Anxiety Relief Tools: Toolkit

Anxiety-Relief Toolkit with Andrea Wachter

This 10-day course is offered on Insight Timer, a free app with many free guided meditations helpful in dealing with a variety of issues: anxiety, stress, sleep, relationships, self-esteem, and more. The app also offers a number of courses, which require a subscription to access. One of our board members went through the course and thought it worth sharing.

Below are notes from the course, offered to you with generous permission and blessing by Andrea Wachter, the course instructor, who is also a psychotherapist and author. We are grateful indeed, and hope that one or more of these “tools” will be useful to you.

Andrea Wachter, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Andrea Wachter, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Day 1: The 4 B’s of Being

We all have different nervous systems. Some of us are more sensitive or snappy, some of us take things more in stride. Anxiety=worrying about a future that doesn’t yet exist. Goal=return to the present and what actually is. The mind will do its thing, but we can too, using tools to soothe/distract the human mind.

The 4 B’s” : Believe, Berate, Beware, and Be. Different options we have when confronting anxiety.

Believe — we believe our scary thoughts. Like being lost in the forest, only we’re lost in brambles of anxious thoughts. Scary thought pops up in our mind and we believe it—or our nervous system believes it and starts acting as if it’s really happening.

Berate — 2 types. First, berating self for being anxious. Is being anxious really our fault?? Did we choose to be a sensitive type, to live constantly with a rock in the pit of our stomach? Of course not. We need deep compassion when we feel anxious—NOT berating! It does not help to beat ourselves up when we’re scared!!! Second, the other kind of berating is when people hate the feeling of anxiety itself. Anxiety is indeed uncomfortable and unpleasant, but generally when we send disapproval or hate against our unpleasant feeling, it gets BIGGER. Ironically, when we send it acceptance, soothing and understanding, it usually decreases.

Beware (be aware) — now we’re moving in a more effective direction. When we become aware of anxious thoughts and sensations, we can choose tools to use. We become aware of deeper needs we may be having. We need to be aware of the particular thoughts that are contributing to anxiety and notice uneasy body sensations. Then we need to summon compassion and acceptance as soon as possible.

Be — this is when we drop down into the body from our busy mind and return to the present moment and actual, factual reality. We have to realize we have LEFT reality before we can come back TO it. We downshift from the “what ifs” that make up anxiety to the “what is” of this present moment of reality. Start by noticing 1 thing you can see right now with your eyes. Notice 1 sound you hear. Notice 1 thing you feel with your hands. Notice 1 breath, following it all the way in and all the way out.

Day 2: Sensations without Stories

Separating sensations in the body from stories in the mind.

Often the body registers unpleasant sensations and then racing thoughts kick in—thoughts about scary things that may or may not happen in the future, usually based on scary things that happened in the past. Then body sensations ramp up and the cycle gets more intense. There are a few points of entry to interrupt this cycle. We can stop the scary thoughts. We can address the unpleasant body sensations. Or both. Today, we’re going to focus on disconnecting them. Once body and mind collide and collude, things can ramp up . When we can separate them, we can get calmer. We can learn to reel in our over-active minds. We can thank our minds for trying to keep us safe with all these stories, but then tell them that the stories are actually causing us to feel UNsafe.

Close your eyes and notice any uncomfortable sensations in your body right now. Locate anxiety—or other emotions—in your body and notice where you feel it. Just focus on one area for now. See if you can notice the sensation without attaching any story to it. Without judging or disapproving of it, or thinking it shouldn’t be there, or trying to get rid of it. See if you can notice it simply as a sensation with no story, no thought. Just being curious. See if the sensation has a shape or a color or a temperature or a texture. Let go of any story or judgement about it. Like a cloud in the sky—floating, changing, dissolving. See if the sensation is spinning. If so, what direction is it spinning? See if you can imagine reversing the direction of the spin. Notice what happens. Now gently bring your attention back to your body and whatever surface is underneath it. Notice all the places your body is being supported by that surface. Notice any sounds around you. Take a few deep breaths and give your body a little stretch. Open your eyes when ready.

Day 3: Strong, Soft, Silly, or Silent

Finding creative ways to respond to anxious thoughts.

