How I Overcame My Chronic Anxiety
Clue: I spoke to her.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Anorexia. And it wasn’t until I underwent CBT for the condition that I learned I was also suffering from chronic Anxiety.
At the time, I was living like the fragile and hollow shell of someone whose fear controlled everything:
- The threat of eating in front of people was enough to leave me curled up on my bedroom floor in floods of tears.
- Being away from home (even for an hour) was excruciating, and often left my whole body feeling weak and shaky, like I hadn’t eaten sugar in days.
- Using public transport without collapsing in terror was near-impossible.
The cliché for me, was real — I was afraid of my own shadow.
So how did someone who lived in a constant state of dread, end up like me today — A solopreneur who can confidently approach almost anybody, speak in front of huge audiences, and, most importantly, eat in front of people without panicking?
The truth is, a number of things helped me to make this shift (including therapy).
But in this post, I’m going to share a tool I learned ‘way back when’, and still use today, to turn my debilitating anxieties into fuel that spurs me on.
(Please note: this post was written from my own lived experience and should not be taken as professional medical advice).
What Is Fear?
Before we get into how you can ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, it’s worth understanding what fear and anxiety are, where they come from, and how they affect us today.
Fear is a natural and powerful, primitive emotion that exists to ensure our survival and is induced by the immediate threat of psychological or physical harm.
Anxiety is just as natural and powerful, but is a generalized response to an unknown threat or internal conflict — like the prospect of being judged by others.
The physiological symptoms of both fear and anxiety are almost identical, and both states can trigger one-another. Because of this, and for the purpose of simplicity, I’m going to use the terms interchangeably.
A Brief History of Fear
Thousands of years ago, fear would have been the thing that prompted us into action when faced with a hungry lion, a poisonous snake, or a rival tribe. Today, it’s the thing that tells us to hand over our wallet during a robbery.
In this sense, fear is totally necessary. It keeps us alive.
Unfortunately though, it can also do the opposite.
Ever hear that line by drake? - “To live doesn’t mean you’re alive.”
Think of him what you will, Drake has a point. While fear keeps us all alive, it also stops many of us from truly living.
- The fear of being judged freezes your thumb over the ‘post’ button when you want to share a selfie.
- It keeps you on the couch instead of taking you to the networking event you signed up for.
- It stops you from delivering presentations, meeting new people, pursuing your dreams, and taking risks that lead to high rewards.
In many cases, fear and anxiety can be completely debilitating when given permission to reign.
Fear in Modern Society
This fear-paradox exists because, although human society has evolved monumentally over the last few thousand years, our innate fear-systems have not.
This means that we see and react to more contemporary ‘threats’ (i.e., judgement from others) in the same way we would react to threats from 170,000 years ago — like they’ll kill us.
From this, we could split the fears we face today into two main categories: ‘Real’ and ‘Perceived’.
- Standing in front of a hungry lion without protection is a very real threat. There’s an almost certain chance that the lion will hurt you, and you would be right to feel terrified if faced with this situation.
- A small house spider in your living room however, would fall into the ‘perceived threat’ category because realistically, it can’t hurt you.
Based on science and personal experience, I can understand why an Arachnophobe would disagree with me on the above statement, but our feelings don’t make the facts less true.
What Happens When We Experience Fear and Anxiety?
In the presence of any threat (real or perceived), our primitive fear mechanism prompts a biochemical and physical reaction (otherwise known as Acute Stress Response; or Fight-or-Flight), which induces symptoms like:
- Increased adrenaline, heartrate, and blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Dilated Pupils
- Excessive Sweating
- The feeling of ‘butterflies in your stomach’
- Inability to concentrate
So, although a small house-spider can’t maim you, and a networking event won’t kill you, the arachnophobe and agoraphobe’s involuntary physiological reaction to these things are still very real.
Simply knowing the difference between a real and perceived threat though isn’t enough to stop our primitive fight-or-flight from kicking in. So, what else can we do?
