“When thinking about life, remember this: No amount of guilt can solve the past, and no amount of anxiety can change the future.” ~Unknown
I was buckled in on a small, twenty-person airplane, and we were heading toward the runway, when I looked out the window and saw the airplane wheel was wobbling.
I gathered my courage, unbuckled my seatbelt, and approached the flight attendant, who told me to sit back down.
“I think there’s something wrong with the wheel,” I said.
He looked out the window and said, “It’s fine.” But then he radioed the pilot, who turned the plane around.
They checked it out, and it turns out the wheel was fine.
In retrospect, I recognize I wasn’t responsible for the pilot turning the plane around. That was his decision, based on the information I’d provided. But the wheel wasn’t, in fact, wobbling. My anxious mind was just playing tricks on me.
I felt guilty that one passenger, a surgeon, had to miss his scheduled surgery and that others were delayed. And the ironic thing was that I was on the flight to attend the somatic psychotherapy program where I was learning to reduce my anxiety and how to help others.
I learned a lot from this experience and wanted to share the techniques that have helped me calm my anxiety since then.
1. Move your body.
Anxiety is part of the fight-or-flight response, which is designed to keep your body safe. The trigger for the anxiety is external, but you must complete the stress cycle on the nervous system level.
In her New York Times bestselling book Burnout, Dr. Emily Nagoski shares that the stress cycle has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you get stuck in the middle, you need to help your body complete the stress cycle.
In the past, you would be chased by a lion, and then hopefully a neighbor would open the door and you’d run in, slamming the door behind you.
It may seem like you’d feel better because the lion was gone, but on a scientific level, we now know you’d feel better because you ran and the endorphins helped you complete the stress cycle.
If you’re feeling anxious, go for a walk around the block or put on your favorite song and dance. Even on the plane I could have pushed my feet into the floor and squeezed the arm rests to process some of my anxiety physically, but I didn’t.
2. Feel your anxiety
As best you can, detach from the thoughts and welcome the physical sensations of anxiety into your body. Notice where your anxiety is located in your body and what it feels like. Describe it: “I feel a buzzing in my chest.” “I feel a tightness in my throat.” And as best you can, welcome this vibration into your body. All humans get anxious; nothing has gone wrong, and you can handle this.
When you believe that anxiety shouldn’t be happening, you actually create more anxiety about your anxiety. Welcoming it in reduces that.
On the plane, I wasn’t at all aware of what was happening in my body. I was stuck in my mind, worrying about whether or not to say something. And thinking that I’d really regret if I didn’t say something and the plane crashed. I was completely detached from my body and fully overwhelmed by the feeling of panic.
If I’d noticed where the anxiety was in my body, perhaps I’d have made a different decision. Or maybe I wouldn’t have; it’s hard to know…
But what I know for sure now is, when I welcome the sensations in physically, I feel better afterward. So try this out.
3. Voice your anxiety.
Simply saying “I’m feeling anxious” can help you feel calmer. A recent study showed that putting your feelings into words reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions and stress.
On the plane, a classmate had been sitting right behind me but moved so she could have her own row. After the plane landed, she wondered, if I had been able to tell her that I was feeling anxious about the wheels, would that have been enough for me to regulate my nervous system? Again, we can’t know for sure, but according to the research, that’s probably true.
So if you’re feeling anxious, say out loud to yourself or someone else, “I’m feeling anxious.” This will help you observe and detach from the emotion just a little bit so it’ll feel less overwhelming.
4. Make physical contact.
If a child was scared or anxious, you’d instinctively hold their hand or pick them up to soothe the fear. And there’s research that hugging and self-soothing touch, like putting a hand on your heart, can lead to lower cortisol levels after a stressful situation.
If I’d had a loved one to hold my hand or give me a hug, this would have soothed my anxiety to a degree.
So hug your friend or your dog. And if you’re alone, put a hand on your heart to assure your nervous system that you’re safe.
After this incident, I had to process the shame around making this mistake. At first I felt completely terrible, like a total nutcase and an out-of-control loser.
But now I see it differently. I see myself as someone who experienced trauma in her childhood, who was on her healing journey and genuinely doing her best at that time. I’m proud that I stood up and used my voice and did what I thought was right in the moment.
And also, I regret the negative impact it had on some of the passengers and crew. The surgeon was understandably upset. And others were probably too, even though they didn’t say anything.
The pilot was super friendly and talked to me after checking out the wheel to reassure me that everything was fine. And one passenger came up to me at the end of the flight and thanked me for keeping an eye out and being brave, even though in this case everything was fine. His stance was that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Life is complex. I now fully forgive myself this even though I do see it as a mistake. I know I was doing my best at the time and I’ve learned from it.
I still get anxious sometimes, but it’s reduced significantly. The more I get to know my body and the different techniques that help complete the stress cycle, the less my anxiety controls my life.
I’m happy to report I haven’t turned around any airplanes or cruise ships since applying these techniques, so I wholeheartedly recommend you use them to reduce your anxiety too!!