A Lioness and a Gazelle: my relationship with anxiety

Emma Ryan
by Emma Ryan
Published: Wednesday, 15 May, 2024

A brief note before the blog begins: This is part of my story from the last few years.

It is not dramatic or unique. In fact, based on conversations I’ve had with many friends, colleagues and women I coach, it is a familiar story. I share it for that reason and to share some resources. Maybe you’ll recognise something of yourself in here. And in that recognition, maybe something happens for both of us.

Anxiety crept up on me. Like a lioness on the savannah. Stress on my nervous system was the precursor. I didn’t feel stressed particularly at the time but knew I was in crisis mode. My dear dad was at the end of his life in December 2019. Then came the pandemic in March 2020, a few months into my very new grief. Those months were emotional, painful, stressful and in many ways beautiful. What I didn’t realise at the time was the toll it took on me to stay in crisis mode over that sustained period. When things started to settle a little in 2021 the stress secretly turned into anxiety.

Stress: A state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation (World Health Organisation).

Anxiety: Experiencing excessive fear or worry about a specific situation (for example, a panic attack or social situation) or, in the case of generalized anxiety disorder, about a broad range of everyday situations (World Health Organisation).

I had a new very physical worry, it was in my chest, my mind would go blank, and I would unconsciously count my children (1, 2, 3…) every few minutes when we were out to make sure they were safe. Especially on the beach. My mind would often be quietly playing the worst-case scenario. I didn’t eat much. I had a constant lump in my throat. I couldn’t find the extroverted me anymore as I was finding it exhausting to be social. I was a gazelle on the savannah who could have been safely munching grass, but I was in a constant state of alert and very aware of my lioness.

I carried on working. I could manage small talk. I still laughed with my children. Many people wouldn’t have realised much had changed but on the inside, I felt quite unrecognisable. I mention this for two reasons; to acknowledge my anxiety didn’t become absolutely debilitating, like it can for many; and anxiety can be unseen, which I think can be problematic.

Three years on, the lioness has retreated, and I know her better. I have a new perspective and some tools that for the first time I’m writing down in case they are useful for you. Or for others around you. They are not meant as advice. They are simply a selection of things I’m grateful to have learnt from my lioness (I didn’t think I’d be saying that 3 years ago).

  1. Making the beast beautiful

I didn’t like being a stressy gazelle on the savannah. It jarred with the outgoing, adventurous, and joyous narrative I had about who I am in the world. After a while of giving myself a hard time, I surrendered. I started seeing anxiety as a helpful alarm. I hadn’t listened to the subtler signs so now it was on foghorn setting shouting ‘something’s not right here, please pay attention’. The book, First We Make the Beast Beautiful, by Sarah Wilson  really helped me with that.

  1. Compassionate listening

A lot changed for me when I greeted anxiety with love and compassion. I learnt how to talk to that part of myself with kindness “oh hello. You’re here. It’s understandable you are. It’s been a lot”. Once I tuned in to my anxiety, I heard what my nervous system was asking for, rest, quiet and safety. That was hard to acknowledge at first, I wanted to just get on with things. But again, once I surrendered, I could understand. Counseling and Headspace helped me do that.

  1. Rest as action

I started to understand rest as a balm for my nervous system. I read books about resting, I listened to podcasts about resting. I resonated with the idea of rest as resistance against the structural inequalities and systems that we live in. Then, finally, I rested. I went to bed early. 19.30 early. I had naps on the weekend. I didn’t go to friends’ birthday parties. Sometimes it felt unproductive and like failure. Over time I learnt to enjoy it and to see it as a radical act of self-love. Now I move more slowly. Yoga Nidras particularly helped me rest.

  1. Breathe

‘My breath is my anchor; my anchor is my breath’. After my dad died, I couldn’t take a deep breath, it stopped halfway down into my lungs. Apparently, that’s very common in grief but I didn’t know that at the time and it fed my lioness. Daily practice with Yoga with Adriene helped me take my first deep belly breath in months and I really did feel my roots growing down into the ground. When I feel the edges of anxiety these days, I breath.

  1. Being a limpet

I had a rock. I was a limpet clinging on through the storm and it was all I could do with my energy. Cling. There were times that felt weak and vulnerable. Mostly it felt safe. My rock could only be my rock because I told him honestly what was going on. Not easy sharing dark horrible thoughts with somebody. But necessary to get support. My rock was my partner, but I believe other rocks are available.

  1. Watching the trees

Finally, and I’m finding it a little annoying I’m at number 6 and not a lovely impactful number 5, but finally, I sank into nature a little more deeply. I have spent hours and hours watching a hazel and apple tree in the last few years. Bare branches to catkins and blossom to luminous green brand-new leaves to nuts and apples back to bare branches. The circle of life as my 5-year-old sings. Everything comes and everything goes. Not new. In fact, billions of years old. But I began to feel it differently. I was part of the cycle. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Red School helped me with that.

  1. Making room for new growth

Ok, there’s a number 7. In 2021, a very lovely and wise friend observed that my anxiety was the till ploughing my field. It was dirty and hard work, but the land was being prepared for new growth. I cried a little when she said that and ‘knew’ it to be true but didn’t really know how. And now I have this new perspective and can see that those anxious years have revealed a new integrity for me. In me. I’m more aware of all my parts, not just the ones that society deem to be ok. The Way of Integrity by Marth Beck is helping me with that. I’m also learning that my heart is often wiser than my head and that I can bring all of this to my work. To my family. To my community. To you.

Now I know my lioness is part of me, not outside of me. When I feel her near, I try to meet her with the stillness of a gazelle listening, not leaping. She helps me to pay attention to my balance, to my health, to the things and people that are important to me. I wonder how you meet your lioness. If indeed you have one?


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