It may seem odd to speak back to anxious thoughts, but the fact is, we actually talk to ourselves all day long. We all have internal monologues or dialogues or mamalogues [hearing Mom’s voice!]. People with anxiety tend to replay internal conversations that are NOT very compassionate. In this way, our anxious thoughts begin to feel REAL, like watching a scary movie and thinking it’s real. But when you’re immersed in a lovely or pleasing movie, or a song you love, or a good book, or you’re laughing with friends, you’re still having the exact life you have when your anxiety channel is blasting BUT your mind is playing a different channel. Many people think they’re anxious because of their life situations or because it’s just the way they’re wired. But in reality, many of us feel anxious because we spend so much time immersed in that anxious channel, attending to anxious thoughts. We can actually learn to tune our mind into a more pleasing station. Turn off the scary movie and tune into what’s actually happening around you. Here are some different ways to switch channels—4 different tones and responses to anxious thoughts. These can be used in different instances, different times. No right or wrong here.

STRONG, SOFT, SILLY, SILENT. Here’s an example of how they might look in a particular situation. Say you’re with a child who’s showing anxious behavior.

STRONG: You are OK. It’s your thoughts that are scaring you, but thoughts aren’t real. You can’t pull a thought out of your mind and show it to me. You can’t take it out of your pocket and fold it up. That’s because thoughts aren’t real. So, let’s look at what’s really real right now. Take a look around the room and see what’s really here. See that I am here. See your bed here. See your pillow, etc. Your tone will be strong and still loving.

SOFT: Oh, Sweetheart, can you crawl onto my lap? I see that you are so scared. I am here with you and will hold you as long as you need. I am right here with you and will stay as long as you need. If that happens, we’ll handle it together, but it’s not happening right now. Let’s look at what IS happening right now.

SILLY: Sing a funny song about fear or blow the fear out like you would a candle. You might ask the child to play along with you and talk back in a silly way to the scary thought.

SILENT: Just try to be silent and calm and hold the child. You can teach them not to pick up their own fear but instead get into a book or project and just not give the fear any power.

The most important thing is to find the method that soothes your own mind in that moment. Practice them in different internal situations. Maybe write them. Whichever method you try, make sure it’s respectful and loving and genuine.

Day 4: Pranayama Praccives (Breathing Exercises)

In the same way that you cannot sit down and stand up at the same time, in those moments when you’re consciously focusing on your breathing, you are NOT—at least for those seconds/moments-focusing on your anxious thoughts. Conscious breathing IS ONE OF THE CORNERSTONES OF ANXIETY RELIEF. Finding a breathing practice that you can come home to again and again, will indeed bring you much relief from anxiety. It’s helpful to rate your level of anxiety before and after you do a breathing practice. 4 practices on today’s menu: belly breathing, 7-11 breathing, mindful breathing, and alternate nostril breathing.

Belly Breathing: Eyes can be open or closed. Place one hand on your belly. Take a nice deep inhale through your nose; see if you can feel your belly swell with this breath. Now, exhale slowly through your mouth and allow your belly to deflate. Now take another deep breath through your nose, feeling with your hand the belly pushing out. Slow, full exhale, encouraging your hand and belly back in. Keep that going for a few more rounds, belly expanding and deflating. Chest moves very little.

7-11 Breathing: Breathe in (nose) to a quick count of 7, breathe out (ideally through the mouth) for a quick count of 11. The goal is to have the exhale be longer than the inhale. Rest your hands wherever they’re comfortable. Eyes open or closed. Experiment with the numbers to find the count that’s just right for you. Maybe the count of 6 or 8 in, 10 or 12 out. Just make sure the exhale is longer than the inhale.

Mindful Breathing: As you inhale, say to yourself, “Breathing in, this is my inbreath.” As you exhale: “Breathing out, this is my outbreath.” Keep going at your own pace.

Alternate Nostril Breathing: This can really help to balance your mind and calm your nervous system.

PLEASE NOTE: There are a number of YouTube videos that demonstrate this technique and may be easier to follow than the following verbal instructions. Just google “alternate nostril breathing”. Bring your right hand up, and using your right pointer finger and middle finger, gently touch the spot between your eyebrows. These 2 fingers will remain there as an anchor, while 2 other fingers, your right thumb and ring finger, will be active. Now, gently close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril. At the top of your inhale, close off your left nostril with your right ring finger and release your thumb on your right nostril, exhaling slowly through your right nostril. Keep your fingers where they are and inhale slowly through your right nostril. At the top of your inhale, gently close your right nostril with your right thumb and release your left nostril, slowly exhaling through the left side. That’s one round. So again, keeping your right nostril closed, inhale deeply and slowly through the left nostril. At the top of your inhale, close your left nostril with your right ring finger and release your thumb, exhaling slowly and deeply through your right nostril. Keep your fingers where they are and when your exhale is complete, inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril. At the top of your inhale, close your right nostril with your thumb. And that’s 2 rounds. The main thing to remember is that you switch fingers at the top of the inhale. Otherwise, you keep your fingers where they are. So, if alternate nostril breathing is new to you, it’s recommended that you start slowly—with one or two rounds and then work up to more, gradually increasing to 4 or 5 rounds if that feels comfortable to you. It’s helpful to practice these on a regular basis, but especially if you become aware of anxious thoughts or sensations. The more you practice, the more habitual it will become and the more likely you will remember to use it when anxiety is high and logical thinking is low.

