Kickboxing champion Tiffany Van Soest is a total badass in the ring and the cage. With two GLORY kickboxing world championships and five Muay Thai World Champion wins under her belt, the 28-year-old has rightfully earned the nickname "Time Bomb" for her uncanny ability to win by a last-minute knockout. (Don't leave all the fighting to Tiffany. Here's why you should give MMA a try yourself.)
Still, Van Soest has spent her whole life struggling with social anxiety and body-image issues—something she's opening up about for the first time.
"I was a really shy kid," Van Soest tells Shape. "I always thought it was something I'd outgrow but never did. Social situations have continued to be a source of anxiety for me, but I didn't even realize I was struggling with 'social anxiety' specifically until people started talking about mental health more openly." (Here's how to know if you could benefit from therapy.)
It's no secret that for decades (well, centuries, really), mental health issues have been stigmatized. "Mental health issues are often associated with being crazy and insane," Van Soest says. "But these issues have to do with chemical imbalances in your brain, just like other imbalances in your body that can cause you to feel sick. If people talked about this stuff more openly, it could help them figure out what's actually wrong with them. Who knows? What they're feeling might have a name. In my case, it was social anxiety."
Until four years ago, Van Soest had no idea that the crippling and debilitating feelings she had when she was surrounded by a large crowd or left alone talking to strangers were actually classic signs of social anxiety. "My heart would start beating out of my chest, and I'd find it difficult to keep up a conversation—often stuttering and slurring my words and not knowing what to do with my hands. On top of that I felt claustrophobic, wanting desperately to get out of the situation and be alone again," Van Soest says.
It wasn't until she started voicing these feelings that she was able to get the help that she needed. "Ever since being officially diagnosed, I've learned how to cope with it so much better," she says. (Related: How to Deal With Social Anxiety Without Alcohol)
Van Soest has created a series of tricks that help her get through triggering social situations. "I've realized that I won't be able to avoid every situation that fuels my anxiety, so I've come up with my own ways to deal with it: focusing on my breathing during conversations with strangers or taking a break and stepping outside and re-centering myself," she says. "Acknowledging that there's a problem is so much better than trying to hide or deny it."
Previously, Van Soest used martial arts as a way for her to cope. It gave her an excuse to escape into her own world. "It helps me not think about my anxiety while providing an outlet for it," she says. "When I'm training or fighting, I'm in the zone. But the social settings before and after are still powerful triggers I need to work through every time." (If you're also using workouts as your "therapy," you need to read this.)
More recently, she's gotten into spoken word, a form of poetry intended for performance. "I've always been into poetry, hip-hop, rap, and that whole scene," Van Soest says. "I kept journals as a kid where I'd write rhymes, but just for my own eyes."
But she never really gave it a shot herself until she went to an influencer summit in Austin last September.
"One of the keynote speakers was a lyricist who performed and it really ignited something in me, so I decided to take my writing more seriously and look into performing myself," she says. "It became my method of expression, where I finally found a way to say what I was feeling. It's therapeutic. Anytime I'm feeling any kind of way, I can just take pen to paper and write a few lines or recite rhythms out loud, sitting in my car, in ways that I feel them."
So far, Van Soest has done a handful of open mic nights locally. "Right before I'm about to perform my heart starts racing and I'm nervous and anxious just like before a fight," she says. "But the second I start reciting, it all goes away and I'm able to let go of everything bottled up inside of me, just like when I'm in a cage or ring. It feels so organic and pure."
Van Soest's spoken word is focused predominantly on her anxiety and how vulnerable she feels even though she's viewed as being invincible. But body image is another topic she often touches upon, sharing how her athletic physique has always been a subject of discussion.
"I never struggled with body image until I was in my teens and people started making comments about my thighs," Van Soest says. "People started pointing out how they were 'too muscular,' which gave me all sorts of self-esteem issues." (Related: The UFC Added a New Weight Class for Women. Here's Why It's Important)
"I no longer put so much weight into what other people say about me and my body," Van Soest says. "I focus on being grateful to live in a generation where strong is seen as beautiful and little girls are growing up knowing their bodies were created equal, no matter their shape, size, or color."
Watch Tiffany perform an emotional piece of spoken word in the video below.