No one is immune to anxiety and mental health issues, and that includes Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American to compete at the Olympics in a hijab. In a new interview with Glamour, Muhammad shared her experience with anxiety, saying that she first started dealing with performance anxiety back in 2014.
“At first, I had no idea what was happening,” Muhammad told Glamour. “The morning of a competition I’d wake up feeling lethargic and sleepy—overwhelmingly so—despite having had a good night’s rest. At game time I’d [go] onto the fencing strip and feel completely detached from reality.” Some common symptoms of anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic, include feeling nervous or tense, difficulty concentrating, and feeling weak or tired, much like Muhammad described.
Muhammad’s sports psychologist explained to her that her anxiety was manifesting in physical symptoms.
The psychologist also gave her a few mental exercises to try when she feels her anxiety creeping in. “Every morning I’d spend 15 minutes in prayer and meditation, which helped me start my day from a calm, centered place," she said. "On competition days I’d take another 15 minutes to focus on my breathing and my thoughts. I would repeat to myself over and over, ‘I’m ready. I’m prepared. I’m strong. I’m capable. I’m a champion.’”
When she’s not utilizing her meditation mantras or prayer, Muhammad also revealed her secret anti-anxiety weapon: a pair of blinged headphones that she never leaves the house without. “They’re a way to deter people from talking to me while I get in the zone and also let me listen to my favorite music for extra motivation,” Muhammad told Glamour.
As SELF previously reported, it's not uncommon for athletes performing at this level to check in with a sports psychologist.
Also called mental skills coaches, these psychologists help athletes manage everything from run-of-the-mill jitters to clinical anxiety. For instance, they might help an athlete come to accept the fact that they're going to be anxious before a competition rather than trying to ignore it. Or, they might suggest journaling or other mindfulness practices to help athletes ground themselves in the present instead of getting caught up in "what if?" scenarios.
For many of us (including Olympians), dealing with anxiety is totally normal and part of the human experience. However, if you’re experiencing excessive worries or fears that interfere with your daily quality of life, that's a sign that your anxiety is more severe than normal, and you should reach out to a mental health professional. And remember that those symptoms may manifest physically as well.
Of course, not everyone has access to such quality mental health care. So Muhammad encouraged anyone who may be experiencing mental health issues to reach out to a trusted friend or family member when the going gets tough and to always consider self-care a priority.
“It is not a sign of weakness to seek help when you need it,” she said. “In fact, it’s brave.”