Posted by: silverliningsblog | May 21, 2014

Taming the tiger within: How to move through fear and anxiety

Your heartbeat is racing. Blood is pounding in your ears. Your breathing is rapid and shallow. Your entire body is tense, ready to spring into action.

Clouds over Moraine Lake

Anxiety moves in like clouds in a storm…

This “fight or flight” reaction is useful if you are facing a dangerous situation, like a car swerving towards you. And it was particularly helpful back in the day when we could be attacked by a tiger at a moment’s notice. The influx of adrenaline into our bodies heightened our senses and prepared us to either fight the wild beast or flee the scene as quickly as possible (or to become still so as not to be seen/eaten).

Fear is a natural physical and psychological response to things we are afraid may harm us. It is a healthy, normal, instinctive response that comes from the reptilian part of our brain. It allows us to become very focused in the present moment, and to take the required action (fighting, fleeing, or freezing).

When fear becomes anxiety

Unfortunately, this natural biological response is not quite as useful in modern times, when we rarely have to deal with swerving cars and even more rarely have to confront tigers. It can even become damaging if it is triggered too often, causing a constant hum of underlying stress and tension in our body that eats away at both our physical and mental well-being. This constant state of tension, or worry about the outcome of future events, is called anxiety.

Fear: a short-term rush of nervous energy in response to a real-life perceived threat.

Anxiety: a longer-term state of nervousness and worry about something unlikely to happen.

A certain amount of stress can help jolt us into action. But when we are faced with too much anxiety, it can stop us from doing what we most need (and want) to do.

I have experienced the downside of anxiety many times, both in my own life and my son’s. Doing anything new requires going through a period where you feel unsure of yourself. This is particularly hard for perfectionists, like my son and I. It tends to take us a while to get past our anxiety and actually just begin.

Taking off the training wheels

“To succeed, you have to be willing to do something and not be good at it for a while. You may have to look bad before you can look really good!” —Barbara De Angelis

Keagan biking 2.5 years old

Keagan’s first bike at 2.5 years

Last fall, I was trying to convince my son to ride his bike without training wheels. He is a very athletic boy and loved riding his bike…with the training wheels on. But as soon as I took them off, he refused to get on his bike all summer…even though his bike was brand new, and he was seven (older than when most kids begin riding their bikes).

Because he was too afraid to fall, he didn’t even want to try.

Maybe you can relate to this feeling…of how hard it is to try something new when there is no guarantee of success, you’ll probably be wobbly at first, and there is a risk of falling on your face.

I know I can. It seems my entire life has involved confronting one fear after another…nursing homes, snakes, heights, cemeteries, dead bodies, moving thousands of kilometres from home, driving in big cities, becoming widowed, becoming divorced, becoming self-employed, dating in mid-life, travelling alone (with a broken wrist), publishing a book, getting on stage to speak, watching a loved one die, watching a loved one gradually disappear.

Each time, I managed to move through my fear and do what I needed to do. But each time, it was a struggle to begin, to get past the tumbleweed of worries in my mind. What if I screw up? What if I get hurt? What if no one likes what I have to say? What if no one likes me??

More recently, I had to overcome a host of anxieties and insecurities as I set out to launch my coaching and speaking business. The idea of putting myself out there by publishing a book and speaking on stage caused me to wake up with panic attacks every morning for nearly six months. I feared rejection and failure so much that I had to spend an hour each day talking myself into what I needed to do to move forward.

It’s much easier to stay inside our comfort zones, continuing on with what we are already good at. This can even give us a false sense of confidence. The problem with this approach is that we don’t grow unless we stretch ourselves…unless we step into that scary place outside our comfort zone.

As Barbara De Angelis says in Confidence, confidence doesn’t come from being good at something (because then we’re only confident while we’re doing that particular activity). True confidence comes from knowing we can do whatever we set out to do…that step by unsteady step, we’ll figure it out.

After all, you can’t learn to ride a bike if you don’t take off your training wheels.

