Let’s face it: in the throes of panic, it’s not always comfortable to mindfully meditate on the present moment. Focusing on your pounding heart or on your irregular breathing patterns can fan the the panic attack flames.
Over time, you can work to desensitize yourself to the uncomfortable physiological sensations of panic. But, in the meantime, here are a few ways to distract yourself out of a panic attack.
1. Change locations. If you begin to panic in your cubicle, take a detour into the break room or an empty conference room. Sit in the new location until the panic has subsided.
(Be sure to physically return to your original location when the panic dies down — or else you’ll be left with a falsely heightened sense of danger when you approach the original location next time.)
2. Do some simple math. Add up numbers on license plates. Add up the digits in your phone number. Mentally recite an easy chunk of that multiplication table you learned in third grade.
I did a few biofeedback sessions when I was a grad student, and just for fun, I decided to do some simple math problems while hooked up to the sensors that measure my heart rate, my skin conductance (read: sweat), and my hand temperature. Even thirty seconds of simple math calmed me down significantly by about 15 beats per minute.
3. Play a simple word game. If you have an iPod Touch or an iPhone, try a low-stakes word game like Moxie 2. Or, simply take a look at your surroundings and make a mental list of everything that starts with the letter P. Or L. Or any letter.
You could also play that classic grocery store game — think of something you can buy at the grocery store that begins with the letter A. Then, think of something you can buy that starts with B. Then C. And so on. Apples. Bread. Clorox. Dish soap.
4. Use water. Some people tell me that splashing their face with cold water helps to disengage the panic circuitry. For me, running my (usually ice-cold) hands under warm running water can help. If you’re near a freezer, holding an ice cube in your palm can distract you from the sensations of panic. And of course, taking a few sips of water can be enough to distract you, too.
5. Take a photo. Not only does the process of aiming and shooting distract you, but I often find the resulting photo to be a bit calming as well. It’s an accurate representation of what is in front of you — unlike the inaccurate version of how we might interpret our surroundings when we’re on the edge of panic.
(And, in the long term, photographs of the locations where you’ve panicked can uncover panic trends and help you to identify triggers. Are all of your photographs of highway shoulders? Locations over ten minutes from home? Grocery stores and shopping malls?)
6. Fold paper. You don’t need to do any fancy origami here. (But if you know how to fold a paper crane, then, by all means, fold a paper crane!) Just grabbing some scrap paper or an old receipt is enough. Fold a simple fan, fold the paper in half multiple times until it’s too thick to fold, or construct a paper airplane.
I always try to match up my distraction method with the type of panic I’m experiencing — for panic attacks that involve mostly physiological sensations, I use mental tools (like math or word games) to distract me. If the panic arises as a result of overthinking, I find the physical distractions (like folding paper or changing locations) to be more helpful.
Panic attacks are never pleasant. What do you do to distract yourself from panic?
Photo Credit: Dominic Alves