“Gimme your money, lady!”
The man’s face is inches from mine, and I can see the adrenaline pumping behind his wild blue eyes. There’s a knife at my throat. “Now! I said now!” he yells, tightening his grip on my collar. “Where’s your wallet?”
Instinctively, I take a step backward and raise my palms. He steps forward. We’re in a terrifying tango.
The knife is dull, and likely made of hard plastic, but it still feels uncomfortable against my jugular. I try to remember what the instructor had just told me a few minutes ago about confronting fear, but these “pressure situations,” where we simulate an actual mugging, still get me frazzled. I’m at a local martial arts studio learning Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defense style of combat. I remind myself that I’m paying money to be terrified like this twice a week.
This is supposed to be empowering, but instead, I feel unsure and uncomfortable.
On the spectrum of fight-flight-freeze-fawn, I’ve always been a flight girl. No matter where I am or how calm I appear to those around me, I’m hyperconscious of every exit and of exactly how many seconds it will take me to reach them. They’re literal escape hatches for my anxiety, which can swell at the most unlikely and inopportune moments.
Years ago, when my anxiety issues came up in counseling, my therapist furrowed her brow and leaned forward in her seat. “Let’s sit with this for a moment,” she said. “Can you remember the first time you had that panicked feeling?”
“Easily,” I replied.
I was about five years old. My two older brothers and I were home alone for the evening. I was in my room playing with Barbie dolls when I heard a commotion—yelling, the friction of bodies in movement, and a loud crash. Slowly, I crept down the stairs to our basement, where I saw my brothers tussling in our rec room. They had a habit of playing rough, but this time, they weren’t playing. Their voices were loud and angry—and my oldest one had the younger one in a headlock, trying to control his swinging fists. The window blinds hung askew—collateral damage. I’d never seen two people get into a physical altercation before, and it wasn’t as neatly contained and controllable as it seemed on TV.
Their fight was loud and chaotic—far too much for my five-year-old brain to process. And my shock soon turned to terror when I realized my parents weren’t home to stop it. I ran upstairs to my parents’ room and threw myself on their bed, shutting my eyes tightly as I covered my head with a pillow to drown out the noise. I prayed with every ounce of strength in my tiny body that some greater force would make my brothers’ aggression stop. I stayed there until my parents returned home an hour later and surveyed the damage. Hearing their footsteps in the hallway, I finally loosened my grip on the pillow. But at the same time, a singular message tightened its grip on me, and it still plays in my head today: Jennifer, you cannot control your environment, and you are helpless.
After that night, I tried hard to keep anything that even remotely resembled chaos or violence—even the sight of it on television, or the undercurrent of it in conversation—out of my life. But constantly keeping my guard up made the coming years difficult. In school, I was often on edge—and I had few options for escaping my anxiety. My teachers wanted to know why I needed to leave their classroom yet again—hadn’t I just stepped out 10 minutes ago?
When my mom couldn’t drive me somewhere, or I couldn’t walk, I had no choice but to ride a bus—which meant I was trapped. Sometimes, I got lucky and the trip was quiet, but often, other kids piled into seats beside me and the general ruckus they made overwhelmed my nervous system. This, naturally, added to my anxiety. Eventually, it was hard for me to go any place where crowds gathered in confined spaces. While my peers were perfectly comfortable in movie theaters or arcades, I was the one, solitary girl who sat deep breathing in a corner, aching to go home.
From elementary school through high school, I continued feeling anxious unless I was tucked away somewhere calm and safe, like in my bedroom. I imagined that adulthood would be different: I wouldn’t be trapped in classrooms or buses where chaos could break out at any moment. When I’m older, I told myself, all this will be behind me.
But that didn’t happen. In my 20s, I became a homebody who rejected most invitations to go out to concerts, plays, or comedy clubs with quips like, “I’m not big into crowds.” When friends dragged me out, I needed alcohol to quell my anxiety. Something powerful and intractable seemed to have permanently imprinted itself on my brain: I’m a fragile person, prone to panic attacks, too weak for big social gatherings of any kind.
The worst part about being an adult with social anxiety is also, in a weird way, the best part. You can build your life around being socially anxious, and so long as no one comes along to expose you to new experiences, you can be fine—sometimes more than fine, in fact. As an adult, my life was—in my view—cozy. But meeting my extrovert husband through a mutual friend changed everything. Suddenly, I wanted to be with someone who wanted to be out among other people. On our second date, we stopped at a drug store to pick up a gag gift for the host of a party we were attending. In the five minutes we were there, my future husband struck up a casual conversation with at least three strangers. He greeted everyone who crossed his path with a smile and a hello, while I hung back, averting my gaze and trying not to engage with anyone.
“What are you? The mayor of this town?” I joked, genuinely astounded. Being with people filled his emotional tank. It was a part of him I grew to admire, while still peering out at him from a window in my own fortress of solitude. The discrepancy became particularly apparent after we had children: whereas he saw Saturdays as an opportunity to have fun in crowded spaces, I preferred to stay curled up on the couch with a book. After a few failed attempts to pull me out of my shell, he began ending his requests to go out with a statement that reflected his sense of defeated resignation: “And let me guess, you’d rather stay home.”
Eventually, when he began expressing his frustration at how limited our outings were, I realized I couldn’t hide in my fortress forever. I knew I wanted to be with him, which meant I’d have to challenge myself to get over my fears. You’re more than just a panic attack waiting to happen, I reassured myself. You can get out there and try things that scare you!
Last year, my husband decided to get weekly training in Krav Maga, saying he’d always wanted to do it. He’d studied other martial arts before and was thrilled to see a local studio had started offering classes twice a week. Soon after, he was joined by my eight-year-old daughter, who, having consumed way too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, started learning karate there. My first thought was, Violence and closed-in spaces? No thanks! I was happy for them to enjoy their ventures in martial arts, but I firmly desired to stay home.
