How I Succeed as a Lifeguard with Panic Disorder

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Jehn Kubiak, a freelance journalist from San Diego, California. 

“You can’t possibly save someone’s life if you have emotional breakdowns,” someone once told me. I see the reasoning behind their viewpoint, yet I still disagree with their statement and feel that my anxiety disorder does not hinder my abilities in any way.

It seems counterintuitive, but those who have truly suffered from any sort of anxiety disorder know that anxiety is different for each person––different triggers yield different reactions. My specific triggers all relate to atelophobia, which is the fear of never being good enough or never doing things well enough to please anyone. I received comments about my work, which made me feel like people only saw the mistakes I made over my hard work. I’m open to feedback that’s given in a respectful, supportive manner, but I become uneasy when I receive feedback that seems overly critical. Therefore, I had a couple of panic attacks after receiving the latter this summer.

However, after talking with a close friends, I realized that I reacted the way I did because I’m human. If other hard workers received the same comments, they would probably feel the same way. Now, they wouldn’t have panic attacks, but they would probably feel the same emotions: upset and devastated. I do acknowledge that I still struggle with being too hard on myself, but these emotions have not affected my work performance while I’m in front of others in my actual workplace. If anything, receiving these corrections creates a burning drive to prove to other people that they’re wrong––I really am a hard worker and can perform tasks I’m trained to do.

With that in mind, even though lifeguarding is a stressful job, I believe I can lifeguard successfully because I am confident in my abilities. I’ve been recertified three times––with another coming up soon––and have completed multiple staff trainings. As a result, my mind and body have internalized this knowledge. If I see someone who’s injured or drowning, I know for a fact I can make the proper rescue and provide the proper method of care without hesitating.

Actually, I responded to a call at the beginning of the summer season, in June, for a severely torn shoulder and twisted ankle without even feeling unsure of myself. After I reached the injured girls that day, I immediately defaulted to my training and asked the proper questions: “How did this happen?” “On a scale of one to 10, how severe is your pain?” “What are you currently feeling?” “Can you feel anything in this part of your shoulder?”

Even though I do suffer from anxiety, I also am a kinesthetic learner––meaning that I learn by practicing skills repeatedly––and have outperformed my coworkers in certain areas at other jobs, despite having less experience, because I practiced those skills over and over. For instance, I worked for the student newspaper during my undergraduate education, and within my first semester, I became a more skilled writer than some of the second year students. Therefore, I do not become anxious as a lifeguard because I know for a fact that I will default on my training––after all, there’s nothing to become anxious about if I know what to do.

In my three years of lifeguarding, I have made a couple assists successfully. In addition, I also completed two emergency simulations when I worked at a camp called Forest Home, where the fire department and RNs were called in. During these situations, we activated our Emergency Action Plan and rescued two different victims: one with a neck injury at the lake and a seizure victim in the deep end of the pool.

Some people with anxiety would instantly become distraught or overwhelmed due to overwhelming emotions and fear. This is typical for those who struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder because they’re usually anxious all the time. On the other hand, I struggle with panic disorder and have very specific triggers, so I don’t have anxiety or panic attacks too often. However, I didn’t panic: instead, I relied on my training. After these simulations, my boss said I completed these scenarios successfully and that he was confident in my abilities.

Yes, it’s possible I could become a little nervous during an emergency situation––and who wouldn’t? After all, someone’s life is on the line, and you have to sort through a memory bank full of rescue training. However, I have always proved myself a competent lifeguard, and if I never told my supervisors about my anxiety disorder, I do not believe they would doubt my abilities.

I would not still be lifeguarding after three years if I wasn’t steadfastly sure I could handle the stresses the job comes with. Although I felt a bit anxious about certain things during my first year of lifeguarding––such as rescuing a submerged victim––I immediately dealt with those fears and found strategies to manage them if they ever came up again. The best cure for anxiety in any job is complete confidence, whether that’s through encouragement from coworkers, asking clarifying questions if you’re unsure about something, or just practicing the same skills over and over again so your body can take over your mind during anxiety-inducing situations.

Anxiety does not have to become a permanent disability––ultimately, confidence overrules worry in any job. If your boss, managers, or supervisors believe it is an issue, then prove to them that you can perform the necessary tasks. If they see everything through a filter of mental illness, then explain to them how your anxiety disorder works and tell them about the strategies you’ve developed for specific situations that could make you anxious. Let them know how they can help you. However, do not let them put you down because of your anxiety––everyone has weaknesses, and if you’ve proven yourself a great employee, your employer has no excuse to hold that against you, as I have been learning this month.

Anxiety disorders are not cookie-cutter conditions; even some of my friends who have panic disorder have completely different triggers. Use your best judgment––if you try lifeguarding and it’s too stressful, maybe it’s not for you. However, with perseverance and stress management, those who really love the job will thrive.

People who have suffered through anxiety are some of the most courageous people alive––take that courage and show everyone that you can truly be successful. Never lower yourself to someone else’s standards. Go for your goals if you know you can achieve them, even if the world says you can’t.

About Jehn Kubiak

Jehn Kubiak is a freelance journalist from San Diego, California who enjoys distance swimming. She graduated from Biola University with a journalism degree and now studies Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Talbot School of Theology. Jehn has lifeguarded at Forest Home, the Biola pool, Camp Pondo, and Hume Lake. She is also the author of God’s Grace Through Gastritis, GERD and Grit.

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