If you had met me six years ago, you would have met a person who was anxious about everything. A person who was almost afraid of her shadow. I was scared of so  many things. I had a phobia of dogs, of large bodies of water (swimming pools included – that was large in my mind), of sitting with my back to the door, of failure, of rejection … of trying.

Slowly but surely I worked through those fears. I am no longer afraid of dogs, and while I am not the most comfortable in water, I can swim and I have earned my deep sea diving license. I am no longer afraid of sitting with my back to the door … and although I still do not want to fail or be rejected, I am not afraid to try and put myself out there because I know that I will (eventually) be able to survive whatever comes my way, even if it’s a struggle and even if it takes a long time … and even if the final results I want are impossible to achieve for whatever reason.

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me and Otto in Ancona, Italy (2012) – petting a dog was a huge accomplishment for me

One of the benefits of putting in all that time and effort to overcome those fears is that I’m not afraid anymore. My walk is no longer interrupted because of a dog I see in the distance. Instead I am able to stay on my path and go where I need to go. Even though my heart still races a bit when I think of large bodies of open water (and yes, I still glance quickly before jumping in a swimming pool to make sure there are no sharks), I know that I can swim and most importantly, I know that when hooked up to a regulator and diving, I can breathe under water. Most importantly, learning how to defend myself by practicing Gracie Jiu-Jitsu has given me a level of confidence that I apply every single day in various situations. There’s something empowering about knowing that if someone tried to attack me, I could defend myself (or at least put up a helluva fight) and choke them out.

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pinned to the ground? no problem.

More recently, because I have been so focused on training and teaching jiu-jitsu, it is the knowledge of self-defense that has really helped me out. I’ve found myself in many a situation telling myself, ‘Relax, don’t let it/that person/this situation upset you. Besides, if you really needed to, you can choke them out.’

Yesterday, I had to go for an MRI. I was on the table, being strapped in, and even though I didn’t like having my hands wedged by my side, I was ok. Then, the bed was elevated and moved into the machine. I panicked. If I hadn’t been strapped to the table I know I would have jumped off. However, I was bound so I didn’t have a choice. Although I have been in an MRI machine before, it wasn’t like this — it wasn’t as narrow and I wasn’t strapped to the table. I knew I couldn’t get out of this so I had to find a way to relax and get it done. I took a few minutes to calm my breathing and then I closed my eyes and told the technician that I was ready. As I felt myself being slid into the machine I tried not to think about it. It was amazing – even though my eyes were closed and I could not feel the machine on me, I still felt pressure. I felt like I was going to explode. I kept trying to tell myself to relax. I started to think about the empowerment I have gained through jiu-jitsu … but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t choke out an MRI machine! Moreover, I couldn’t escape from being strapped onto a table … it was not the right image for me, and in fact it started to make me panic even more.

It was exactly at that point that my diving instructor’s face came to my mind’s eye – there was this one point when we were under water and my water was seeping into my mask. I started to panic. Even though I had the regulator in my mouth, I was holding my breath and that was causing me to panic even more. Jana, my instructor, put both hands on my shoulders and forced me to look at her. She held my gaze and gestured for me to calm down and breathe … just breathe. When I realized I could fill my lungs (both in the image of me under water and me in the MRI machine), I started to relax again.

When you’re caught up in fear, it’s hard to think straight.Even when in a non-threatening situation like the MRI, the anxiety and tension you feel is real. Moreover, when it’s an intense fear or phobia, you can’t be talked out of it, no matter how logical the explanation is. I don’t know exactly why I decided to work towards confronting my fears, but I know that I had had enough. I didn’t want to be controlled about something that was in my mind. It is always sensible to be cautious and aware, but panicked and phobic … no, I didn’t want to be like that anymore.

The process of overcoming my fears was tedious, exhausting, and stressful. Despite making progress I was plagued with doubt and tension all the way. Nevertheless, I pushed forward. I kept going. I was willing myself to confront my fears … and in moments of panic, such as during the MRI, I realize the value in the exercise. Now when I’m faced with something difficult, challenging, scary, or intimidating, I can tell myself – It’s ok. Breathe. You’ve overcome worse.

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