Becoming friends with anxiety: It's not a shameful secret

Catriona Bisset is an Olympian and the fastest Australian woman to ever run the 800m. But for a decade, she left the sport she loved. Anxiety became a constant companion and centred on one thing she couldn’t outrun – her body.   

Through therapy, she is learning to accept anxiety and depression as part of who she is. And to replace fear with self-compassion.


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Narrator  00:00 

Just a heads up. This episode features a personal story of mental health and contains themes of suicide. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue support service. 

Catriona  00:18 

I distinctly remember saying that I felt like I was never going to be able to make it as a runner up because I wasn't mentally strong enough. I wasn't mentally strong enough to starve myself to be skinny enough to be able to run as well as these other girls like I wasn't mentally strong enough to just put these anxieties aside and compete on rice. 

Narrator  00:53 

Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about becoming friends with your anxiety. Catriona Bisset, or Trina, as she likes to be called, is the fastest Australian woman to ever run the 800 metres. Ever. She's also an Olympian, and three time national champion. However, Trina's journey has been anything but straightforward. It's been messy, sometimes painful, and sometimes incredibly lonely. Let's go back to where it all began with a young, introverted girl who would do anything to avoid the spotlight. 

Catriona  02:00 

As a kid, I think people would describe me as really shy. I think a lot of my report cards and that sort of thing would say that I was incredibly shy to the point where it was very hard to get me to do like to say anything in class, but like I was still really high high achiever one of those, one of those kids, you know, the kid in class that's like get straight A's but doesn't say a word like that. That was me when I was little. 

Narrator  02:27 

Saturday mornings in the Canberra summer meant little athletics, a routine Trina grew to absolutely love. It also meant precious time with her mum, Xiao Jing. 

Catriona  02:40 

we would have as little tickets where you would write your PBs and you had like a little front pocket and you would put them in there. And so I remember a lot of my memories are around like running the 100 metres and then writing little times down and collecting these tickets. And then, but it was it was very much just like, a fun Saturday morning, casual thing with my mom would volunteer with, with all of the events and that sort of thing. And then, yeah, you go get your ice cream and go home. My dad was the distance runner. And my mom always talks about how she was a champion sharpshooter in her high school. And so she taught me so her influence on my athletic career was actually taught me how to throw a shotput or, like put a shot board or whatever you call it. And so she taught me that like that proper, like, spin technique in the in the circle. That's how she describes it. She's contributed to my future success. 

Narrator  03:40 

As the primary school years past, Trina began to accept something about herself, something that she never grew out of. She wasn't just shy, there was something more to it. 

Catriona  03:52 

I think I was always in some way knew that. What I was experiencing wasn't just that I was quiet, I would have a lot of problems in social situations and or situations where I would have to speak in public and that sort of thing. So I sort of realised that like, I wasn't just quiet though, I had some real social anxiety. And, yeah, I think just through school, I really realised that I was having a lot of trouble talking in class, I was having a lot of trouble. A public speaking. And even like in my athletic career, like those early days, I had a lot of trouble with like prerace anxiety. I was I was more nervous for a race than that. That race really required me to be Yeah. 

Narrator  04:44 

But this anxiety didn't just affect social situations or races. It crept into how she perceived the one thing Trina could never outrun: her own body. 

Catriona  04:56 

I started noticing that I was very self conscious about my body. I, in particular, I would remember, I would always be the kid with the big baggy T shirts and the baggy shorts. And while the other girls started wearing the crop tops, and the briefs and that sort of thing to running camps, and I yeah, I would remember really comparing my my body to theirs and always thinking that I looked Poggio or like, I was too fat or like that these girls had this confidence, and they had this. And they should be confident because they had these tiny skinny bodies. And I didn't, you know, I couldn't show my body because I was too fat. I remember I photo of a relay team that as part of like the, like the AC T relay team when we went to compete at the nationals. And I think I was maybe yeah, 10 or 11. And I remember looking at that photo, and we're all wearing crop tops, and we were all just like, have our arms over each other. And yeah, and I remember looking at that photo at that age, and just thinking how much bigger and more disgusting and that sort of thing that I looked at compared to the others. And it's been really interesting going through those older photos and seeing how much all of that was just my own self comparison. And now looking at it, I can't really tell the difference between all these young girls, we just looked like young girls. 

