“Fear is inevitable, I have to accept that, but I cannot allow it to paralyze me.” – Isabel Allende
I was lying on the sofa in my tiny flat in Vienna.
My feet were elevated on a cushion and the room was spinning in a brisk waltz around me. My stomach was cramping and cold sweat was trickling down my spine. I gasped for air whenever choking fear forced my racing heart to skip a couple of beats.
The situation was all too familiar.
Back then I suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety. I was also plagued by severe toilet anxiety, which is a fear of needing the toilet when none is available. As a consequence, I had panic attacks several times a week.
So, I knew exactly how to stop the agony. I fumbled for the phone and dialled my friend Eva’s number.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I must have caught some kind of bug; I’m quite unwell. I will have to cancel for this evening…I know! It is a shame. I was so looking forward to seeing you again and meeting your friends…Yes, next week would be lovely! I’ll be in touch!”
As I hung up, a welcome wave of relief washed through my body as the panic slowly subsided.
I would have loved to see the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the big screen.
But what if no aisle seat would have been available? What if I would have had to sit in the middle of a row and needed the bathroom? What would the other people have thought if I squeezed past them, profoundly apologizing, while ruining their movie experience?
Furthermore, I had never visited that particular cinema before. I would have to take the underground at night. What if I was mugged? And I had never met the two friends Eva planned to bring along. What if they thought I was a bore or a jerk for needing the loo every ten minutes?
I was convinced I had made the right decision. I would just stay on my sofa, watch comforting repeats of Friends and be safe.
No fear, no anxiety, no panic. All was well again.
Until it hit me.
I was a hostage of my fear! It dictated what I could and couldn’t do. It confined me to my comfort zone and denied me dreams and aspirations.
I was never free to pursue fun adventures or meet new people. I was handcuffed to my sofa, my familiar daily routine and the nearest toilet facility.
And when I attempted to escape, I was hit with a merciless panic attack that left me stunned and shivering back where I was safe. On my sofa, in my little flat. Right where I sat in the dark on a December evening in 2003 and wept.
For being a victim, for being a prisoner, for being weak and scared. For not having a life.
And it was right there on that little sofa that I decided I had enough. I would take control over my life, I would claim the right to choose. I would finally live.
It was a long journey. A lot has changed since then.
And I want to share what I have learned in the past thirteen years.
Because for me, overcoming or defeating my fear was impossible. It always fought back with a vengeance. I had to find a different solution.
Realization #1: Fear is not the enemy.
After that life-changing December evening, I started to research. I read countless books, took courses, and attended seminars. I needed to know what caused the constant fear and how to stop it.
I had always perceived fear as a menacing, painful, and crippling hostile force. A life-sucking alien parasite. An uncontrollable beast.
But I soon discovered that fear can be both healthy and pathological.
Healthy fear is a vital physiological reaction that has guaranteed survival of animal species for aeons.
When confronted with a dangerous situation, adrenaline and other hormones accelerate breathing and heart rates. Blood pressure increases, muscles tense up, and blood is redirected to the arms, legs, and brain. The body prepares for fight or flight, to either combat the threat or flee from it.
A healthy fear response lasts as long as the dangerous situation that provoked it persists. It then subsides until the next trigger restarts it.
However, when fear is triggered by generally harmless events like a trip to the theater, meeting new people, or a car journey, it becomes pathological. The fear designed to save your life is now destroying it.
But why was I terrified of so many innocent situations that other people wouldn’t waste a thought on? What had gone wrong?
Realization #2: My pathological fear was linked to low self-worth.
I soon realized that my anxiety and panic attacks were a direct result of my lack of self-worth.
You see, when you suffer from low self-worth, the world becomes a menacing place.
Subconsciously, you believe that you don’t deserve happiness, so you constantly expect a catastrophe. You are terrified of the future because devastating tragedies happened to you in the past and you were too powerless to prevent them.
You feel under constant pressure to outperform, impress, and achieve perfection because you don’t feel worthy of other people’s love and respect. Yet, you mistrust your abilities and always feel that you are lagging behind or winging it. And you are horrified people might uncover your darkest secret, that you are a fraud.
Hence, you incessantly agonize about making mistakes and worry that other people might disapprove of you and your actions. You don’t believe in yourself and your ability to cope with life. So, you doubt your decisions and fear the potential consequences. And you are paralyzed by the thought of any change.
You feel overwhelmed, stressed, cornered. You perceive your whole life as a threat. Fear and anxiety have become permanent features.
Because you believe that you aren’t good enough in other people’s eyes. Because you don’t know that you actually are worth personified. Inherently, infinitely, and unconditionally so.