Manage Your Fear
It’s important to note that, depending on the severity of the fear you’re living with, professional help might be the best primary course of action — especially if you’re suffering from a Phobia (which is a type of anxiety disorder - an overwhelming and debilitating fear of something).
Common Phobia treatments include talking therapies like CBT and Exposure Therapy, or medication like Antidepressants and Beta-blockers .
If the fear you’re falling victim to isn’t as chronic as a phobia (i.e., it’s not getting in the way of your everyday functioning but is stopping you from doing things that you would like to do — like going to social events, getting on an aeroplane, speaking at an event, etc.), the following self-help method might be for you.
Writing to Your Fear
When I was suffering from Anorexia, I read a book called The Chimp Paradox.
This book helped me to realise that my fears were being driven by a very powerful, primitive part of myself (my ‘Chimp’) whose role is to keep me alive.
The problem with my chimp however, is that she makes mistakes when judging what are ‘real’ threats (things that have a high probability of hurting me), and what aren’t.
From this, I realised that I could mitigate the damage my fearful chimp caused, by focusing on logic and facts whenever she was aroused by a perceived threat.
I did this by talking to her.
More specifically, I wrote letters to her. (If you have ever practiced journaling, you’ll understand how powerful writing down your thoughts can be).
Here’s a sample of the things I wrote to my anxiety-ridden chimp about:
- Eating ‘danger’ foods in private
- Eating any food in public
- Riding the bus to university
- Speaking on stage
- Pitching my business to clients
Writing these letters helped me to replace anxiety-ridden ‘what ifs’ with logic and facts. Eventually, I knew in my heart that eating a chocolate bar wouldn’t make me gain 600lbs overnight. Nor was it likely that a wild axe murderer would get onto the bus I was riding. So I could finally do both of these things without sweating buckets or crying.
Like any huge undertaking, the results took time. And talking to my chimp has never made my fear completely disappear (which wouldn’t be a good thing to do anyway). But it has helped me to manage and override anxiety when it matters most.
A Template for Writing to Your Fear
If you fancy giving this writing to your fear but don’t know where to start, I’ve shared one of my own letters as a guideline.
You’ll notice it follows a certain structure:
1. Start by acknowledging your fear and all that it has done for you
2. Then let your fear know you no longer want it in your life
3. Explain your reasons why
4. Sign off
This, like most other types of therapy, takes practice before you see any real results. But if you do try it, I would love to hear about whether the experience helps you in any way.
My Letter to Fear
Thank you for trying to protect me all these years, but I no longer want you disrupting my life.
If you’re wondering why I’m saying this, it’s because now I know that you tell me lies to keep yourself comfortable. And in turn, you stop me from fulfilling my potential.
Not to mention, your lies have led me to extreme danger in the past (the irony) and I don’t want that to happen again.
For years, Fear, you told me that judgement from others was a ‘real’ threat.
You told me that it would kill me! And as a result, I avoided anything that made judgment possible.
Your whispers drove me to make changes to my body and lifestyle in pursuit of public admiration. And in the process, I lost my confidence; my social life; my education; my career prospects; my health, and any shred of control over my own life.
By keeping these perceived threats at the forefront of my mind, you controlled me. I can’t let that happen again.
So, the next time you pipe-up in the face of potential judgement — when I’m about to take the stage; hand over a first draft to a client; when I try speaking to someone new at an event — I can’t listen to you.
I’m not ungrateful for your efforts in trying to keep me safe, Fear.
But you haven’t evolved to deal with this modern world and sometimes that means you make mistakes. Big ones. And those mistakes hurt me.
So thank you, Fear, for being here. But now I need you to take the backseat.
I need to live my life.
Schedule 30 minutes for yourself today or tomorrow to write a letter to your fear.
Remember, though we know some of our fears are ’perceived’ and potentially irrational, our chimps don’t know the difference.
By talking to your fear, and reminding it that we no longer live in the stone age, you can start to live through the lens of logic and rationale, instead of uncontrollable emotion.