In Kathryn Tristan’s 30-year struggle to overcome her anxiety, she discovered many helpful strategies. Now she’s reaching out to help others empower themselves to face their fears and lead happier lives. The empowering team is happy to have her share her insights with you about her book Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living.
The wording of my life story, Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living, comes easily to me now because I have written a book with exactly that title. The book is not just about my saga and lifelong struggle with anxiety, but, happily, about my overcoming it and the simple strategies I found that work to absolutely break free from fear.
As I tell my story here, the first part will briefly describe my struggles. The majority of my entry, however, will be about my recovery and the successful strategies I used to beat anxiety.
My Life Changed in a Moment
As I read the stories presented by other people in these wonderful web pages, I understand each person’s saga, because in many ways their story is mine too. I have struggled with most of the same type of problems and scary sensations that they did.
What is most common to all of us who have suffered from this malady is that we, during a time of great stress, somehow popped the bubble of security and landed face first in the pile of mud that is a panic attack or high anxiety.
I had no idea what happened to me after my first anxiety attack. My life changed the moment I was walloped by anxiety. I just began to feel afraid of the uncomfortable, bewildering feelings coming back.
So, I thought that fear was the problem. After all, that’s what was affecting my life so much. It felt as if I were living in a place I called “Zapland.” That is, once zapped by my fears, I began to focus on them since they seemed so powerful. Zapland was not a fun place to be. Everything seemed bigger than me. I felt small and afraid much of the time. Anxiety pounced on me like a big mean bear. This unseen animal was lurking in hidden places and ready to strike without notice.
I didn’t know how I ended up in Zapland. One day I seemed fine, but then something happened. I had been smoking, drinking coffee, and studying day and night for college finals. I had particularly difficult classes in chemistry, statistics, and biology that I had taken all in the same semester. Working long hours at my hospital job to make enough money to put myself through college added to the stress. Late in the afternoon, I suddenly began to feel weird. As I focused on the feeling, the fear increased. But I didn’t know why. There was nothing around me that was threatening, nothing I could really put my finger on to say, “Ah ha, you’re the cause!” I only knew something seemed frightful and dangerous. It felt like a growling black bear was stalking me, ready to attack.
Eventually, my episodes lessened and I was able to bury those troubling emotions. Time helped it go away. But it took several months of confusion and occasional gripping fear, which I mostly attempted to avoid. Because I thought the high anxiety was my problem, it didn’t occur to me to change my daily stress-producing routine.
I spent the next 30 years dealing with anxiety and panic. Some years it snoozed, as if the bear were hibernating. In those times, I was more settled and fear hadn’t taken over my life. But when things warmed up from mounting stresses, the bear would awaken and bring on the full fury of a hungry, angry animal. Eventually, my fears got the better of me.
I tried to find the magic bullet to shoot the bear and make it go away. Instead, I found my world shrinking. I sought the security of my home and assumed that I would finally find a safe haven there. In truth, I felt as much anxiety at home as I did anywhere else. I read every book I could on the subject, did research on the biological causes, and went to several therapists. Still, I could never chase away my hairy demon. I was going nowhere with a bear on my tail.
Gradually, I learned that: Fear is not the problem; fear is the symptom.
Anxiety Is an SOS
My anxieties mushroomed from a detonation deep inside my core. They came from how I was living, thinking, and reacting to my daily stresses. My Stressed Out Signals were from an invisible emotional bomb that exploded when I cut the ties to an inner source of strength and peace known as my spirit. When that link dissolved, I began a downward spiral of separation from myself and my life’s purpose. My anxiety was the SOS my spirit was sending me to protect itself from being smothered by the unproductive choices I was making. It was as if a red flag were thrown by an invisible referee who shouted:
“Spirit, Off-Side! Penalty: 10 yards of anxiety and a big explosion to shake you out of your complacency!”
A lesser jolt wouldn’t have perturbed me enough to make me change anything. Anxiety shook me thoroughly and made me pay attention. My enlightenment came gradually, though. I tried lots of ways to cure myself of anxiety and fear. Although each helped, healing only occurred when I charted the course back to my inner spirit. No therapy or medication could do that for me.
Healing Anxiety from Inside Out: My Four Insights
As strange as it may sound, fear has been my best teacher. I learned a great deal about how we can get ourselves into and (happily) out of trouble by learning to wake up to our thoughts and feelings. I learned new tools not only to challenge anxiety but also to turn any problem into an opportunity for growth and healing.
I launched myself out of anxiety when I uncovered and mastered FOUR INSIGHTS that I called “CORE Concepts.” Each letter in the word CORE stands for one of the insights.
The First Insight
The “C” in CORE Concepts stands for Choice. My recovery from fear and anxiety began by realizing a simple truth: I Always Have Choices!
I learned that I had the ability to make other choices than accepting fear. I realized that while I can’t control everything that happens to me, I have a choice in how I decide to react to anything that comes my way.
Fear had been emotionally numbing to me. I became distrustful of my own feelings because they seemed to lash out at me. I began to close out any strong feelings because I feared they might ignite anxiety. My recovery started by learning to become aware of how my thoughts were seeding my fears and learning to better evaluate my feelings. Once I realized that, I also found I could exert control over how I was thinking. I could veto the initial thoughts that seeded the chain reaction of fear. I could disagree with fear. I DID have a choice!
This took practice and patience, but it was well worth the effort. As I woke up to my inner thoughts, I discovered I had what I called “EARL Syndrome.” This unproductive thinking habit is seeded by an inner character I called EARL, who was never satisfied with anything. EARL constantly chattered to me about concerns and worries. My EARL side easily felt anger and anxiety.
