From Panic Attacks to Loving Life: My Journey in Community Fitness


Guest written by Tim Stiffler

If you’ve been around me long enough you’ve probably heard me say the phrase “It’s just working out.” This is my go-to mantra whenever I hear anyone stressing about CrossFit. And it’s a reminder to myself to not take what we do at the gym too seriously. Working out is supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to push you, it’s supposed to make you better…..and it’s also supposed to be fun.

But for many people it’s so much more than that. For some, their livelihood revolves around CrossFit if they’re a gym-owner, coach, or aspiring competitive athlete. For others CrossFit is an escape from a stressful life and a much needed social outlet. Heck, a few of you have met your spouses through CrossFit (I call dibs on developing the CrossFit dating app!!! Editor insert: It’s been tried and was a hilarious failure Stiff – Jeff).

We all know the life changing benefits that CrossFit can provide. But when you get down to it, CrossFit is just working out, and working out is supposed to be fun. Our goal should be to leave the gym every day happier and feeling better about ourselves than when we arrived.

But it’s taken some time for me to come to that realization. I’ve been CrossFitting for five and a half years, and I’ve gotten to be a member of two fantastic gyms as both an athlete and a coach, MTM CrossFit in North Canton and Friendship CrossFit. My CrossFit journey began in August 2012 after I ran my first and only half marathon. I had lost about 40 pounds over the course of the previous 4 years and did it mostly by tracking my calories and lots of cardio. But I was starting to plateau and was ready for a change. I wanted to be strong and I was tired of always getting hurt from all the running (see previous FCF blog about that).

As soon as I stepped into the box for my first beginner class I was hooked. In my first year of CrossFit I lost about 20 more pounds and began putting on the lean muscle that makes up the super shredded physique you see me rockin’ today. “Is that Omar or Stiffler??? I can never tell!”-People all the time at the gym…probably.

I loved that the workout was different every day and I simply needed to show up and do my best. I also really enjoyed all the new fit friends I was making! It felt like the CrossFit community was meant for me and I was becoming a healthier and more confident person.

But as I became more and more engrained in the “CrossFit lifestyle” I began to take CrossFit, and myself a bit too seriously. I’ve always been pretty outgoing and silly. But I haven’t always been the loud, singing, dancing, smiling man-puppy that you see most days at the gym now. There were days that I would literally make myself anxious just thinking about a WOD that had movements I wasn’t good at, or a PR that I’d been trying to hit for months. And when I wouldn’t perform to my expectations, I would leave the gym discouraged or downright pissed off.

I signed up for 4-5 competitions a year, both individual and team and I often worked out 6-7 days a week. Sometimes I would see how many days in a row I could go to the gym (what an IDIOT!!!). I would show up to work out when both my body and my mind were telling me to stay home and rest. I re-did Open workouts because I just KNEW I could do better, even though I always finished in the middle of the pack in our region anyway. It’s a miracle I never seriously injured myself.

I was obsessed with the white board and compared my scores and my self-worth to other people at the gym. “What’d you get on the WOD???” was a daily text conversation with my gym friends. I had made CrossFit my ENTIRE life, until eventually the gym wasn’t my happy place anymore. I had lost the pure joy and sense of accomplishment that comes from simply being active with a group of diverse and positive people for a few hours a week.

This all came to a head in the winter of 2016. I had signed up for a team competition for the third year in a row with some friends. Everything leading up to the competition was pretty ordinary. We ran through the workouts in the weeks beforehand and everything seemed fine. But after the second of the three scheduled workouts, I had a massive panic attack. Over an hour after the workout had ended (a tough burner that was basically “Fran” followed by burpees…Cue Lloyd)giphy.gif I still could not catch my breath.

My heart was racing and I just couldn’t get settled down. I sat out the third workout at the advice of the doctor on site. When I finally got home I still didn’t feel right, so I ended up going to the hospital to get some tests run. I was born with a heart defect and they wanted to make sure my ticker was OK. Everything checked out fine. I was slightly dehydrated but other than that I was perfectly healthy. So what the heck happened!?!

I had let a sport and hobby that was supposed to be FUN drive me to the worst panic attack I have ever had. I have always been prone to anxiety and panic attacks. It’s something I have battled all of my life and have taken medication for. But up until that point, exercise and living a healthier lifestyle had helped me win that battle and I owe a lot of that to CrossFit. But on that day in February 2016, I let CrossFit become the reason I was freaking out.

It was time to re-evaluate things. It was time to get happy again! And believe it or not, the way I re-gained my joy of CrossFit…….was by doing less CrossFit! A few months after my competition panic attack, I found a new job and moved to Columbus. It was a chance to start fresh and re-prioritize my life. After my first day at the new job, I dropped into FCF for the 5:30pm class and I’ve been here ever since (Lemme hear that 5:30pm CLAP!).


It’s everything I ever could have wanted in a gym and fitness community. But I decided that instead of going to the gym 6-7 days a week and feeling bad about myself if I didn’t go, I was going to make sure I went 4, mayyyyybe 5 days at the most. The rest of my time was going to be spent doing other things that I enjoyed. Like getting more involved in my church and life group, serving the community, reading books, cooking meals, playing recreational sports, checking out the many parks in Columbus, taking naps (if you don’t like naps, I don’t know what to do with you!), visiting my family back in Canton,playing with my niece, nephews, and goddaughters, taking road trips, going golfing, seeing a band play live, drinking beer and eating tacos, etc. etc. You get the point! And if I only make it to the gym 3 times this week, so what??? I’ll make the most out of those 3 trips and enjoy myself!

I have finally found the balance that I didn’t even know I needed. And because of that, I’m a much happier person. By making CrossFit a PART of my life and not my ENTIRE life, I am now able to enjoy it for what it truly is to me…..spending time amongst a group of inspiring people doing things that I never thought I would be able to do in a million years. And it’s actually led to some PRs too!

But most importantly, I’m have fun again. I appreciate what a privilege it is to be able to workout and move well. Just think about the stuff we do at the gym. Even the simplest of movements, like an air squat, is something that MILLIONS of Americans cannot do! Just by showing up and participating in a workout you are one of the healthiest people in America. That is something to be celebrated! If you can squat clean 300 pounds, you are an animal and I admire you so much, but someone who is squat cleaning an empty barbell with proper form and full range of motion is doing something pretty extraordinary too. And we get to do it with our friends and listen to good music and dance around and be silly

I would not be the person I am today without CrossFit and the healthy lifestyle changes I have made over the past ten years. It’s been such a journey and I have learned so much about myself. I’m still learning new things every day! And I want to celebrate each and every one of you that have chosen to make similar lifestyle changes! So if you’re wondering why I’m always so happy, it’s because I’ve been sad, I’ve been depressed, I’ve been anxious, and I’ve been hopeless. It’s because of those times and the lessons they’ve taught me, that I am able to fully appreciate and be thankful for the opportunity to simply breathe hard, sweat, and lift some weight with my friends. Our gym is about so much more than the weight we lift or how fast we complete a metcon. It’s about human connection and improving not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. And that’s why I’m having more fun than ever. LET’S GO!!!

This image is of author and member of Friendship CrossFit Tim Stiffler

Tim Stiffler is a staple of the 5:30pm CrossFit Group Class at Friendship CrossFit in Columbus, Ohio. He is known for being one of the most outgoing, positive and socially accepting people you will ever meet and we are truly blessed to have him. The perspective he has provided here is invaluable and hopefully will resonate with hundreds and thousands of CrossFitters and Fitness enthusiasts. 

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