Narrator  06:34 

The fun outlet those Saturday mornings gave Trina for years, writing personal bests on little tickets, doing the shotput spin technique her mom taught her, getting ice cream on the drive home. All that had changed. Despite the fact she was winning almost all the races she was in, athletics had become a constant source of, well, certainly not fun. 

Catriona  06:56 

I found that running became not a very safe and fun place to me anymore. There was a lot of pressure from coaches and other athletes and myself to look a certain way. And yeah, that that sort of turned into like an eating disorder I developed around that age. And I just, yeah, running just became a really, really just high pressure stressful place for me, which is just such a shame. 

Narrator  07:33 

Trina decided to walk away from athletics for a really, really long time. And yet still, even without the sport in her life, even without the competition, her anxiety didn't disappear. Neither did the constant comparing herself to everyone else. If anything, it was ramping up. 

Catriona  07:53 

I have a really strong memory of going to a party, I think I was maybe nine or 10. And I was really good friends with the the person whose birthday it was but only knew a couple of the other people there. And I remember arriving and just having this extreme sense of like that fight or flight. Like, like just heart racing, and that sort of fear response of like, I don't feel safe here. I don't know, these people and I there's nothing I can do to stop myself from just panicking. And I remember sort of like saying hi to people and and doing what I had to and then getting out of there as soon as I could and I remember just sort of walking around the block. Sort of like in like at night and just calling out my dad and being Can you come pick me up? Like might have been only half an hour after you dropped me off. But um, yeah, I just had this, this feeling that I couldn't explain and couldn't control and and had to have to get out of there as soon as I could Yeah Even though I had all this stuff going on inside, it was really easy to hide because I was such a perfectionist and made sure I always got really good grades that I still a social kid, I had friends and so it could be really easily dismissed as you know, and she's like "Trina's just shy, you know, like, but but look at her grades. Like there's nothing like she's gonna grow out of it. Like she's okay, she's having a bit of trouble but she's gonna she's gonna be fine." Like that's sort of the feeling that I was very proud I guess to cultivate because then then I could really just keep everything inside. I remember sending an email to the school counsellor and telling her I'd like to, you know, set up a meeting or something and And then nothing no no specifics or anything like that. And and then her replying being like, of course, and then I just completely left it. I didn't respond again. And I think I just felt this this shame this like this feeling that this was such a weakness. Yeah, and I didn't I didn't tell you I didn't tell my parents I didn't tell my friends I didn't really reach out to anybody online or anonymously or anything like it was all just very, very much internal. 

Narrator  10:30 

With her mental health issues firmly bottled up inside Trina left for Sydney to live on campus and begin an architecture degree. 

Catriona  10:46 

It was the first time I was exposed to drinking and you know, that kind of really intense uni culture and staying up late doing assignments and that sort of thing. So I was just, yeah, like, because I hadn't done anything about a lot of the mental mental distress that I had been going through through high school like this was really like sort of a breaking point for me of just sort of ramping up that stress to 100. And being completely away from my old routines and support from my parents and that sort of thing. I experienced my first panic attack during that time. I remember I was in my, in my college room by myself. Began hyperventilating, I burst into tears. And yeah, I just had the sense that I was dying that something was happening to me in like, like my, because my breathing was so rapid, my heart rate was going through the roof. Yeah, I just had this really strong sensation that I was dying, that I was having a heart attack that something really horrible was happening to me out of my control. Yeah. And then that was my first experience with panic attacks. And I've had many of them since but that was a real like, because I never experienced one before. It really just shocked me. 

Narrator  12:06 

The panic attacks, the social anxiety, the eating disorder and the constant battle with her own inner critic. It all took its toll. Trina was exhausted. And that summer after her first year of uni, it reached a tipping point. 

Catriona  12:23 

Yeah, there was so much pain. And yeah, it was just this turning point where it was I couldn't I couldn't keep living like this. So it was either I talked to somebody or I was gonna take my life. 