You are worth, even if you aren’t a fun socialite who makes friends easily. You are worth, even if life overwhelms you sometimes. And you are still worth even if you pee yourself in public, because as embarrassing as it may seem, it doesn’t change anything about your true worth!
I must have repeated the affirmation “I am worth” several hundred times a day for months. I now knew that, if I wanted to beat my fear of life, I first had to believe in myself. Only then would I feel confident enough to deal with everything that came my way.
Realization #3: I feared fear itself.
Once I started healing my low self-worth and gaining trust in myself and my abilities, it became clear that I wasn’t actually terrified of the movies, strangers, or my overactive bladder alone. I was also horrified of fear itself and all its unpleasant consequences.
Have you ever had a panic attack? It sucks!
And it is terrifying in its own right. The heart palpitations, the shortness of breath, the tight chest. You feel like your death is imminent and you are powerless to prevent it.
So, you avoid the panic triggers. The problem is that when your main trigger is life itself, you cease to live.
You minimize social interactions, you stop making bold plans for the future, you stick to your daily routine that keeps you safe. Your thoughts revolve around your fears and how to keep them subdued. You cohabitate with a fearsome beast, tiptoeing around it so it doesn't awaken and swallow you whole.
This was my life, constantly and unrelentingly. Until one day I decided to slay the beast.
Realization #4: Fighting the fear made it worse.
Every time I felt fear arising, I cursed it, screamed at it, and commanded it to leave now and never come back. But my beast didn’t take these insults lightly. It defended itself and the panic attacks escalated in frequency and intensity.
I felt like a pathetic failure. I wrecked my mind for new ways to overcome the fear. I tried what felt like hundreds of techniques and tactics to battle the fear. But they never worked and the fear increased at an alarming rate.
I know now that the fear multiplied because I focussed on it. My attention was zoomed into my fear and how to defeat it, and so, subconsciously, I produced more and more of it.
The beast grew and I was about to surrender myself to be its prisoner for the rest of my life.
Until my mum rescued me.
Realization #5: Making friends with fear disarms it.
“Why don’t you name it?” she said.
I was stunned.
“You have tried to fight it,” she continued. “Maybe it’s time to befriend it. Talk to it. Tell it that everything will be okay. Let it know you are there for it. And listen to its concerns.”
I thought the idea was ridiculous. But I was willing to try anything. I was desperate.
So, I named my pathological fear Klaus. It was the first name that popped into my head.
For a while I just observed what he had to say. He was a deeply troubled individual. So insecure, so worried, utterly paranoid.
Then, one day, I started to reason with him.
If he said, “I don’t think we should try a new restaurant. We might hate the food. And it is change. Change is bad for us,” I replied. “Change is good, it makes life fun. And if we don’t like the food, we just order something else next time.”
Of course I felt bonkers for talking to my fear like it was a small child. After all, I was talking to myself (not out loud, mind you)!
But it worked! Klaus understood. He was open to the suggestion that life as a whole wasn’t dangerous and began to embrace the new paradigm.
All he had ever wanted was to help me and keep me safe. He was a true friend. Even if he had been slightly misguided in his efforts to help, I found he was open to change.
Almost ten years later, while I studied Eckhart Tolle’s teachings, I understood that by naming my fear I had stopped identifying with it. I felt the emotion, but I no longer was the fear. The fear didn’t define me and I could finally start to free myself from it.
A Life Without (Pathological) Fear
Klaus and I spent several years together. He would warn me, raise doubts, and advise caution whenever I stepped out of my comfort zone.
But I was determined. I kept reminding myself that I was worth, that I was able to cope, that I was strong.
I started to do one scary thing a day. Small things at first. A different route to work, going for a walk without immediate toilet access, or asking a complete stranger for the time.
Klaus wasn’t happy. But I continued to explain that we were okay. That change was a positive part of life, that the world was a safe place and that we deserved to be happy.
After a while, his objections became less frequent and he remained quiet for longer periods of time.
And finally, in June 2008, as I boarded a plane to Barcelona to present at an international conference in front of hundreds of strangers, I realized he was gone. Without notice, he had left and I wasn’t scared of life’s experiences any longer. The pathological fear of life itself had dissolved.
I still sometimes fondly remember my friend Klaus. But I never heard from him again. I hope he is well.
As for me, I moved to the UK by myself and met new friends (who didn’t think I was a jerk). I am married and have a lovely little daughter. I travel, work with clients, and lecture students without worrying or overthinking.
The cold sweats, anxiety, and racing heart of a panic attack are now a distant memory. And I can enjoy a family day out without obsessing over the location of the nearest toilet.
I finally live, liberated, on my terms. I am free.
And I sincerely hope that my story will help you claim your own life. Because you deserve happiness too.
Stop beating yourself up, befriend your fear, and believe in yourself! I know you can do it!
You are worth!