Lydia Gilmore knows all about anxiety disorders.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concerns in the United States. Over 40 million adults suffer from them, and seven percent of children between the ages of 3-17 experience them.
And there is no shortage of anxiety these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gilmore, a standout distance runner from Bangor High School, was paralyzed by anxiety and panic attacks for virtually the entire first two years of her career.
These attacks occurred right before a cross country or indoor track race and involved vomiting, narrowed and blurred vision, uncontrollable body shaking, hyperventilation and thoughts of impending death.
She wouldn’t even be able to start some races and, when she did, her performances suffered.
Meeting her own expectations and the pressure of not wanting to let her team down was simply overwhelming.
But she overcame the anxiety attacks in her last two years and earned first team all-state cross country honors this past fall while also being named the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Runner of the Year. She went on to help lead the Rams to win the Class A state indoor track title.
She was awarded the annual $1,500 Sub-5 Track Club scholarship earlier this week and will take her talents to the University of Maine next month where she will study mechanical engineering and run cross country and indoor and outdoor track.
“Races really triggered [the anxiety attacks],” Gilmore said. “I had a sense of impending doom. It was completely irrational and I knew it. There is no reason to be like that. It wasn’t a physical thing. It was really unhealthy.”
She gave serious thought to quitting sports after her freshman year.
But Bangor High had just hired a new cross country coach in Roger Huber and he sent out an email to introduce himself and told his runners he was always available to them and their parents.
Gilmore reached out to him just 29 minutes later, relaying her anxiety issues and writing that she would greatly appreciate any guidance he could offer.
“I was so embarrassed and so ashamed that something as simple as running could cause all of these issues,” she said. “But he told me he would help me as much as he could so I could get through this. That meant a lot to me.”
Huber had also experienced anxiety.
He spent 11 months training for a Florida triathlon, then had an anxiety attack right before and never started.
Huber wrote to Gilmore that he learned how to use his anxiety disorder to his advantage and how impressed he was with her candor and decision to deal with her issues rather than quit.
“Most people who experience that level of anxiety would have given up and said it wasn’t worth the price that I’m paying. In my 20 years of coaching, I had never seen anybody carry that anxiety into the race after it had started like she did. But she stuck with it.”
Erin McCarthy, Gilmore’s teammate for three years, admitted that they were all concerned about her.
“We encouraged her. We all tried to help her out and make her comfortable,” McCarthy said.
Gilmore wanted to confront the issue herself, rather than getting therapy or taking medication.
“It was something I had to deal with on my own. It was important to face it head on. I was so lucky I had coach Huber to help me do that,” she said.
She had bailed on the 2017 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship race due to an anxiety attack her sophomore year after having a good race the previous week.
Her road to recovery began with a change in mindset.
She would distract herself from thinking about the race by trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube in the pre-race walk through.
“It occupied my mind. It gave me something else to think about. Thinking about the race wasn’t going to help me in any way,” she said.
Gilmore also began envisioning the “finish line” instead of the starting line.
Being named captain of the cross country team as a junior and retaining the title as a senior was also helpful.
“Knowing other people are depending on you keeps your mind elsewhere. It forces you to think about other people. That makes [anxiety] fade into the background. It makes it a lot easier,” she said.
Her junior year, she returned to Cony in Augusta for the KVAC championships and not only ran the race to exorcise her meltdown from 2017, she finished 11th.
“That was a huge moment for me after not making the starting line the previous year,” she said.
“I had made a lot of friends and that helped too. And people came up to me after the race who had seen me having a hard time [previous years] and encouraged me,” she said.
After a solid indoor season, she returned for her senior year and put together a memorable campaign.
She finished 12th among 631 runners in the Festival of Champions 5K in Belfast and broke the school record with a time of 19:07.67.
Gilmore won the KVAC meet with a time of 19:58.3, over 1:37 faster than the previous year.
She placed fifth in the Class A state meet and 38th among 263 runners in the New England Championships in Manchester, Connecticut.
She carried that momentum into indoor track, placing fifth in the two-mile run (11:35.64) at the state meet and running a leg for the fifth-place 4-by-800 relay team in Bangor’s triumph.
Gilmore did have a minor panic attack before the two-mile run but her close friend, Hampden Academy’s Ava Dowling, helped her.
“She sat next to me and said, ‘You got this. I’m going to sit here until you get better. I’m going to bring you to the starting line,” Gilmore said. “Ava is amazing.”
Gilmore, who plays lacrosse in the spring, owns the school record in the indoor two-mile run with a time of 11:32.
Huber, who figures he has spent hundreds of hours talking to Gilmore about her anxiety, said it “amazes me” that someone who had such a negative experience early in her career persevered to have the career she has had.
“It is a remarkable story. I’m so happy for her,” he said.
“She is a true warrior, a true competitor,” said Bangor indoor and outdoor track coach Al Mosca. “To see how determined she was and how she was able to overcome so much is so inspirational. And she and Roger were awesome together.”
Gilmore credits Huber, her teammates and her family — parents Michael and Virginia and older sister Sarah — with playing huge roles in her dramatic turnaround and is extremely grateful to them.
“I can’t imagine everything I would have missed if I had quit cross country,” said Gilmore, who added that she was grateful to the Sub-5 Track Club for the scholarship.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s more than just the money. It’s the support it represents.”
When asked what she would tell other athletes struggling with anxiety, she became emotional.
“I would definitely say it gets better. You aren’t going to look like that or feel like that forever. You have to work through it. Do it for yourself,” she said.