Narrator  12:46 

That somebody was her dad. They booked an appointment with a local GP together. And Trina was referred to a psychologist 

Catriona  13:06 

I started seeing that psychologist. And yeah, it was it wasn't a great experience. It was like as well, like, I think that's pretty common. For a lot of people, like their first psychologist probably isn't quite for them, or they've not really sure what they're looking for. And so yeah, I didn't didn't have a great experience with that first sight. But it definitely sort of I had reached that threshold. And I was now in this space, you know, and I knew I could could access help. And when I went back to Sydney, I started seeing a different psychologist, a young woman who Yeah, I found it a lot easier to speak to. And so for the last decade, I've been seeing psychologist regularly and I think it's been a really huge part of me becoming really comfortable with myself and becoming really good at talking to people like this interview, letting people and letting everyone in. 

Narrator  14:11 

But there was one person who Trina had never let in. The person who used to drive her to little aths. Who taught her the shotput spin technique. After growing up in China, her mum moved away from family to live in Australia not long before Trina was born. And she always held high standards for her daughter. 

Catriona  14:32 

Yeah, had a pretty rocky relationship with her throughout Primary School in high school, like I think like she was under a lot of stress. Yeah, being away from her family in China and I think she had very high expectations of me, particularly academically, and yeah, we would fight a lot. Like we, we I yeah, really withdrew from my relationship to my mom for a long time that I think a couple years after I had started seeing a psychologist and that sort of thing, and I kept all of that from her, my struggles from her and I was in Canberra, then we had this huge argument. And I don't even remember why is like one of those things. Like, it's always about something silly, but it's never actually about that thing. It's about something much bigger that you're not talking about. Yeah, so we had this huge argument. And then I just said everything. So we just sort of cried together and just shares these experiences. And I feel like it was like the first time that I really, you know, I saw my mom as this complicated, rich, you know, human being with this incredible inner life. And yeah, that completely transformed our relationship and really transformed my relationship to my Chinese heritage as well. My name is . Which means diligence. And, yeah, it's always been a very fitting meaning for, yeah, whenever I describe it to someone people always say like, "alright, make sense." 

Narrator  16:31 

Now, in her mid 20s, that diligence needed a new outlet. Well, not a new one exactly. It was an outlet that had been laying dormant for about a decade. 

Catriona  16:45 

I joined running group again. And yeah, I just found that I just remembered all the great things about 

Sound FX  16:57 

Oceania record holder, Catriona Bisset, fresh off the world tour final into the homestretch. And she looks powerful, pulling away from this field. 

Catriona  17:06 

like the community, the routine, I mean, just how how great it was for my physical body and how, in turn that really helped my mental health as well. And, yeah, I sort of got hooked on it again. I could enter the sport, as as, as an adult as a different person, and someone that was free from a lot of the pressures from my youth 

Sound FX  17:37 

National record holder is out here, putting on a show for the crowd, it should come down to the national title. That's why she is one of the best in the world. 

Narrator  17:48 

There was a time when Trina thought she wasn't strong enough to be an athlete, that athletes don't feel the things she feels. Today, she knows that isn't true. And just like she's training every day to get that national record a little bit faster. She's also working on being kinder to herself. 

Catriona  18:12 

Like I think I used to think of these these thoughts and feelings as a weakness or as something that needs to be managed. I used to use that phrase, a lot of management. But I don't really believe that anymore. I actually think that it's more about just being friends with all of these different parts of yourself. It's not a secret. It's not this shameful secret that I have, like, it's just part of who I am. And, you know, I love every part of who I am. 

Narrator  18:46 

A big thank you to Catriona for sharing her story with us. We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, please contact the Beyond Blue support service on 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes. This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands. Thanks for listening to Not Alone. 

Our theme song is Friends With Feelings, written and performed by Alice Skye, produced by CAAMA Music and published by Sony Music Publishing Pty Ltd.

Helpful resources

  • You can join the discussion on our Beyond Blue online forums
  • Anxiety – signs, symptoms and treatments
  • Depression – signs, symptoms and treatments
  • Head to Health can help you find digital mental health services from some of Australia’s most trusted mental health organisations

Suicide and crisis support:

  • The Beyond Now suicide safety planning app helps you stay safe if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, feelings, distress or crisis.
  • The Suicide Call Back Service provides professional 24/7 telephone and online counselling to people who are affected by suicide. You can access this service by calling 1300 659 467.
  • Lifeline provide crisis support and suicide prevention services – they can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.
  • If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000


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If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include: