Overcoming Anxiety: Moving from Fear to Presence

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“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” ~Nelson Mandela

When I was a trainee teacher at a Cambridge University, I attended one of the oldest, most sought-after colleges, where most of the other graduate students were astrophysicists and economists, and 90 percent male.

They also seemed to come from families that were in some way related to the Queen of England, whereas I was a young, pregnant, trainee high school teacher whose nearest connection to Queens was owning a Freddie Mercury single, and I was a little shy.

Formal college dinners were a regular occurrence, and you were expected make small talk as you sipped your cream sherry in the medieval banquet hall in your black robes before dinner.

When I tried to talk honestly about what I was studying or what I was interested in, it tended to lead to embarrassed mumblings and a quick escape.

So one day, when someone asked me what I did, I said I was a lion tamer.

Their eyes lit up. “Really?” they asked, intrigued. “Oh yes!” I replied, “Each day I have to have nerves of steel as I enter a room of caged brutes and try to get them to perform tricks!”

I am no longer a teacher. But I am still a lion tamer.

In fact, it was the lions that stopped me teaching, the same lions who were hiding under the table at those grand banquets, when I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Yes, you heard me right, I live in close proximity to a caged lion. Wild, unpredictable, untamable, he longs to roam the plains. But instead, it’s just him and me, locked in my head together. His name? Anxiety!

I have learned what makes him roar, what feeds him. He smells blood and out he comes, lured by deadlines, taxes, financial issues, illness, death, or medical professionals. So far, so normal.

But he’s a strange type. He doesn’t like parties and social occasions, talking on the phone, images of me, swim suits, nudity, heights, or criticism.

And so anxiety and I live together. I know how to keep him sweet, and keep myself safe. We have learned to make deals. And I avoid his territory like the plague.

The only problem is, no one else can see him. Great, an invisible lion in my head! Sure, that doesn’t make me crazy, right?!

But just because you can’t see him, that doesn’t make him any less real for me.

I can feel his breath on my neck, him gnawing my stomach, my heart starting to race, my whole body shaking. That is real.

I feel stupid, irrational, embarrassed, and ashamed when anxiety starts to roam, unbidden from his lair. Where yesterday I could go out into town and chat with friends, today you will find me a quivering wreck, hiding from the world and making excuses.

Lately I have noticed that his territory is expanding, rapidly, and my freedoms diminishing.

It is time to take action, I decided. But what, and how? I don't want to take medication. I worry about how to approach it with my doctor. I start to feel anxious about anxiety!

And then two realizations come, only moments apart. In weather terms, they were lightning and thunder.

At that moment, everything was illuminated in immense clarity.

The root of every single problem—every health issue, psychological  issue, career issue, and relationship issue that I experienced in my life, and had since childhood—it was anxiety.

He’s a much bigger beast that I had ever realized.

The simplicity of it hit me between the eyes. It was so obvious. Why had I never seen this before?

I had been so distracted by the stories in my head, the symptoms in my body, the apparently real circumstances of my life.

But now I saw that it wasn’t depression, or not being good enough, or lack of money or opportunities, or everybody hating me, or the political situation, or my lack of mothering ability, or the tax man that was the problem. It was all anxiety.

Why had no one ever seen this? Why had my doctor never diagnosed this massive anxiety disorder?

And then the thunder struck.

Every other human I come across in my daily life, to a greater or lesser degree, is paralyzed by anxiety too!

I had always thought that I was the odd one out. But no, anxiety is truly the human condition it seems. It’s just some of us are more conscious of it, and more open about it than others.

For most people it’s just part of the fabric of who they are. Unseen, it’s as big and wide as the sky. And you know why? Because the lion isn’t in most of our heads; we’re inside him. That’s how big and all-consuming our anxiety is.

This anxiety is what stops those I know from telling people they love them, confronting their partner, going on a plane, singing in public, going to the doctor, sitting in meditation, disciplining their child, picking up a telephone, moving to Australia, doing work they love, writing a book…

And it is exacerbated, whether by accident or design, by modernity and our culture, to epidemic proportions.

Our always-on lives, stress, pressure to achieve, economic melt down, the breakdown of relationships, childcare worries, lack of connection to the land and our families—these are like steroids to our anxious selves .

The modern world is functioning at status: anxiety. It is our normality. The lions’s jaws are firmly clamped around our heads, and we cannot even see it.

In order to escape, we need to understand this beast. What is anxiety, really? I wondered.

