One of my greatest fears in life was to live a life of mediocrity, of never pushing myself mentally or physically because I was afraid of failing, or of other peoples reactions or simply because I was scared. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s I thrived on ticking off my ‘bucket list’. This ranged from living in 4 different continents, bungee jumping, caving in Christ Church, abseiling, sky diving, being a contestant on a reality tv show and even representing Australia for sport. As I got older and started a family the less of these ‘bucket list’ items became a priority. My mindset became more about ‘what if this happened?’ or ‘what if I hurt myself?’ I started feeding into this mentality of being afraid which was the very thing that was keeping my fear’s alive. I developed a chronic case of claustrophobia after a scuba diving accident that meant getting on planes was uncomfortable, taking a lift made me uneasy and getting stuck in the Sydney Harbour tunnel was the stuff of nightmares.
As a result, I started living a life that was ‘safe’, avoiding feelings of vulnerability and anxiety because it made me feel uncomfortable, opting for the path well worn and travelled, opting for what felt safe 100% of the time. Slowly, I found myself surrendering to every fear and phobia that had developed over time choosing to give these energy rather than face the monumental task of tackling them head on. As we know, the nature of these kind of things is, what we feed grows, and my fear and phobias had taken on a life of their own.
In order to harness these fears and phobias and to experience that feeling of being alive and purposeful I knew I had to set myself a pretty lofty goal. Something that made me nervous, something that made me fearful. I had the opportunity to enter into a 12 week boxing training program at my local gym whereby at the end of the training you would have a 3 x 2 minute boxing match with an opponent. I had listened to enough podcasts and read enough self help books to understand that the only way thru your fear is with massive action….so this boxing match was it. I couldn’t think of a bigger statement than getting up in front of 500 of my clients and peers and potentially being hurt or worse still knocked out.
Much to my surprise I really enjoyed the training, there was something about learning a new skill that kept me interested and focused. I found myself losing body fat and getting fitter and stronger, so far it seemed to be a win-win situation. As the fight started to get closer my nerves started to increase. Just thinking about the fight brought on a dump of adrenaline that flooded my body from head to toe. The primary purpose of adrenaline is to prime the body to ‘get ready’ for action. The fight or flight response which gives you energy to get the job done became a familiar adversary from 4 weeks out from the fight. Around this time as well I started not sleeping, I would go to bed thinking about how each round was going to play out, what my plan of attack would be, how it would feel. As soon as I woke up in the morning I was thinking about the fight again….was this normal? I felt like I was starting to lose my mind, I mean I knew it was all part of the process to feel nervous but my fear was starting to rule my life. Here I was trying to be a mum to 2 kids and run a personal training business but all I could think about was this boxing match. I found it hard to concentrate on even the smallest tasks and things that required too much brain capacity were put on hold till after the fight.
Fast forward to a week before the fight and I was a frazzled mess, my anxiety was thru the roof and I was constantly on the edge of tears. When the organisers declared I would be the first fight of the night this sent me into a complete tail spin. All of my fears and catastrophic thinking of what could go wrong reared it’s ugly head…’your arms won’t work’, ‘you will have a panic attack’, ‘your legs wont work’ ‘you will forget everything you have been taught’. My irrational thinking had taken on a mind of it’s own and it felt like there was nothing I could do to control it or stop it.
Little did I know that ‘catastrophic thinking’ is just another form of anxiety whereby we focus on the worst possible outcomes which provide a distorted and negative picture of how the world works (No Worries, Sarah Edelman PHD 2019).
I didn’t know it at the time but the vast majority of negative events that we anticipate don’t happen, and even when they do, we manage to get through them. But for me there was no reasoning with my thoughts and the more I tried to control them the more I perpetuated them. With less than a week before the fight I made the decision to pull out, my anxiety had gotten the better of me, my anxiety had won.
In retrospect, had I understood the nature of anxiety and what it feels like to be anxious I would of realised that what I was feeling was normal. Yes I suffer from catastrophic anxiety but rather than try and control my irrational thoughts it is more about recognising them for what they are and changing my relationship with them. Some strategies that can help with this process according to Sarah Edelmen (2019) include reality testing, asking ourselves what is ‘worst, best and most likely’ by using a thought monitoring form. This involves recording the situation or trigger that gives rise to our anxiety (or other unwanted emotions), identifying the thoughts and beliefs that underpin our emotional response, and determining a more reasonable perspective. By writing down our unreasonable thoughts and reflecting on the worst, best and most likely outcomes of our situation we can identify a more reasonable and balanced perspective for our thoughts.
Facing our Fears:
‘There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid’. (L Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).
From that moment that I pulled out of my fight I had let anxiety rob me of potentially one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I had done the work, I was physically prepared but unfortunately not mentally prepared. This was a pivotal turning point in my life because I knew I had to start training my mind as hard, if not harder than what I was training my body. I knew the best way to overcome my fears was to deliberately confront them. This involved relinquishing all of the safety behaviour’s I used such as avoiding situations and over analysing things in order to keep me safe. The only way I could release anxiety was by accepting that I cannot control every aspect of my life. I had to learn to tolerate uncertainty, take risks and embrace challenges. I had to relinquish the perpetual search for safety, the scanning for threats, overthinking and all of the other safety behaviour’s I came to habitually use. Instead I needed to turn my attention to taking on new challenges, learning to let go, breathe, trust and see what happens.
You don’t need to walk around with your umbrella open when it’s not raining.
It was finally time to get this albatross off my back once and for all. Living with fear as an ever present enemy is something that hangs over you eroding your self confidence and chipping away at your self esteem. It was time to put a harness on that fear.
My opportunity for entering the ring again was determined by me, in a state where nobody knew me and on my terms. I selected the Masters Games in South Australia as the venue and told nobody except my Coach/husband about what I wanted to achieve. Together, we set about mentally and physically preparing me for the fight so this time the outcome would be different…I would get into the ring this time, no pulling out, no second thoughts. Mentally, the lead up to this fight was one of the hardest things I have ever done and I experienced a roller coaster of emotions leading up to it. I questioned myself over and over again but I always kept the big picture in the back of my mind, which was how I would feel when the fight was done. I would finally be free of the anxiety that had kept me a prisoner from the first time I had attempted this.
On the day of the fight, it was the calmest I have ever felt up to this point, I knew I had done all of the work mentally and physically to prepare me for this. When the final bell for the final round sounded you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Anxiety may have won the first round but I had won the second and most important round of all, I had won the war within myself.