In the evenings, they’d go off on their combat adventures while my younger daughter and I sat at home on the couch—comfy and safe. And then, one afternoon, I received a message from my husband. A scheduling conflict had come up. I’m stuck at work, he texted. Can you take her to karate tonight?
Sure thing, I texted back through gritted teeth.
The studio was a massive space, with high ceilings and wall-to-wall black padded mats. Punching bags stood on all sides of the room like henchmen lying in wait. The kids started class by pummeling them, and the heavy sacs barely shifted beneath their tiny fists. When other scheduling conflicts arose for my husband and I ended up taking my eight-year-old to karate, I’d sit in one of the dinky plastic chairs the studio had arranged for spectators, distracting myself with my phone and taking deep breaths. Watching the clock vigilantly as the kids practiced their stances and strikes, I hoped no one would talk to me. On several occasions, I ruminated about how out of place I must look in my chair while my daughter kicked and punched her imaginary attacker.
On one of these nights, as class began to wind down, I noticed the following class’s attendees filing in: twentysomethings, middle-aged folks, and older adults. It looked like a community college class has just walked in. As their training began and my daughter hung around to talk with a friend, my eyes lingered on the adults. The participants didn’t look particularly athletic as they jogged in place and struck the punching bags, but they were having fun, chatting and joking with one another like old friends. Well, that doesn’t look so bad, I thought just as one of the students gave a strong roundhouse kick to a punching bag. The slap of flesh on leather echoed throughout the room, snapping me back into my familiar anxious mindset. “Okay, champ,” I said to my daughter. “Let’s go.”
Over the next few months, whenever I begrudgingly took my daughter to her karate class, I began considering a new possibility. Watching the children file out and the adults file in, I wondered what it’d be like to step onto the padded mat. One night, I brought actor Will Smith’s memoir with me to pass the time and happened upon a chapter in which he reflects that being good at something allows you to become a “peaceful nucleus” in even the most chaotic systems. That, he wrote, is why most great fighters are actually peaceful people. The chapter closed with a quote from Bruce Lee: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”
A light bulb went off. I looked around the studio, at my daughter learning discipline in something I considered violent. Here I am, so scared of anything where I’m not in full control. Which one of us is growing? I wondered.
I couldn’t ignore my inner struggle: I was still that little girl with the pillow over her head, longing for safety and waiting for her parents to come home and rescue her. But at the same time, I knew—as my therapist had once told me—that “the beauty of growing older is you’re not a child anymore.” Suddenly, I realized that I could be the safety and comfort I needed. If I dove into my fears, rather than allowing them to close me off from the world, it could be a path toward freedom. The only way to enjoy the peace of the garden, I realized, was to allow myself to be a warrior inside of it.
I placed my book on a plastic chair and strode toward the woman at the studio front desk. “Hi,” I said nervously. “I’d like to take the Krav Maga class.”
A few days later, I was on the mat, ready to start but unsure of how I should begin. I saw other students hitting the bags to warm up, so I walked up to an open bag and did the same. After a moment, the instructor came up behind me. “Try this,” she said, taking my hand and shaping it into a strong, tight fist. I gave it another shot, twisting my body, extending my arm, and striking the bag as hard as I could. It vibrated, and I felt a wave of power move from my fist all the way up my arm to my shoulder. It felt good. I felt good. I took a breath and followed with a jab from my right hand. Who knew punching something could be so energizing? I thought. Those few minutes were totally absent of worry. My body and mind had only one task: hitting a giant leather bag full of sand—and putting all my energy behind it.
“Remember your palm strikes!” the instructor yelled out to us. Then, she demonstrated how to effectively land the blow with an open hand. I can do this, I thought, letting the corners of my mouth curl into a small smile. Maybe I’ve always had this in me.
Flash forward two weeks, and I’m face to face with the blue-eyed man and his plastic knife. “I said gimme your money, now!” he shouts. I tuck my head into my hunched shoulders sheepishly and put my hands up in surrender. But then, the muscle memory starts to kick in. I grab his hand with the knife and twist it back, striking my other hand into his elbow. Dropping my center of gravity, I’ve now got his arm pinned to my chest. I thrust my knee forward, just inches from his groin, and move to headbutt him, stopping just short of his jaw. I push away and dart backwards to put space between us.
“Great job,” the instructor calls out. “I like those knee strikes!”
I take a deep breath and allow myself to feel proud, if only for a moment, before refocusing my attention on the instructor, who yells “Okay, let’s do it again!”
This time, I’m ready.
It’s been six and a half months since I started Krav Maga. The other night, our instructor told me I’d be a welcome addition to the advanced class—alongside my husband. That was a confidence boost I didn’t know I needed, and I smiled, feeling a sense of awe at how far I’d come.
In the rest of my life, I still favor my fortress of solitude. New places and large crowds are uncomfortable, and perhaps always will be. Now, however, I know I have choices—and I know my anxiety and my bravery can sit side by side. The decision to give myself the tools of a warrior, rather than rely on avoidance, turns out to be empowering after all.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
Jennifer Scott, PhD, is the executive digital editor for Psychotherapy Networker, where she curates the online experience for readers who enjoy our website and social media platforms. She holds a Doctorate in Communication, as well as Master degrees in Journalism and Education, and had the distinct privilege of teaching various writing and multimedia courses at the graduate and undergraduate university levels. She most recently worked as the editorial director at The Gottman Institute. Find her on Instagram at jscott_psychnetworker. Her website is www.jenniferelizabethconcepts.com.