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Victoria Azarenka: Panic Attacks and Armchair Diagnoses

January 29, 2013

Tennis player Victoria Azarenka made news this past week—she won the Australian Open, sure, but more ink was spilled over her defeat of Sloane Stephens in the semifinals. Azarenka took a medical break in the second set, and some commentators think she used the time to rebound in a game that was slipping away from her. One went so far as to diagnose her supposedly unsporting behavior: “That was not an injury,” Greg Couch writes for Fox Sports. “It was a panic attack.”

Now, we don’t know what really happened to Azarenka, whether her motives were pure, or even what Couch knows about panic disorder, which is in actuality a severely impairing psychiatric illness. I’m guessing he was using the term more generally—and incorrectly. “Azarenka was falling apart and didn’t know what to do,” he continues. “So she manipulated the injury timeout rules to freeze Stephens.”

What we do know is that after the match, Azarenka said that before her medical timeout she “couldn’t breathe” and she felt like she was “getting a heart attack or something out there.” And we know that many people with undiagnosed panic disorder end up in the emergency room time and time again because their symptoms do feel like heart attacks—and that they can’t really begin to address the disorder until someone notices that it is severe anxiety, and not a pulmonary issue, that is causing them distress.

It is normal for people to be anxious in a variety of situations—and particularly, I imagine, in the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament. Couch accuses Azarenka of being a coward and a cheat. “She was so scared she couldn’t get the ball onto the court,” he concludes. But “panic breaks are not within the rules.” I don’t know-as many have pointed out, athletes are not above “diving” for an advantage. But I do know that if you feel like you are dying it’s ok to get help, whether or not that feeling comes from a physiological injury or an anxiety disorder. Both of those things are real, and we should watch our language when we’re saying something is “fake.”

Tagged with: Anxiety Disorders, Sports