Photo by Nate Kroll-Goldschlag   

Chari Hawkins was in third place at the 2014 Indoor National Championships with two events left to go when she experienced her first debilitating anxiety attack. While she had felt nerves before, this was a whole new level. “I could feel and hear my heart beating in my ears, and my brain blacked out,” she remembers. “Before I knew it, I was in 14th place. I felt completely out of control.”

Chalking it up to inexperience, Chari hoped the feelings would eventually go away. But each time she put on her uniform to compete, there they were. “Each time I wondered, ‘Why am I still doing this? I hate this, and I hate myself for doing it,’” she says. The immense relief she would feel after competing was shortly followed by the shame she felt for letting her anxiety get the best of her.  

On the outside, Chari showed no signs of her continuous struggle. Her college career at Utah State saw her rack up an impressive list of honors, including five-time NCAA All American, three-time Western Athletic Conference champion, and winner of the NCAA Female Sportsman of the Year. After graduating in 2015, she moved to California to pursue professional training at the Santa Barbara Track Club, and in just one year qualified for the Olympic trials, later winning bronze at the Indoor USA Championships. 

Shortly after, she was honored as a member of Team USA, recognizing her as one of the country’s top ranked track and field athletes. She continued competing abroad in England, but her biggest competition to date was on North American soil at the 2018 Pan Am Games, where she took home silver.

“I looked [my parents] in the eyes and said, ‘I’m not going to feel like this anymore. I’m going home, and I’m going to fix this.’”

But all the while, she was dealing with inner demons. And on February 22, 2019, she experienced an attack that pushed her to a breaking point. So drained of energy, she struggled to keep from breaking down into tears and to keep breathing. Her body so tense from the stress, she injured her hamstring during the high jump event. “I told my parents that this had to stop. I looked them both in the eyes and said, ‘I’m not going to feel like this anymore. I’m going home, and I’m going to fix this.’” 

Chari’s first step was to begin asking questions: What were these feelings and what was triggering them? Next, she reached out to others. “I asked people to share their mental health journey, if they’d ever had so much anxiety it felt like they couldn’t breathe, and what helped them to get past it.”

Finally, she arrived at an answer. “I had been allowing my competition results to directly define who I was as a person.” With her worth tied to her results, if she was happy with her performance, she could allow herself to be happy with who she was. “It was an absurd thought,” she says. “Every person can be a good person, no matter their physical or professional success.”

Chari at Girls on the Run San Diego

Photo Nate Kroll-Goldschlag

She made herself a promise: “Next competition, no matter the result, I’ll be smiling, waving, and showing gratitude for being able to compete and do what I love. No matter what.” And the results of her next competition? Terrible. “I hadn’t high jumped that poorly since high school! But I enjoyed every minute—it was the most fun I had ever had in a competition.” Chari’s approach to practices and training was completely different now, and she felt like her career had just begun. 

“Handling anxiety doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s one of the most freeing experiences,” says Chari, now 28. Today, she trains both her body as well as her mind for competition, practicing focus, mental strength, and confidence. Through visualization, positive self-talk, breathing techniques, journaling, and goal-setting, Chari has discovered that dealing with her anxiety head on can only make her stronger. “Mental strength is achieved with persistence and consistency.”

“I had been allowing my competition results to directly define who I was as a person.”

It’s a lesson she’s passing on to future generations. Currently, Chari works with Girls on the Run, a program for girls aged 8-13 that encourages empowerment through running. “We challenged ourselves to run as many laps as possible, and counted our blessings along the way. It’s an inspiring and beautiful program,” she says. She’s also become a brand ambassador for On, a Swiss running and sportswear company. “Representing such a progressive company that supports rising athletes with big dreams has been a career highlight for me.”

With Chari’s mental health muscles strengthened, she’s training her body for the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Her training days can sometimes run up to nine hours, and she’s learned that rehab and recovery are just as important to her regime as her workouts. “It’s the little things that make a difference. Eating right, stretching, and sleeping are as big of a deal as the workouts themselves.” 

She admits there are some training days when her motivation isn’t a driving force in her workouts, and those are the perfect opportunities to practice her mental strength. “Each time I overcome that feeling and get the work done, I get stronger.”

Photo Jasmine Safaeian

Chari’s Advice for Overcoming Anxiety

Whether you’re competing in a sport or just out getting groceries, anxiety can happen anywhere to anyone. “To the woman fighting her own debilitating anxiety, I wish I could reach through these pages and give you an enormous hug. No matter the cause, it’s real and it’s a monster. You can control it, but it takes work,” says heptathlete Chari Hawkins. Here, she offers her advice for taking control of anxiety and becoming mentally strong.

1. Try to Understand Why. Anxiety isn’t for no reason. Instead of a character trait as I perceived, I learned I was actually worried that I wouldn’t be worthy of love, acceptance, or fulfillment unless I won. To understand why you’re feeling that way is to know the true problem.

2. Ask Others for Help. This can mean reaching out to those around you, or seeking professional help. Many hands make light work, even when it comes to your mental health. 

3. Find Your Truths and Lies. My coach told this to me before one of the biggest heptathlons of my career: “The anxiety is based off of lies. What’s true is that you’ve practiced and prepared properly this season. You’ll have a good performance because you’ve already put the work in.” Understanding realities and fallacies can bring us back to a focused state.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice! I believe we can get rid of anxiety for good if we’re actively and consistently putting in the work. I practice these mental strengtheners daily:

  • Meditate: I like guided, but many people prefer to have time to themselves for reflection. 
  • Visualize: Visualizing that I’m at competition while at practice allows me to step up my intensity while learning to keep my cool. 
  • Believe in Yourself: This is the first true step to getting what you want in life. Be your best friend and biggest cheerleader, without putting limits on your thinking. 
  • Write It Down: Whenever I’m stressed or doubtful, I bring myself back by writing down goals and reminding myself that I can do hard things. 
  • Be Grateful: Name what you’re grateful for and relish in that feeling. Find the joy in the things that don’t come easy. Feeling joy and gratefulness will change so much in your life.