Day 5: Heart to Heart with Anxious Parts

Today I’ll be leading you in a dialogue between 2 parts. We all have different internal parts, even as simple as when 1 part of you wants to go for a walk while another part of you wants to lie on the couch. In today’s case, you’ll be dialoguing between the part of you that is anxious and the part of you that is loving, wise and calming.

Anxiety can feel so real and powerful. Many of us are so familiar with that anxious feeling in our gut, racing thoughts in our minds—it’s even hard to imagine our life without it. But it IS possible to change your relationship with your thoughts and sensations in a way that can actually soothe and settle them, rather than stir them up or attempt to stuff them down.

It might seem odd to have a heart-to-heart with anxiety, but as we have learned, most of us are talking all day long to ourselves anyway.

The problem with many people who suffer from anxiety is that their internal dialogues are often scary and not soothing; they only add fuel to the anxious fire burning inside. We need to upgrade our internal thoughts to soothing ones.

That’s what we’ll be doing today. You may be very accustomed to having scary thoughts and as a result, thinking even MORE scary thoughts. This practice will give you a way out of that scary loop. Like listening to a recording that is stuck, playing the same garbled message over and over, this is a practice that can help you get unstuck and move the needle of your mind to a new track.

By having a kind, compassionate voice on board, you can get more familiar with THAT voice and exercise/ practice/ strengthen it until it becomes your new normal.

So instead of having an anxious voice be your steady recording, you’ll have a new soothing voice to add to your playlist. So, let’s practice an internal dialogue between your anxious self and a kind, compassionate part of you.

First, make sure you’re in a comfortable position. You may close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. I’d like you to get an image of the anxious part of you; what does that part of you look like? (There’s no right or wrong.). We’re not going to let this part take over; we’re just going to get to know it a bit.

Once you get an image, see if you can put that image in front of you, so you can communicate with it. We’ll be coming back to this image in a moment. Right now, I’d like you to tune into your heart—the wise, loving, compassionate part of you. If you can’t connect with that part right now, connect with another being that is wise, loving, etc.

From this wise, compassionate part, I’d like you to look at the image of the anxious part. See if you can look at that part with kindness. See if you can get a sense of what that anxious part feels and needs and see if you can give it in your imagination.

What does this anxious part of you want you to know? See if you can offer it some compassion and comfort right now.

Ask this anxious part what it’s afraid might happen if it lets go of this anxiety.

Ask it if it can feel the compassion and comfort right now.

Ask it if it’s ready to let go of trying so hard all the time. And see if there’s anything else your compassionate wisdom would like to do or say or offer this part. See if there’s anything else this part would like to do, say or receive.

Now we’re going to be gently shifting out of this image. Perhaps you can imagine setting aside this anxious part into a really safe place, making sure there’s nothing else it needs. Just gently return to the surroundings around you.

Take in a nice deep breath. If you’d like, give your body a little stretch. Perhaps write about the experience.

Day 6: What We Resist Will Persist

This note-taker’s favorite takeaway from the course.

Today’s lesson is about letting go of resistance. So much of anxiety is about worry and resistance. In fact, one of the biggest sources of worry and anxiety is trying to resist and control those things which are beyond our control. It’s important to learn to let go of trying to control the things that are out of our hands. I ask the clients in my practice to make a list of all the things that are IN our control, and then those that are OUT of our control. That 2nd column is always much longer! Today’s lesson is about letting go of the things, situations and people you have been clutching or resisting. To me, this practice is like taking clenched fists and gently opening them up.

Most meditations are about breathing in light and breathing out dark—you know, visualizing what you want and letting go of what you DON’T want. But what if we breathe in all that we’ve been avoiding, resisting, fearing and trying to control. This can be very counter-intuitive, but it can also bring a lot of relief.

