknowledged later, he actually thought he was going to die. He spent Friday night in the hospital where, again, doctors found nothing medically wrong with him and it was determined that he was having a panic attack. And we still haven’t gotten to the miracle yet.
Let’s take a look at just some of the symptoms of a panic attack, as outlined by the DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders): accelerated heart rate, trembling, chest pain, feeling of choking, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, de-realization (“this isn’t happening”) and sense of impending death. So, clearly, the miracle here is that he managed to shoot a 64 under the grip of symptoms such as these. Indeed, after a birdie on the fourteenth hole which brought him to 9-under for the day, he was officially on “59 watch.” He may be the only player in PGA Tour history who at one and the same time was on both death watch and 59-watch. Most of us couldn’t deliver the club head to the ball under these circumstances, much less play the round of our lives.
But let’s look a little closer at what a panic attack is and how you might handle one, should it occur. From the symptoms I listed above, it is clear that, regardless of the external reality, the body is responding as though it is facing an existential threat. Indeed, these symptoms are all reactions of the sympathetic nervous system, one of whose main jobs is the injection of adrenaline and cortisol as part of the body’s “fight or flight” response. Now, I hear what you’re thinking: “Give me a break, Matt. This guy was playing a round of golf, he wasn’t being chased by a lion in the Serengetti.” Here, we remember that trauma and stress are in the eyes of the beholder. That is, the degree of stress attached to an event is up to the person experiencing it, not those of us commenting on it later around the pinochle table. From Charlie’s point of view, he was fighting for his life: his tour card was on the line, he had just become a father, with the attendant stress of providing for his family, and he was staring down the barrel of the twin indignities of q-school and begging for tournament exemptions.
To address a panic attack, we have to realize that one of the main triumphs of any form of stress is that it steals us away from the present moment and forces us to focus on future outcomes, generally dire (“I’m going to lose.” “I’m going to miss this shot.” “I’m going to die.”). So, the first step is to have some awareness when you start getting nervy and the self-talk is becoming anxious. Remember that nerves are a sign that you care and are engaged in something important, not a sign that you are panicking. Every athlete gets nervous. Take it as a sign that you are alive, not dead, and doing something for which you have trained hard and are well prepared. You are lucky to be in this position. If you transition from nervous to panic, center and ground yourself in the here and now. Respond to the negative self-talk with mantras like “I’m here” “I’m not dying (losing, missing)” “stay tuned,” “isn’t this great?!” You may even need to lightly pat or pinch yourself. By continuously bringing yourself back to the here and now, you can avert the precipitous slide into dismal future projections. Secondly, as to that most common symptom: hyperventilating. When we hyperventilate, we are not oxygenating our blood, and the oxygen deficit leads to light-headedness and an increased urgency on breathing, but with diminished returns. This is why so many panic attack sufferers say, “I can’t breathe!” Here, the fix is obvious: breathe! But, breathe gently, not frantically. The breaths should be long, extended inhalations that bypass the chest and go directly into the belly. Exhalations should fully empty the lungs. (This takes practice. The belly should go out, not in, when you are deep breathing properly.) People often ask me how long they should continue belly breathing. The answer is: always, but certainly for as long as the stressful situation pertains. For Charlie on Friday, the answer would have been the entirety of his round. The fact that he was seen on multiple occasions literally gasping for air showed that he wasn’t breathing properly. The third solution is to find a way to be distracted from the stress. This can be difficult during a competitive situation, but any sporting event, and particularly a golf round, affords many opportunities to bring our focus away from the stress of the moment and onto other things. It’s useful, during a hiatus in actually performing the actions of the sport, to bring the attention to one’s sensual experience of the surroundings: the smell of the air or grass, some beautiful sight, often plentiful on a golf course (a dramatic cloud formation, the play of light, a pretty bird), or some ambient sounds. When we put our focus on these things, we generally exit the battlefield of the mind and attend to experiences that are occurring in the here and now. We leave our world and enter the world. In moving out of our head and into the senses, we more fully enter the moment.In this regard, Charlie’s panic attack may have been his saving grace. In focusing on the fact that he thought he was dying, he thus turned earning his Tour card into a matter of little significance. Still, I don’t recommend that you try that strategy. Having a panic attack and thinking you’re dying might help you avert some other stressors, but it’s not generally the way to float & sting your way to victory. And while it is metabolically and metaphysically true that we are dying every minute, let’s save that ultimate reality for later and invest our energies in being here now.