Even though Catherine grew up splashing around in shallow lakes and even water-skiing, she never really knew how to swim.
But when a group of friends invited her on a white-water-rafting trip on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania, she thought she’d give it a try. After all, she’d always managed just fine with a life jacket. Then her raft hit a huge rock. Catherine was tossed into the rough water and immediately pulled under by an eddy.
As it turned out, her life jacket wasn’t fastened properly. Instead of keeping her afloat, it pressed against her eyes and mouth. She found herself gasping for air. “I remember thinking, I haven’t breathed in a really long time. This isn’t good,” says Catherine, who was 29 at the time.
Fortunately, a passing kayaker rescued her. “But I was completely traumatized,” she says. “I refused to get back into the water with my friends and ended up hiking five miles to our camp.” After that, Catherine had a deep fear of the water—any water.
Finally, her husband, Alan, who grew up boating, made her a deal. “He said, ‘If you take swimming lessons, I’ll take dance lessons,’” she says. “I’ve been wanting him to dance for years.” So she signed up for a session with Beth Davis, a swim coach. Just wading into the indoor pool for her first private lesson started Catherine’s heart pounding. “I was full of terror,” she says. “When water went up my nose, I started coughing and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was having flashbacks to the river.” Nevertheless, Catherine came back once a week for three months. She and Beth talked a lot during those sessions. “During one class, we didn’t even get in the water,” Catherine says. “Beth explained that few people who set a massive goal ever meet it.
She told me, ‘Yard by yard is hard, but inch by inch is a cinch.’ That philosophy of taking small steps really resonated with me.” Maybe that’s because Beth was such a good role model for overcoming fear. An avid rock climber, she’d recently fallen 20 feet and endured a harrowing stay in the hospital. Still, she resumed climbing. “I could see the scars from her surgery,” Catherine says. “When I felt scared in the pool, I’d look over at Beth. I’d think about what she’d overcome, and I’d ask myself, ‘What am I so scared of?’” After two years, Catherine says, she felt comfortable swimming in the deep end. And after three, she could swim a whole lap there. These days she swims three mornings a week, sometimes with Alan, who still hasn’t signed up for those dance lessons! “But we have an amazing relationship,” she says. “Alan encourages and supports me, and I guess now we dance when we swim together.”
Many people are petrified to speak in public. Jackie used to be scared to speak to anyone.
“I couldn’t talk on the phone or say hello to a co-worker,” she says. “If a waiter remembered my order when I went back to a restaurant, I was mortified.” Jackie wasn’t an introvert, and she wasn’t shy, exactly. She had social anxiety disorder, a paralyzing fear of being judged and embarrassed in almost any social situation. She traces her anxiety to her childhood, when her family moved frequently because of her father’s job. By the time she was 9 years old, she’d gone to seven different schools.
After one move, when she was in fourth grade, she had particular trouble making new friends. One day when she went out of home to buy a best rated vacuum since her house had many steps but she can not even talked to the customer service. From there, her fears snowballed to the point where she even avoided making eye contact with classmates. “I spent recess walking the outskirts of the playground by myself,” she says. Through college, marriage and motherhood, her anxiety remained. Then, in 2008, when Jackie turned 40, she went to a meeting she’d read about for shy people in her area. It was the first place she heard the term social anxiety. After she googled its symptoms, she had an epiphany: “The way I was feeling wasn’t because of my personality,” she says. “I had a real disorder that could be fixed.” Armed with her new knowledge, she signed up for weekly cognitive behavioral group therapy, led by a psychologist who used exercises to help Jackie and a dozen others with social anxiety disorder.
During one such exercise, Jackie was asked to make small talk for several minutes with the person nearest her, then switch to a new person until she’d chatted up everyone in the room. The only thing that got her through the excruciating exercise was “knowing that everyone else was just as anxious as me,” she says. Still, Jackie froze when it came time for a bigger assignment: attending a pool party at a group member’s home. A few days before, Jackie’s stomach was already in knots.
She called the group leader, who pointed out that she was getting caught up in her usual pattern of negative thoughts. He suggested she practice positive “coping statements” such as “When this is over, I’ll be happy that I went.” “I repeated them in my head, and they helped,” she says. “I was able not only to go to the party but also to feel glad I’d gone.” At one point during her therapy, she and her husband went out to dinner—and she found herself actually joking with the server. Learning to relax and think more positively still helps Jackie conquer her fears every day. “Today I can hang out and talk to people—even strangers—just like everybody else,” she says proudly. “A few years ago, I never would have dreamed that was possible.”
When Lovelyn was 6 years old and on the way to visit family during a heavy rainstorm, she witnessed a horrific crash on a twisting Pennsylvania road.
“I heard a loud bang,” she recalls, “and when I turned to look out the window, I saw two people flying out of a car. The man spun like a break-dancer.” The experience didn’t stop Lovelyn from riding as a passenger, but she avoided driving at all costs. “My parents had to force me to get my license,” she says. “When my mom let me buy her junky Chevette from her for $300, I was more excited to decorate it than to drive it.”
Throughout college, Lovelyn’s Chevette mostly sat untouched in the parking lot. After graduation, when she absolutely had to drive to various jobs, she would, but it felt like torture. She avoided busy roads and making left- hand turns because she’d have to drive across oncoming traffic. She worried about cars rear-ending her. Once she married, she relied on her husband, Patrick, to transport her places. “If I was going somewhere new, I’d have him drive me there first so I could see all the turns or roads to avoid,” she says.
“Then I broke out in a sweat and white-knuckled the steering wheel.” When she and Patrick, who is British, moved to a town just outside London in 2008, she was thrilled—the extensive public transportation in the United Kingdom meant she’d almost never have to drive. But when they moved back to Florida in 2012, her old fears returned and were even more intense. “The first time I got back behind the wheel, my neck and shoulders tensed up and I began sweating,” she says. “I ended up going to an unfamiliar supermarket simply because it was closer and didn’t involve a scary left turn. They didn’t havewhat I needed, but I just came home anyway.” In 2013, Lovelyn, a voracious reader, came across Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, a self-help book. Its premise—that meditation can lead to lasting changes—intrigued her. “In the past, I’d been willing myself to change, but it hadn’t worked,” she says. “Meditation seemed like it might be the answer.”
After finishing the book, she began watching instructional videos that meditation teachers uploaded to YouTube. The first time she tried to follow along with a video, it didn’t go well. “I desperately tried to relax,” she remembers. “Instead, I ended up feeling likeI couldn’t breathe.” But instead of giving up, she kept trying to meditate. Then one day it dawned on her: “There was no mystical secret,” she says. “All I had to do was sit quietly and focus on my breathing. Once I did that, something clicked.” Meditation calmed her—to the point where she felt she could tackle her fear of driving. “Did my heart still race? Did I still sweat like a pig? Yes!” she says. “But I forced myself to drive anyway. Each time I did, I became a little less anxious.” Lovelyn still feels a clutch of terror every now and then when she is driving alone. “But now,” she says, “I have that tool of mindfulness in my pocket and can pull it out at any time.”