Today’s practice is called Tonglen, a Buddhist practice that’s about breathing in suffering and breathing out love and compassion. It’s about breathing in the dark, which we so often try to avoid, and breathing out light.

While it seems counterintuitive to breathe in that which we don’t want, doing so actually helps to soften and de-power those very things. Arguing with reality is much more stressful than opening up to it. Tonglen is the opposite of our human instinct; breathing in our own pain or the pain of others—really accepting and owning it-and exhaling out whatever will benefit ourselves and others.

Get yourself in a comfortable position. Imagine your own pain or someone else’s. It could be anxiety, or any other painful feeling. As you inhale, imagine breathing in that pain and suffering and breathing out healing or comfort or peace or joy. If you prefer to imagine a color, you can breathe in dark and breathe out light. Notice how it feels to stop resisting, to breathe it all in, and to breathe out all you wish for.

Now, gently transition back to the surface and sounds around you. Give your body a little stretch. P.S. If you’re worrying about someone else who’s having a hard time, you can picture them. Then, imagine breathing their suffering into yourself and breathing out love, light and healing upon them.

Day 7: Soothing Statements and Scenarios

Anxious thoughts are not the most soothing voices on the block and to add to that, anxious thoughts tend to cling onto other anxious thoughts. As we’ve learned, if we can recognize/ identify an anxious thought as soon as it drops into our head, we have a chance to stop or divert it. This is our window of opportunity. So today, we have several self-soothing tools. This is like learning to talk to a stressed child like a loving, calming parent. Great quote: “Be what you needed when you were younger.” This is what we’ll be practicing today: being who we needed when we were young. The legacy of unsoothing speech, the passing of the dysfunctional baton, can stop here. With awareness and willingness, we can learn to speak to our vulnerable selves in new and healing ways—with comfort, kindness and respect. So, let’s try on some of these new ways of speaking to ourselves. See if any of them work for you.

Get comfortable. Eyes may be open or shut. Tune into your body and see if there’s any anxiety or other strong emotion. If not, you can tuck these statements away for later, when you ARE experiencing emotional discomfort. Try speaking these statements directly to your anxiety or other emotion. Some people find it helpful to picture their younger self, or their anxious nervous system. You can repeat my exact words, or come up with some of your own.

Here are the statements:

  • “I’m right here with you.”
  • “You’re OK.”
  • “It’s OK.”
  • “Breathe.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “In this moment, you are safe.”
  • “It will all unfold.”
  • “This feeling will pass.”
  • “All that’s scary is in the future. It’s safe right now.”
  • “If that happens, we’ll deal with it then, but it’s not happening right now.”
  • “Let’s notice what’s right here, right now.”

Now let’s shift into some self-soothing scenarios. When your nervous system is all ramped up, it can be helpful to picture it in a comforting scenario. It’s like taking a chilled nervous system and putting it into a nice warm bath.

Here are several scenarios; see if any of them are soothing to you.

  • You can imagine setting the anxious part of you in a warm bath or hot tub.
  • You can imagine a safe space, like a majestic forest.
  • You can imagine resting in a hammock at the beach or in a beautiful meadow or park.
  • You can imagine yourself in a cozy cottage in a beautiful place in nature.
  • You can imagine yourself deeply resting in a soft, comfortable bed.
  • You can imagine yourself surrounded by safe people, or spiritual beings, or your favorite animals.
  • You can imagine yourself surrounded by total silence or soothing sounds.
  • You can imagine being surrounded by and filled with a soothing color or warm breeze.
  • You can imagine the surface underneath you gently holding or rocking you.
  • You can imagine placing all your troubling thoughts into helium balloons and releasing them into the sky or placing them on leaves floating down the moving water of a creek.
  • You can imagine yourself going about your day peacefully, free of anxiety.

Day 8: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Today we’re going to question our anxious thoughts. As long as we live, our minds are going to be doing their job: thinking thoughts. Often those thoughts are helpful and healthy but sometimes they’re not. As we’ve learned, anxious thoughts are usually focused on the future and things that haven’t even happened yet. Just as we don’t have to believe every message that pops up on our computer screen, we don’t have to believe every thought that drops into our head. This is where questioning our thoughts comes in.