I am fond of my training wheels, or “safety nets” as I like to call them. Even though I hadn’t worked for the federal government for seven years, I was technically on a leave of absence and still had the option of returning. So it was hard to formally resign last spring, giving up that safety net, living off my savings while I built my new business, and trusting that things would work out with my new career. And if they didn’t, I had to trust that I would figure something else out, relying on myself instead of the false sense of security that came from a regular government paycheque.

The origins of anxiety

It can be even more challenging to overcome your fear and step outside your comfort zone if you have had past experiences that reinforce that fear. You may feel a great deal of stress, remembering what “went wrong” the last time.

In his book Evolving Self-Confidence: How to Become Free from Anxiety Disorders and Depression, Terry Dixon says that short-term fear often develops into long-term anxiety when people suffer from negative or traumatic childhood and life experiences. For example, many people with anxiety grew up in homes where there was a great deal of criticism, conflict, neglect, or abuse. This caused them to feel they were “bad” or “not good enough.”

These same people also often go through a traumatic event later in life, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. This reinforces the feeling that they have no control over what happens to them, causing them to give up (depression) or feel constantly on guard for fear of what might go wrong next (anxiety). And when you feel constantly on guard for what might go wrong, it makes it much more challenging to risk taking off your training wheels.

Incidentally, there is nothing “wrong” with people who suffer from anxiety. In fact, studies show that most people with anxiety are more intelligent than the actual population, and often highly creative (most artists have higher-than-average levels of anxiety). And they are not weak or cowardly. In fact, it takes far more strength and courage to overcome a wide variety of fears than it does for someone who is more “fearless”.

I have heard several friends describe how “brave” their kids are, because they just jump in the pool without coaxing, or take off skating without fear, or ride their bikes early. And while I would agree that their kids perhaps “fear less,” I don’t agree they are more “brave.” No, I’ve watched how scared my son is to try something new, and I know from my own experience how difficult it is to push through that fear. To me, the people who feel tremendous fear and do it anyway are those who are truly “brave.”

Overcoming anxiety

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” —Nelson Mandela

Thankfully, if you (or your child) struggle with fear and anxiety, there are ways to deal with it so that it doesn’t stop you from trying new things and enjoying your life. You can gradually create new experiences that reinforce the confident feeling you want to have.

But first, it helps to know what doesn’t tend to work:

Over-analyzing what makes you afraid. In fact, it will generally make things worse, causing you to focus on what you fear, make it bigger in your head, and feel paralyzed.

Fighting how you feel. The more you resist what you don’t want to feel, the more it builds and the more tension you create in your body, amplifying your physical feelings of anxiety.

Beating yourself up for being afraid. (Or hanging out with people who make you feel bad about it.) Anxiety is actually caused by an underlying belief that something is “wrong” with you or that something will go wrong, so focusing on fears of failure will only make it harder to overcome your anxiety.

Instead, try this seven-step approach:

1. Acknowledge your feelings. It helps to sit with your feelings and just feel them for a short while. Name their cause, and where you feel them in your body. (“I am feeling anxious because I am afraid of water. I fell in a pool when I was a young child and now I feel scared when I’m near water. My neck is very tense and my heart is racing.”)

2. Ask if there is any immediate danger. If you are in danger, or keeping yourself in a situation that makes you unhappy, take action to change the situation. But if the perceived threat is only in your imagination (in the future), affirm that the past is in the past and that you are safe now. Realize you are older now, have more resources at your disposal, and can regain control. (“It makes sense that I feel this way because of what happened in the past. But I know I’m really not in danger right now—nothing bad is happening. I am safe. I want to feel better, and I know I am capable of overcoming these feelings. I can do this.”)

3. Release tension in your body. The two best methods for releasing tension quickly are exercise and breathing. If I am really anxious, I find it best to move the energy through my body by either walking or running (ideally in nature). I follow this with breathing and meditation. Here is a breathing technique that is good for releasing anxiety: Take 10 quick breaths in and out through your mouth. Then take 3 to 7 long, slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This will slow your heartrate down, increase oxygen flow, and make it easier to refocus.