In fact, I named EARL because this energy is:
Easily, Angered, Rigid, limiting
But EARL was only trying to protect me. EARL was like my own inner police department whose motto is “To Serve and Protect.”
This inner character tried to stop me from encountering possible dangers. That was a good thing. EARL was not bad, but was sending out messages that I needed to be FEAR-FULL because EARL only wanted me to be safe and sound. However, EARL needed to be balanced Not all things were as dangerous as EARL would have me believe. Was a bridge really dangerous? Was night-time really worrisome? Was driving to the grocery store something of concern?
Emerging from fear meant pumping up the inner volume on another character I found inside that had been overshadowed by the fury of EARL. Once I began to silence EARL, I began to hear a quiet, inner voice that I called PEARL. PEARL was:
Peaceful, Earnest, Adventurous, Resilient, Loving
PEARL is relaxed and fun. PEARL believes that everything will work out just fine. PEARL feels confident that you can handle anything that comes along. This aspect gives selflessly, laughs frequently, and loves to play. PEARL is FEAR-LESS and knows “all is well.”
Once I discovered that I could choose which of these inner messages to listen to, I discovered a way out of fear. I began to attune my thoughts to my PEARL side. I thanked EARL for trying to protect me, but started disagreeing with the fear thoughts EARL was generating.
Choosing to heed PEARL instead of EARL was empowering and freeing. I did not have to accept the fearful thoughts. I had an inner aspect of me that I could draw on to help me in my journey out of fear and into freedom.
My Second Insight: My Outlook is My Choice.
The “O” in CORE stands for OUTLOOK. My second insight taught me that I could consciously choose to change my Outlook on my life and my fears.
I began to formulate a plan that directed my thinking using positive statements and mental imagery to create the desired changes in my life. I called these MANIFESTOS. This is what I wanted to manifest in my life. I mentally snared the negative, fearful thoughts and replaced them with ideas that were more powerful and presented possibilities that were positive.
I first recognized the inner trash talk and negative dialogs such as, “I feel helpless and afraid.” Then, I’d challenge it and replace it with, “I am strong and capable.” I might think, “I’ll never get rid of these fears,” and I’d instead counter with, “I choose to change my life now, one baby step at a time.”
It was a gradual process that was ignited by my discovery of unhelpful inner dialogues filled with fear and concerns. I learned to draw upon that aspect of me that was more powerful, loving, and confident that I could handle not only my fears, but also my life! I decided to choose an Outlook that would “possibilize” instead of “terribilize.”
My Third Insight: Risking Helps Me Recover.
Once I began making these fundamental mental shifts, I realized a THIRD SECRET to overcoming fear…RISKING HELPS ME RECOVER!
The “R” in CORE stands for RISKING.
I knew a parked car didn’t go anywhere. I knew that a ship is safe in its harbor, but that’s not what ships are for!
Risking was something I learned could be freeing, not scary! I had kept myself safe for many years. I had not gone outside of about 45 minutes away from home for about 20 years. I began by working on myself inside out. I learned to hear my thoughts, veto ones that were restricting and limiting and replace them with ones that were more true and possible. I decided to begin taking “baby steps” to overcome my fears and limitations. I did things little by little that I had avoided before. I rode the elevator up to the 18th floor, rode the train into the city, took a roller coaster ride, and drove further and further away from my home.
I developed other tools to help me during this time. I called them FEAR BUSTERS. One technique I call “FOCUS ON NOW.” As I learned to tackle anxious feelings head on and examine my thoughts, I found myself terribilizing a lot. I thought, oh what if I freaked out, that would be terrible. What if, what if, what if … I then said: so what if… . So what if … I learned to focus on the present. I was fine now. I learned to develop phrases to counteract my tendency to leap ahead into fear. My sister Margie, who also overcame anxiety says, “Keep It Real” when EARL starts to blare.
My Fourth Insight: I Embrace My Spirit; I am an Explorer.
The “E” in CORE stands for EXPLORING.
As I took baby steps away from fear and into freedom, I felt free and safe enough to trust myself and my emotions. As I continued pushing back the barriers that hindered me, I began to embrace my inner spirit, the highest part of myself that loves life, gives me direction through my emotions, and perceives meaning beyond my five senses. This inner treasure had waited for me to dig her out of the murky mud of fear. She was there all the time, I only had to find her.
Embracing my inner spirit released a child-like sense of adventure and joy. As I engaged this energy, I felt free and safe enough to explore instead of recoil. I found myself doing things I never thought I could do before.
I have now traveled to many places and done many things I never thought I could. I traveled to the exotic Caribbean, flew to beautiful Greece, and gave a talk before an international audience. My life continues to amaze me, and I am thankful everyday that I learned how to go from crying to flying and from fear to freedom. I found that the tools to break free of fear were buried inside of me. Working from the inside out and blending concepts and practices of mind, body, and spirit gave me the keys to unlock the prison door. I learned how to rescue myself and so can you.
Your fear is your teacher. Learn the lessons and move on. You have a wonderful opportunity from your struggles. As you heal yourself, you unleash that power to the world. As you tackle your fears and embrace your challenges, you help others do the same. That is your gift back to the world. Whether it is to your children, your partner, or friends, you can stand as a beacon of hope to others who may be struggling. Your growth helps others grow, and overcoming your pain helps others overcome theirs! I send you my love and wishes for an incredible exploration of YOU!
I vowed that if I could ever overcome my fears, I’d use my writing and mentoring skills to help others just as I’d been helped. I’ve done that with the release of my book that shares the truths I discovered. I hope what I learned will also help many others facing the same things that I did. I share my insights from my heart to yours.
Discover practical strategies to permanently overcome stress and worry from a scientist
, published by Simon & Schuester, Atria Books.
Email the author at: Tristan@anxietyrescuebook.com