I recently took my first vacation since the pandemic began. As someone who feels claustrophobic in airports and on airplanes, just the thought of wearing an N95 mask throughout a 6-hour flight made me anxious. I’d been dreading it for months.
At the airport on the big day, I remained calm until it was announced that because of an irreparable technical problem, they’d need to bring in a new plane. Our flight was delayed indefinitely. A powerful wave of anxiety overtook me. I was lightheaded and on the edge of panic.
Fortunately, I’d recently taken a “Practical Tools for Anxiety Relief” class on the Insight Timer meditation app taught by psychotherapist and author, Andrea Wachter. Wachter teaches a wide variety of practices to help people step off the path of anxiety—and they work! That day in the airport, I immediately began to apply what I’d learned. Calming down quickly, I felt both grounded and relieved.
[Read: “10 Affirmations for Nervous Flyers.”]
Wachter knows firsthand how torturous anxiety can feel, and she’s passionate about sharing effective tools to help people cope with it. Her courses are extremely popular, and her guided meditations have been downloaded more than 3 million times.
Q&A With Andrea Wachter: Anxiety vs. Fear
Myra Goodman: How do you define anxiety, and how does anxiety differ from fear?
Andrea Wachter: All humans feel fear. It’s an essential internal warning system—our natural and healthy response when we perceive danger. Fear is experienced in the present moment, while anxiety is usually future-focused. Anxiety is more about what if than what is, imagining impending scary scenarios. Fear and anxiety can feel very similar. They both create the chemical cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline that flood our bodies when our fight-or-flight response is activated.
What about anxiety related to a situation that’s not conjecture? Say you or a loved one is diagnosed with a disease and needs to undergo treatment with an uncertain outcome.
Many of the tools I teach help people to feel and honor their emotions, soothe themselves, and come back to the present moment. If someone has to endure a difficult treatment, it’s better to go through it once, when it’s actually happening, instead of a million times in their mind.
An important reason to develop an anti-anxiety toolkit is that it’s always there to support you, no matter what comes your way. And these practices have the added benefits of improving your sleep, digestion, and immune system.
Personally, when I feel anxiety, all I want to do is run from it. But that just makes the anxiety accelerate.
That is a very common and understandable response, but because running is a fight-or-flight reaction, we need to learn to soothe our nervous systems when anxiety strikes. Feeling afraid of anxiety, and desperately trying to get rid of it as soon as possible, only fuels it.
I try to help people move toward their anxiety like they might move
toward a small child who is scared. When we’re anxious, we need love, comfort, and compassion—not rejection, condemnation, or shame. Judging ourselves and hating how we feel just makes things worse.
That said, not everyone is ready to fully face their anxiety. They may need professional support to work through some of their residual traumas first. But all of us need to avoid the trap of trying to escape our anxiety by indulging in self-destructive habits.
[Read: “10 Cognitive Distortions That Contribute to Anxiety and Depression.”]
I notice that I often end up feeling anxious when I’ve pushed myself too hard while overriding my physical needs and emotions, or when I’ve been overstimulated for too long.
When you pay attention instead of running away, anxious feelings can serve as an effective barometer to help you set boundaries and take better care of yourself. If we don’t listen to our bodies when they whisper, they’ll eventually scream to get our attention.
But once we’re on the path of anxiety—whether we’ve been on it for two minutes or two days—we can make the decision to take an alternate path. There is always a fork in the road. We can choose to take the path of anxiety relief tools that eventually leads to peace.
The more often we practice our tools—and the more often we experience calm and relief while utilizing them—the easier it will become to get off the path of anxiety, and the more enjoyable our lives will become.
Diving Into an Anxiety Relief Toolkit
The following practices are inspired by WachterI’s classes, adapted with her permission.
A somatic practice of comforting self-touch
was developed by neuroscientist Dr. Ronald Ruden, who discovered that when we gently stroke three specific parts of our bodies with the intent to impart comfort, a tremendous amount of calming neurotransmitters and happy hormones are released. This interrupts the cycle of anxiety by making us feel soothed and relaxed. Experiment with all three areas to see which you enjoy most. You can alternate between them, or just pick a favorite one or two. Try these methods for five to ten minutes, and then see how you feel.
- Upper arms. Cross your arms over your chest, placing your left hand on your right shoulder and your right hand on your left shoulder, as if you’re giving yourself a hug. Lovingly stroke down from the top of your shoulders along the outside of your arms to your elbows, repeating over and over, at a pace and pressure that feels the most comforting.
- Palms of the hands. Stroke and caress the palms of your hands in a gentle, loving way, using any pattern or rhythm that feels best.
- Sides of the face. With one hand on either side of your face, stroke down from your forehead along your hairline in loving, gentle movements.
Try to stay fully present while practicing Self-Havening. As soon as you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to your body’s sensations.
You can enhance the effects of the Self-Havening touch by taking a few deep breaths—inhaling through your nose and releasing tension as you exhale through your mouth. Try speaking soothing words to yourself, such as “All is well,” “I am safe,” “I am calm,” “I am strong and healthy.” You can also make soothing “shhh” sounds, hum, release loud sighs on your exhales, or visualize yourself safe and happily relaxing in any beautiful environment your imagination can create.
Naming and Reclaiming
A writing exercise to help you tune into the anxious part of yourself and establish a healthy, loving, and supportive relationship with it.
Begin by giving your anxiety a name. For example, Scared Little One, Anxious Annie, or simply address it as “Dear Anxiety.” Now, respond to the following prompts as if you’re speaking directly to your anxiety. It’s best to write out your answers, letting both your conscious and subconscious mind speak freely, without censure.
You make sense to me because…
This prompt is about validating your experience.
- “You make sense to me because I was born a sensitive child.”
- “You make sense to me because my parents’ divorce derailed me.”
- “You make sense to me because the last few years have been over-the-top stressful.”
I’m so sorry that…
This prompt is about self-compassion, not about beating yourself up with things you feel badly about.
- “I’m so sorry that we got sick last year and had to suffer so much.”
- “I’m so sorry our world got turned upside down and then we lost our job.”
- “I’m so sorry that this pandemic made us feel so scared and alone.”
I know you need…
This prompt is about tuning in to what your anxious part needs to feel better. It could be either something you need more of or less of.
- “I know you need more attention and soothing.”
- “I know you need more rest and regular meals.”
- “I know you need less caffeine and less social media.”
I am committed to…
Write whatever you think would best help relieve your anxiety at this time, listing only realistic, achievable goals so you can experience progress and build self-trust.
- “I am committed to practicing self-care as soon as I feel anxiety coming on.”
- “I’m committed to practicing Self-Havening techniques a few times every day.”
- “I’m committed to setting better boundaries with my boss and kids.”
A Guided Meditation to Send Your Anxiety a Message
Enjoy Andrea Wachter's 12-minute meditation, where you will be guided to speak directly to your anxiety with an open heart, giving it compassion and loving redirection.