How U.S. Track and Field Athlete Chari Hawkins Tackles Anxiety

U.S. track and field team member Chari Hawkins wants people to take actionable steps to focus on their mental health and find a strong sense of self-worth.

The 30-year-old from San Diego, who competes in the heptathlon, fell short of her dream of making the Olympics in 2021. She became deeply depressed and stayed in bed for weeks. Hawkins lost all of her sponsors except one. She also lost her trainer, who told her that they only work with Olympians. She was left alone by her family and friends to cope with her loss. In her darkest moments, she even considered ending her life.

“I didn’t want to be here anymore,” Hawkins says. “It was really hard, and it was also confusing. It was a nightmare. All the things that I had conquered, this idea that you are not your performance felt like it came true. People care about you because of how you perform.”

[See: 10 Tips for Avoiding Work Burnout.]

Crippling Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Hawkins had a history of anxiety dating back to 2011. She suffered severe panic attacks, where she would black out and cry during her competitions. She couldn’t sleep or eat and would be sick prior to her meets. She even tried to tear her own Achilles heel to have a viable excuse to sit out a competition — though she didn’t actually go through with it.

In 2019, Hawkins sustained an injury due to muscle tightness she attributes to stress. That’s when she prioritized her mental health training. She worked with sports psychologists and established tools to stay healthy. This was put to the test when she didn’t become an Olympian.

It took time to process, but Hawkins leaned into her mental training and refined the strategies that were effective for her. She re-emerged stronger and recently won gold in the U.S.A. indoor championships in February 2022.

Hawkins is now teaching others how she developed her mental resilience with a “30 Days With Chari” online program. Every day of her campaign, she will share a new mental health habit. It will begin in July, and those interested can learn more on her website. Each session is accompanied by a morning podcast and a short workout with Hawkins.

These are some of the techniques Hawkins uses to keep her at her best, both mentally and physically:

Detaching Self-Worth From Performance

While in an unhealthy headspace, Hawkins would only feel a strong sense of self-worth when she was performing well. When she decided to level up her mental health, she asked other athletes, coaches and her audience online how they cope with this problem. The response that resonated most was that after an athletic career, people found value in something other than their performance.

This is when Hawkins shifted her belief from one where her value is performance-driven into one that highlights who she is as an entire person.

“I promised myself that in the next competition that I did, I would detach from my performance. I would just have fun,” Hawkins said. “And I would just do what I love to do, and it didn’t matter if I took dead last or first. It didn’t matter. And I ended up having the most fun.”

[Read: Valerian Root for Anxiety — What Is It? Does It Work?]

Training the Mind to Let Go and Have Fun

For years, Hawkins would put a lot of pressure on herself to perform. This caused a spiral of negative outcomes both on and off the track. With practice, she championed the skill of letting go and having fun.

“It’s not as simple as just, ‘let it go and have fun.'” Hawkins says. “I couldn’t even count how many people would say, when I’m having anxiety, ‘Just have fun.’ When you mentally train, you can actually train your brain to let yourself have fun.”

To do this, Hawkins closes her eyes, clenches both of her fists in front of her chest and squeezes firmly for a few seconds. Then she lets go of her grip, opens her eyes and feels the tension release from her body and mind. It’s a way to feel how clinging onto things unnecessarily creates friction. And how releasing them frees her.

“Letting it go doesn’t mean you’re giving it up,” Hawkins says. “Letting go means that you see it, your eye is on it, maybe you’re even holding onto it but you’re not squeezing onto it anymore. Feel how good and freeing that feels. You don’t have to hold it so tight. So you’re not holding onto something out of desperation, but you’re doing it because you want to do it.”

Hawkins says that this year’s season was the most fun she’s ever had. She looked forward to practice and competitions.

[Read: Best Exercises to Ease Stress and Anxiety]

A Purposeful and Doable Routine

As a world-class athlete, Hawkins is aware of her tendencies to become disciplined to the point it makes her feel overwhelmed and rigid. She’s refined her mornings to a couple of meaningful tasks and avoids a checklist of things to do.

“I used to have an intense morning routine and an intense night routine,” Hawkins says. “And I would have a checklist, and I had to knock everything off that checklist. And I felt burnt out all the time.”

Gratitude Practice

She starts her day with a gratitude practice. As soon as she wakes up, she sits on the edge of her bed, feels the ground under her feet and thinks of something she is grateful for. It’s a simple way for her to live from a place of positivity.

Then she has her morning supplements and vitamins. She takes a cold shower, and then she considers something that she can do that day for herself.

“I ask myself, ‘What do I feel like doing today that’s going to make me have a better day?'” Hawkins says. “If it’s stretching, if I want to do something really special for breakfast, if I need a nap — whatever it is I feel like I really need.”

In the evening, Hawkins is off of her phone 90 minutes before bed. Before bed, she makes a mental to-do list to calm her mind and get restful sleep.

Positive Self-Talk

Hawkins learned that how she talks to herself governs her personal outlook. She gives herself words of affirmation and talks to herself like one would talk to someone they love. Hawkins recalls her inner monologue when she was in a dark mental place.

“This is why you’ve done all this mental training, is to get you through moments like this,” Hawkins says. “There’s going to be a time when you’re going to be a lot better, and you’re going to be glad you stuck around.”

Hawkins says that maintaining a confident, uplifting tone is crucial to keep her mentally stable. And it’s a reliable technique that she engages when she feels anxiety start to set in.

Serious, Not Obsessive Goal Setting

As a top performer, Hawkins is no stranger to setting goals and crushing them. She has a unique way to approach them that keeps her on task, not on edge.

“If we truly cherish our goals, if we truly cherish our personal development, we have to treat it like it’s delicate, and we have to hold it up on a pedestal,” Hawkins says. “You’re placing it with purpose. And that’s how you’re going to take care of your goals and your own personal development.”

Therapy

Hawkins works with a sports psychologist to help her continue to be decisive with stressful choices and situations. Her sessions last an hour, and she often finds that by talking through her problems it leads her to solutions.

“I’ll usually have something prepared,” Hawkins says. “Here are my hesitations. Here’s what I’d like to accomplish. And these are some of the things that are getting me nowhere that I’d like to take further.”

Hawkins says having a professional in her corner is pivotal, and she doesn’t hesitate to call them in moments before competition to help her through her anxiety. She plans on continuing therapy after athletics.

Giving Back and Community

Hawkins is happy and inspired any time she gets to teach and help others. Having a supportive community of family, friends and peers keeps her grounded.

“I love helping people but I’ve also seen how much it helps me personally to be able to teach somebody,” Hawkins says. “When I teach somebody something I tend to internalize it more myself.”

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How U.S. Track and Field Athlete Chari Hawkins Tackles Anxiety originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 06/07/22: A previous version of this story misstated the start date of Chari Hawkins’s online program.

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