Most of the time, when we’re having anxious thoughts, if we just look around and see what’s actually happening, we realize we’re not in any present danger; we just FEEL like we are. Our thoughts make our bodies feel in danger. Our thoughts have gotten control of our systems and are scaring us. So a good antidote is to question those trouble-causing thoughts. [See Byron Katie: The Work] .

There are 4 questions and a turnaround.

First, identify the anxious thought that’s causing you stress [I’m not good enough, I’m not doing enough, there’s not enough, nobody cares about me, I’m going to get fired, something bad is going to happen, I’ll never be free of anxiety, nobody understands me, etc.].

Then, ask these questions:

  1. Is it true? Definitive yes or no. If the answer is no, move to question 3. If the answer is yes, move to question 2.
  2. Can you absolutely know that your thought is true? Yes or no.
  3. How do you react or feel when you believe this thought? Examine all the ways this thought affects you.
  4. Who would you be without this thought? How would you be thinking or feeling without this thought?

The turnaround: we turn the thought around and see if new ways of thinking could also be true. The thought can be turned around to itself, or to you, or to its opposite.

Try to find 3 different turnarounds that can be true for you. For example: Let’s say your stressful thought is, “My partner doesn’t listen to me.” The opposite of that is ‘My partner DOES listen to me.” Come up with some examples of how this is true. Or another opposite: “I don’t listen to my partner.”

Come up with some examples of that. Another turnaround: “I don’t listen to myself.” Examples that make THAT thought true. The idea is to play around with some ideas that could bring new insights/ perspectives—that might feel true and at the same time, less stressful.

Questioning our thoughts and realizing that most of the time they’re not true, can really help lessen anxiety. A helpful little rhyme: “I have no clue if that’s true”. It’s so easy to believe that we get anxious because of our life’s circumstances. However, it’s usually our THOUGHTS that fan the flames of anxiety.

Day 9: Pressure Points and Bilateral Butterflies

It’s good to practice these, so that when we need them, they come automatically.

  1. The third eye point. Considered to be a very powerful point for anxiety relief. Right between the eyebrows where the bridge of the nose meets the forehead. Eyes may be open or closed and you can the middle and index fingers of either hand. Gently press the point directly between your eyebrows. Take a few long, deep breaths. It’s that simple . You can also press your palms together and use the index fingers to press. You can hold that point for about a minute, while taking slow deep breaths.
  2. Ears. This can have an immediate calming effect. Remove earrings. Using thumb and index finger on either or both hands, gently rub your ears from top to bottom. You can also gently pull your earlobes and you can trace the skin behind your ears. You can also use your index fingers to trace the folds of your inner ears and use your thumb to trace the back of your ears. Take a few deep breaths as you do this and notice how you feel.
  3. This point is called the “Sea of Tranquility”. This is a very common acupressure point to treat anxiety. It can be found right in the middle of your breastbone. You can press the point using both thumbs or you can use all the fingers on either hand, or you can put your palms together and press the sides of your thumbs right into the middle of the breastbone. Take nice deep breaths while you do this. You can also gently TAP this point with your fingers. Whether you hold or tap, continue for a minute or so, while breathing deeply.
  4. The Triple Warmer Meridian – from the tip of your ring finger, all the way up your arm , to the back of your ear. Start on the bones between your ring finger and your pinkie finger. Either press, rub or tap, breathing deeply and slowly, and notice how it feels. You can even touch this point when you’re with other people and they won’t even notice. Hence, it’s a great point for people with social anxiety.
  5. One last practice: Bilateral Butterflies—a form of bilateral stimulation, when we use touch, rhythm or sound in a rhythmic pattern from left to right to stimulate and balance both sides of the brain. Simply cross your arms in front of your chest (looking butterfly-like) and tap each shoulder one at a time. Find a rhythm that feels comfortable to you, tapping one side then another. If crossing your chest is uncomfortable, you can also do this tapping on your thighs. Breathe, of course–deeply, slowly. If you wish, you can imagine yourself in a calm and peaceful place while you’re tapping. Relax arms, take a deep breath—check in and see how you feel.

Day 10: Stop, Drop, and Scroll

You may have heard the short phrase about fire safety: Stop, drop and roll. Andrea has adapted this phrase for use when anxious thoughts appear: Stop, drop and scroll. When you feel anxiety knocking at your internal door, or having crashed in uninvited, you can stop what you’re doing, drop into your body and scroll through all the “tools” in your anxiety relief tool kit, finding one that feels right for you in that moment.

May peaceful thoughts be yours!

All Anxiety Relief Tools


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