Cue the thunder clap! It is simply the fear of what if: what if I’m a failure, what if I’m rejected, what if I’m not good enough, what if we don’t have enough money, what if I get sick…

It is as though the defining feature of human kind—our awareness of self and the future—has turned against us, imprisoning us with what should be our greatest gift.

And the irony is that we are so scared of this “what if” that we live it as a reality right now. How crazy is that? We live the truth that we fear in the future, right now, incarnated, in our own bodies!

The side effects of palpitations, nausea, shaking hands, ostracization, are all real. Real responses to a fear we believe is real, now.

“What if” is our reality of madness, not “what is.” The lion is our master.

We only have two possible ringmasters in this circus of life: fear and presence. It truly is our choice as to which will rule.

When we take back our fear of “what if,” we remove ourselves from a projected future and claim our human power to co-create our reality. Here and now, in this present moment, we can step from the madness of “what if” to the power of “what is.”

The lion is not running this circus anymore. There’s a new ringmaster in town—and what a fine lion tamer she is becoming!

Photo by overgraeme

About Lucy H. Pearce

Lucy H. Pearce is author of several books, including Moon Time: a guide to celebrating your menstrual cycle and founder of The Happy Womb, for empowering women’s resources. She blogs on creativity, mindfulness & motherhood at Dreaming Aloud. Connect with Dreaming Aloud & The Happy Womb on Facebook & Twitter.

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  • Ginny

    Great post! Illuminating.

  • Hi Lucy,

    I also live with anxiety. I have panic attacks and at one point they were so debilitating that I missed a month of work. I took a small does of medication for a while but have weened myself off, like you, not interested in it. But the saving grace for me was cognitive therapy. I cannot recommend it enough and I urge everyone dealing with these issues to find a good therapist and use talk therapy. Sometimes hearing your fears bounced off another person and repeated back to you helps you to realize how ludicrous they are and how irrational you sound. I will go to therapy for the rest of my life because I get so much out of it, outside of help with anxiety. The words I try to live by are “Live in the moment.” I was a serious “what if” and catastrophic thinker.

    By the way, I also lived in England for a while and I’m an Anglophile. You may enjoy my blog

  • What a fierce way to address anxiety than as that of a lion tamer! If the part where you wrote “We live the truth that we fear in the future, right now…” is not a wake up call, I don’t know what is. Good read.

  • ViridianGirl

    Wow, I needed to read this post today. I’m currently dealing with anxiety and, although I know it is all in my head, it still plagues me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It makes me understand the origin of my anxiety much better.

  • Joanna O’Sullivan

    “Status: Anxiety” seems such a perfect way to describe our world. This made me think.

  • Thanks, Ginny!

  • I am delighted to have helped give you some more insight. Blessings on your journey. X

  • Thanks Joanna. X

  • Thanks, Nicole. It was a wake up call to me for sure, when I realised it.

  • Thanks for your response. Panic attacks are so debilitating. I wish you well on your healing journey. X

  • Dana

    Thank you Lucy! My anxiety and panic attacks comes in waves. I deal with it mostly in the winter months. I suppose they call that SAD. I went for a massage yesterday thinking it would relax me, and yes I had a panic attack there. I accept the attacks and know they won’t really hurt me, but I want to be more of a lion tamer. I love that approach, it’s actually really inspiring and empowering. I’m a birth Doula and I’m always anxious waiting for my clients to go into labor. I understand your “what ifs”. What if I don’t perform for her. What if I fail her. What if I get too tired. What if I have a panic attack. And after every birth I always feel I succeeded. And it gives me confidence to do it again. I too feel social anxiety. Among friends, or strangers in a store. Panic is lurking around every corner. But I tell myself, at least I’m here. I’m not letting it keep me locked up at home. Let the lion come, I’m not afraid of what if….thanks for your amazing words!

  • Thank you, Dana, for your courage and your gratitude. Blessings on your journey x

  • lv2terp

    Fantastic and brilliant epiphanies, analogy, and awareness! Really enjoyed this post! Love the added humor too 🙂

  • kavin paker

    Never liked them, but that is what I had to study in school in Singapore since Science stream was the way to go.
    Hotelzimmer Lubeck

  • guest

    Yes I realize that it’s fear, and it’s a response to the kind of life one lives .. but in my case it’s hereditary I’ve got it , an uncle of mine also got it and so my younger brother.
    I tried everything to control it , I was on medication twice , I tried therapy and everything worked for a while then stop working , I wish I would’ve find if not a cure just alittle ease of misery but I didn’t and everyday I’m worse. I wake up I’m in pain , first thing in the morning is always the worst, I barely sleep with the severe insomnias , I really don’t know what to do about it …