That First Step

By Stephenie Champlin, MSW, ACSW

Have you ever been somewhere and your pulse began to race and your heart was pounding and you started to sweat and the room seemed to get smaller and you couldn’t breathe and you couldn’t find the way out? 

I’ve been there.  In fact, just thinking about it gets me a bit riled up and my foot twitching.  I used to suffer terribly from anxiety and, on the very rare occasion, I can still feel my pulse quicken.  But I have learned (over time) tools that help me control anxiety and soothe myself enough to get through most situations without those awful feelings I used to have.

When I first moved to Southern California in my early 20s, it was a complete culture shock from Northern California—everything seemed so much faster and the people seemed much more cut-throat.  It surprised me that everyone in Southern California seemed to be all about themselves and not concerned with being kind to others.  It got to the point where I would not even leave my apartment unless I had to go to work/school or I was with my roommate, and if I was driving, I would never take the freeway. On my way home from work, if I needed groceries, I would talk myself out of whatever it was I thought I needed and decide to order pizza from home instead.  On my way home from school, I would take surface streets all the way from Long Beach to Orange.  At school, I would go to two places: class and my car.  I would eat lunch, take naps, and do homework in my car.  A part of me felt very odd and out of place.  I was too old to mix with the 18-19 year old college freshmen and too young to fit with the older adult crowd. So, I kept to myself.

People were scary.  Rationally, I knew that no one was going to hurt or bother me, but, irrationally, I was scared to death to be out there alone.  Eventually, I started to meet people who felt safe and were kinder than the general groups I had previously encountered.  I began to talk more and engage people.  I would challenge myself by taking a new street every couple of days to learn the area better, and I would spend more time out of my car, going to different places on campus and around the town of Orange.  

Utilizing a technique called systematic desensitization, I slowly began exposing myself to more and more of what frightened me, noticing where my level of anxiety was, giving it a number between zero and ten (ten being the worst I could imagine).  I would practice calming myself down in different ways.  As my confidence grew, I was able to do more.

A couple years after, I became bold enough to sign up for a conference at the Long Beach Convention Center.  I was to meet a colleague there.  But, when I arrived at the convention center, I could not find her and my cell phone had no reception.  There seemed to be thousands of people everywhere, crowding around; I panicked.  I could not find a way out; I could not even find a window.  I got teary-eyed, which added to my anxiety (and embarrassment). 

I found a bank of payphones and called a friend.  She reminded me to breathe deeply, which calmed me down.  She also helped me question my fear: what was I afraid would happen?  What was my greatest fear?  With my friend reminding me of what I needed to do, I was able to collect myself so I could attend the rest of the day at the conference.  In the end, it felt good to know I could not only go to places outside my car but that I could go to HUGE, and previously terrifying, places outside my car! 

Anxiety does not go away overnight.  The process of getting through anxiety takes time and effort.  It also often takes help in the form of a friend or a professional, and sometimes even (short- or long-term) medication.  If you, or someone you know, are suffering from some of the symptoms discussed above, please ask for help.  And while I realize that asking for help from anyone can be scary, being willing to reach out is a sign of great strength and courage. It is the first little step in your journey of overcoming anxiety and feeling better.


Stephenie Champlin is an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW) with her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from California State University, Long Beach and a BA in Psychology and Sociology from Chapman University. She is a Certified EMDR Therapist, is working toward her certification in Gottman Couples Therapy, and is trained in Voice Dialogue work.

If you need help overcoming anxiety, call Stephenie to make an appointment. Contact: 714-432-9857 ext. 4 or via email at