I had always been terrified to cut my long hair. What would happen if I did the big chop?

For as long as I can remember, I always had long, wavy hair. As I got older, so many things began to change: I moved out at 16, went to college, and grappled with what to do as my career. Yet throughout all that, my hair was the one thing I could always control (more on that later).

I dyed it the darkest shade of brown I could find, then decided to give it an ombre look after realizing that dark hair makes me look chronically tired. But no matter what I did to the color, I always kept it long and layered.

Long hair became such a defining trait that one time I was sitting in a hairdresser’s chair, joking that one day I’d cut it, and she responded, “I doubt that.”

She wasn’t wrong, though.

The truth is, I had always been terrified to cut my long hair. I knew what it looked like curly or straight, when I’d anxiously braid it, and when I’d throw it up in a ponytail. I felt like it reflected my personality, someone who’s feminine and fun, and allowed people to better understand who I was at first glance. Truth be told, I was worried that all might change if my hair did.

It was also something that remained a constant in my life. It didn’t matter how distressed I was or if everything was up in the air: I could still look in the mirror and see a girl with the same long hair as always looking back. This comforted me.

My long hair was predictable and safe. And in my mind, it didn’t make sense to change something that made me feel so comfortable.

Then I spent a year far outside my comfort zone traveling solo around Australia and its surrounding areas. When I returned home, I felt a confidence and self-assurance I hadn’t possessed before.

At the same time, I was about to move into an apartment in New York City and was still trying to regain control over my life after a breakup that was down to living too far apart. All I could think about was how much I didn’t want to settle back into my old life. I needed a way to mark this new chapter while celebrating the person I had become.

It’s no surprise I felt this pull toward making such a drastic change to my appearance. In fact, large amounts of stress and change have been linked to a desire to alter your appearance.

In a study of 128 people — 73 women and 55 men — participants were asked to share major stressful life events that had occurred in the past two years. They were then asked to share any changes in appearance they had made during those two years. The results showed a strong relationship between experiencing stressful life events and making changes to one’s appearance.

So, one day, as I was sitting in traffic on my way to my hair appointment, I decided I was officially going to make the big chop.

I had gone back and forth on the idea for weeks because, regardless of my self-assurance, it still felt so drastic to cut off something that felt so integrally me.

But in this moment, I thought, “Screw it. Why not?”

Once at the salon, I hastily looked up inspirational pictures on my phone in the waiting area to show the hairdresser what I wanted. My long hair made me feel beautiful, and I didn’t want to lose that feeling in my new style.

In the end, I told her to cut my hair just above my shoulders with long layers mixed in. I swear I stopped breathing when I heard the scissors chop off the first section of hair. But I knew at this point there was no turning back.

In the end, she chopped off an eye-watering 8 or 9 inches.

After what felt like an eternity, it was over. I hesitantly looked up at myself, draped in a black plastic cape that was covered in my locks. It was then that I saw the person I felt inside. I didn’t feel ugly or “less feminine” or scared. Instead, I felt empowered and excited and — honestly — hot!

Excuse me while I get crazy symbolic, but I genuinely felt like the weight of my past had been removed, even if just for that moment.

It’s been a few months since the big chop, and I’m still sometimes surprised by my appearance. It’s true that I immediately feel more put together every morning when getting ready. It also doesn’t hurt that managing my hair has become so much easier. I need less shampoo and conditioner, less drying time, and it’s so easy to flop around and style.

But I also no longer worry about falling into the same patterns of the person I was. Instead, I embrace discovering the person I have become. I’ve noticed myself taking more risks, being more confident in myself, and directly asking for what I deserve. I even signed a year lease on an apartment, something I’ve been long terrified to commit to.

It’s funny, but now when I look in the mirror, I may no longer see that familiar girl with long hair, but I do see the strong woman who took a risk and embraced the person she had become.

Knowing that I ran headfirst — literally — into it makes me feel empowered to take on any other changes life throws at me.

Sarah Fielding is a New York City–based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY, where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion and food.