How to Distract Yourself from Anxiety
Tips from a PTSD and anxiety sufferer
I'm an expert in anxiety, not in treating it, but in experiencing it. My first traumatic incident occurred in childhood so who's to say whether or not any given symptom I experience is caused by PTSD or something else? Anxiety disorders have a great deal of overlap and I've experienced all sorts of symptoms from an assortment of types of them. But I've found some tactics that help me with all of them. They don't cure anxiety but they often work for me to short-circuit the symptoms in mid-freak-out.
I've spent a lot of time searching the Internet for things that would help and I've found an awful lot of pages that are just advertisements to books, DVDs, and special programs that claim to help people suffering from anxiety. Those pages really irritate me and the scarcity of helpful suggestions that can be found without having to pay money for them is something I dislike intensely. That is why I've put the actual things that helped me right on this page. They aren't perfect and they don't always work, even for me, but I figured they might help other people. If you have some techniques that work for you, I sincerely hope you will share them in the guestbook near the bottom of this page.
Please read this before continuing
I am not a medical professional of any kind. This advice is not intended to replace the care of a trained mental health professional. It is only a number of suggestions based on my personal experiences as someone suffering one or more types of anxiety disorder. These suggestions may or may not work for you. Get professional help if at all possible.
What symptoms have I used these tactics on?
I have PTSD due to traumatic childhood experiences as well as adult experiences with violence, both witnessing it and being the victim of it. I have experienced panic attacks of at least two different kinds; the kind that have a trigger and the kind that come out of the blue. The kind that have a trigger such as some dude getting into my personal space without warning is attached to a bunch of thoughts and it triggers sensory flashbacks. The type that don't are almost more physical in nature. They just pop up out of the blue when I'm minding my own business and sometimes even when I'm enjoying myself in a setting with no possible threats in it. They are very intense but they have just strong emotions with them rather than clear memories or conscious thoughts. Neither sort is any fun at all and being absolutely terrified for no darned good reason is extremely unpleasant no matter the cause.
I've also experienced the generalized sort of anxiety wherein my mind chomps onto and chews on some problem as intently as a hungry dog will gnaw a smoked cow femur. This kind is probably the most annoying. It lasts longer, feels more obviously irrational, and interferes with daily life in ways the others don't. The level of fear is lower but it goes on and on. And the kicker is that it makes me more vulnerable to the other sorts. It can transform into a panic attack or even a flashback, depending on what particular train of thoughts led to it. It's wacky and embarrassing what things can activate this kind of generalized anxiety and what circuitous routes my thoughts can take to get from, say, worrying about my aquarium leaking to a flashback to being knifed.
Lucky for me, I've found some ways to deal with these types of anxiety. They aren't perfect, they don't always work so well, and they certainly don't replace professional help. But if you can feel where I'm coming from, you're well aware that anxiety sufferers will try anything that helps. None of this advice is harmful and the worst you'd end up with is a very clean house and fresh breath.
A helpful and understanding community
- Panic Survivor.com
This website addresses panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and treatment for them through a blog format as well as in a community forum setting.
I distract the heck out of myself in a wide variety of ways. As soon as I consciously realize I’m in a worry spiral or falling into a flashback or panic attack I do something.
You know how you can train a dog to stop bad behaviors by shaking a can of change at him or by calling his attention to something else? The unconscious parts of my mind responsible for this anxiety garbage seem about as smart as that dog. I’m very thankful it isn’t terribly bright; if I had to outsmart anything of my own intelligence I’d have way bigger problems. Anyway, I can distract my mentally challenged unconscious. I feel fine saying that because, after all, the stupid thing is freaking out when there’s no darned good reason.
So what do I actually do?
I try the first distraction that comes to hand or mind after I walk away from whatever the trigger is if there is a trigger.
Some things I do:
Chew up a very strong mint, the stronger the better.
Sniff mentholated chest rub.
Smell an ammonia capsule.
Read news stories that will make me angry.
Look at cute animals on the Internet.
Go for a walk and attempt juggling at the same time.
Break into heavy exercise.
Do a very difficult puzzle.
Reach for a memory.
The key is to provide either a strong sensory jolt or to use up so much of my attention and concentration that there’s not much processing power left for the anxiety.
Strong smells seem to be particularly effective for me, especially when a different smell has triggered my flashback or panic attack.
I found these books to be helpful. I didn’t buy any of them; I checked them out from my local library instead. I highly recommend browsing the self-help section of your local library mostly because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to relieving anxiety. I’ve read a bunch of books that weren’t helpful and if I’d actually bought them, it would have been a waste of money. Read before you buy and you’ll be happier for it. You can also grab a few fun, distracting novels, DVDs, or whatever else you enjoy while you’re at the library.
I’ve linked to these on Amazon so you can click through and check them out and so I don’t have to re-do all the summarizing and reviewing you can find there.
