I am a world champion of trampoline gymnastics, and I have suffered from anxiety for many years. Having anxiety is like having diabetes or asthma: They are all illnesses. But in 20 years as a trampolinist, I have yet to see someone yelled at for having diabetes or asthma.
Somehow I summon up the courage to compete in front of thousands of people even though I suffer from panic attacks. Here’s how I overcome my panic: I found that medication works best for me. And so does surrounding myself with positive people who believe in me as an athlete. I learned that yelling triggered my panic, so finding a coach that doesn't yell very much made a huge difference. Luckily I have excellent coaches who understand my condition.
I have another trick, too: I say what I think about out loud. When I forget to do this, my anxiety takes over, and I have to remind myself to talk to myself while practicing skills. Eventually, I don't have to say these verbal cues out loud. When it becomes habit, I can just say them to myself. When I need to be calm, I think about what my cat feels like when she sleeps next to me, or how one day I am going to own a micropig. Everyone has thoughts that can help motivate them, and they can all be used as part of the mental preparation routine. Sometimes I harness an emotion that is more powerful than the fear of the skill.
I also embrace my flaws and use them to my advantage. I would cry at the gym almost every day because of the mental blocks, and I was embarrassed to be in my twenties and crying in front of children. Slowly, I learned to accept that I may not be the best example for the average gymnast, but I can be a role model for those who are struggling.
After World Championships a young athlete wrote me: “You are my idol because you cry every day and you keep trying … you are my hero.” This letter changed my life. I stopped being ashamed of being one of the millions of people who suffer from anxiety. I started embracing it and using it to help athletes at my gym. I have learned that no one chooses to have anxiety. Instead of isolating athletes that have been labeled “mental cases,” I choose to stand by them and tell them they can do it, too.
Kristle Lowell is the 2013 women’s world double mini-tramp champion. She has a master's degree in criminal psychology, and she is studying addiction counseling and pet therapy.