4. Retrain your brain. if you are anxious, your tendency is to focus on what may go wrong. To shift this, affirm and visualize what you want to have happen actually happening, and focus on how great you will feel when it does. For major fears and phobias, you can learn to accept the stimulus you fear as safe by gradually exposing yourself to it in a safe setting with supportive people. (For example, get in a bathing suit and wade slowly into the shallow end of a pool or knee-deep in the ocean, holding someone’s hand or wearing a life jacket for confidence if needed. Or to practice public speaking, start by speaking to a small group of friends in your home.)

5. Start small and build up. As you take each new step in moving through your fear, you will gain confidence for taking the next step. If you become overwhelmed, back off, distract yourself, relax your body, break it into a smaller step, and try again.

6. Keep going! Once you’ve had success, reinforce it by writing about it, telling others about it, and taking it just a bit further the next time.

7. Reward yourself. Once you’ve reached your goal, give yourself a reward. (Even better if the reward is related to your goal, like a new bathing suit or trip to a water park for overcoming a fear of water.)

Here are some other ideas that may help you build your confidence, so you can achieve your goals:

Make a list of your successes. List all the times you felt afraid and overcame it, and other achievements you are proud of. Re-read this list any time you feel uncertain about your abilities.

Keagan riding bike at 7 years old

Keagan proudly riding his bike at 7 years

Visualize yourself having success. Remember doing something you’ve already succeeded at. Visualize it fully: the sounds, the sights, how you felt. Then visualize yourself having success (and loving) this new activity.

Write a positive affirmation. Place it somewhere you can see it every day. It helps to include why you want to do this in the first place. (“I am loving swimming in the lake! I feel so free. I love being able to swim with my kids and showing them they can overcome fear too.”)

Get more sleep. Anxiety is magnified when we are sleep deprived. We feel stronger, happier, and better able to cope when we are well rested. Make sleep a priority every night.

Find support. Find people to hold you accountable, cheer you on, and remind you that you can do this.

I have used all of these tools myself, and over time, they have helped me to move through my fears and past my anxiety so I can do anything I want to do.

Keagan with bike


As for my son, I reminded him of all the times he was afraid but learned to do it (learning French, swimming, skating, skiing). I told him how I felt afraid too when I started learning how to drive, but that with practice, everything turned out fine. Then I got him to visualize how awesomely cool he’d be and free he’d feel once he was biking on his own.

Then, late last fall, I finally convinced Keagan to try riding his bike without training wheels. I promised I would run beside him until he told me I could let go. It really only took one time down the street…and then he was off. Now, there is no stopping him. He loves to do “tricks”: jumping over ramps, riding with his feet on the handle bars, slamming on his brakes so he skids out. His fear is a distant memory, and he is free of the anxiety that once held him back.

The next time he sets out to do something new and faces his inner tiger, I hope he will remember how he has already tamed it before. And I will do the same.

“Confronted with a fearful situation, look it squarely in the face, and move on. It is not the number of times we fall down that counts; it is the number of times we get up. Courage means knowing we are born with an inner power that cannot be denied. Are you ready? Live boldly, courageously and fearlessly.” —Ariana Huffington

Other resources

You also may like:

Melody Fletcher – How to Release Anxiety

Terry Dixon – Evolving Self-Confidence: How to Become Free from Anxiety Disorders and Depression – Aromatherapy Can Help Reduce Anxiety

Please share your thoughts!

What do you do to overcome your fear and anxiety? Please share your thoughts and ideas below! And if you found this post helpful, please share with others.Thanks!


  1. […] Taming the tiger within: How to move through fear and anxiety […]

  2. […] Taming the tiger within: How to move through fear and anxiety […]

  3. […] from childhood). I’ve been taking it one step at a time, using the techniques I outline in Taming the tiger within: How to move through fear and anxiety. And gradually the fear has […]

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