Generally speaking, keeping mind and body occupied helps. The longer I prevent myself from thinking negative, anxiety-related thoughts, the more chance there is that the anxiety will go into remission for a time.
I have a variety of ways to soothe myself. This usually works best if I try distraction, often one of the taste or smell distractions first. They get my attention and the soothing prevents me from going back to the negative train of thought, assuming it’s the kind of anxiety caused by conscious thoughts.
Some things I do:
Drink a cup of hot tea and think about each sip.
Rock, fidget, or tap my fingers.
Remind myself that I am loved and think about by whom.
Go for a walk.
Take deep breaths- slowly inhaling for six seconds, holding the breath in for six seconds, and slowly exhaling for at least six seconds all the while silently keeping count.
All of these things seem to work better in combination, whether distraction or attempts at self-soothing.
Working out combinations that work
For me, I need to sort of feel out how many tracks my mind is working on at once and keep that many occupied until my unconscious mind gives up on feeling anxiety. Some time when you are particularly alert but not anxious, try to figure out how many trains of thought you can hold at once. You can do this by performing a bunch of activities at once.
What activities do I or did I do to figure out how many “tracks” I need to occupy?
Some of the things I did:
Saying the alphabet
Working a math problem
Singing a song, either silently or aloud
Visualizing a series of geometric shapes
Visualizing a series of colors
Attempting to remember the name of someone I went to grade school with
Trying to remember the periodic table of elements
Thinking of the word for love in every language I know a little of
Thinking of another activity to do at the same time
Patting my head
Rubbing my tummy
Tapping my fingers
Playing an instrument
If you try to do as many of these things at once as you possibly can it won’t give you a maximum number but it will give you some idea. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at how many trains of thought your mind can hold at once.
The easier the task, the more I can do at once. The bad thing about that is that it’s very, very easy to be anxious so the rest of my mind needs to either be actually asleep or engaged in a whole lot of other activities.
Typical scenarios explaining how I might short-circuit a panic attack or anxiety
A typical try on my part to short-circuit a panic attack.
If I start to have the feelings of unreality associated with the PTSD sort of flashback or the out-of-nowhere panic attack a typical attempt to stop it might go something like this:
I reach for a sugar free mint and start crunching it while I put the kettle on to make tea. The panic begins to escalate despite these measures but I start mentally reciting the alphabet while doing the slow-breathing exercise- six seconds in, six seconds held, and six seconds out. I keep up the breathing exercises and get the mug and tea ready for the hot water while trying to count silently and recite pi at the same time. This doesn’t get it so I open the fridge and start cleaning it while doing the breathing exercises, counting, reciting pi, and listening to the state of the water in the kettle. I then might try to visualize how I want the fridge to look when it’s clean as I clean it. If that doesn’t do it, I might drop a dab of hot sauce on my tongue while keeping up all the other things.
Depending on the severity of the attack and how long I let it go on before acting this may or may not work for me although it seems to shorten the duration almost every time. I try to avoid doing the same thing every time because I don’t want any of the tasks to become too easy.
I know that sounds like a lot but if you give it a try you’ll get better at doing a bunch of things at once and likely need to keep adding more to give the negative thoughts no “room” to exist.
If you want to give this distract and soothe technique a try, think up a bunch of distractions and soothers ahead of time because you may have difficulty thinking of any on the spot although that, in itself, is a distraction. Also, as I mentioned, you may be very surprised at how many things you can think and do at once.
A typical try on my part to short-circuit generalized anxiety.
I’ve talked about the sprint so now it’s time to cover the marathon.
If I feel the tension building that suggests I’m about to wind up into a churning closed circle of anxiety I generally start with a soother.
I might stroke one of my roommate’s kitties while watching an engaging television program if I’m at home. I might read an upbeat book or try a new recipe. Fixing something or starting an art, craft, or DIY project may help, too. Engaging in thoughts and tasks that allow no room or attention for worrying seems to provide me with the most relief.
If you’d like to try to get rid of an attack of generalized anxiety:
Make a list of as many distractions and self-soothing activities as you can think of. That can even be one of your distractions. You will want to have a lot of them, because you may not be able to do some of them when the situation arises or, given the duration, you may run out.
Think about what distractions and soothers you'll use and where you'll use them
You may wish to come up with different suitable distractions and soothers for work and for home because, obviously, you just can’t do many of the home-based things at work. I also have a routine that helps for use while driving. It mostly involves having assorted intense mints on hand and having the radio programmed to channels that often host political programming that will irritate me. It’s hard to maintain a panicked state while yelling at the radio.
The old saw about keeping busy to fight emotional and mental problems holds some truth. But, at least for me, mental activity is far more important to the equation than physical activity
Please share your tips for dealing with generalized anxiety or panic attacks. Any suggestion you have may be the one that helps someone else!