Dealing with anxiety? Distract your mind and find your calm
One student’s go-to grounding strategies for coping with panic attacks
Healthy U is a student group of trained volunteers dedicated to educating fellow students on important health-related matters. This article was prepared by a Healthy U student volunteer.
The first time I had a panic attack I was 17. I can remember feeling like my mind was racing but at the same time blank. I felt shaky as if I was losing control, lights were too bright and sounds were too loud. I don’t remember anything specific triggering this, but over time I had more panic attacks, and I was able to recognize the feeling, use different methods to calm myself and sometimes prevent an attack altogether. The strategies that worked best for me are called grounding strategies – exercises that reduce anxious feelings by distracting your mind and pulling you into the present.
Consider practicing these strategies during times of minor stress, rather than attempting to learn a new skill during an anxiety attack. Learning how these strategies work for you beforehand will prepare you to use them during a crisis and make it more likely that you remember to try using them at all.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique is a super simple way to distract yourself when you’re feeling anxious. It works by focusing your mind on your physical senses. To use this method, think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
What I like about this technique is that it’s easy to remember in the moment, and you can do it as many times as you need.
Try Deep Breathing to a GIF
Deep breathing is a well-known technique that can be used for reducing anxiety. Personally, I am a very visual person, and I’ve found that having a visual guide can really help me focus on inhaling and exhaling. Here is some information on square breathing and a gif you can use to try it out
Shock your system
Another method that I have found to be effective is to shock my system with a physical sensation. This works by drawing your attention away from your anxiety to how your body feels. What can you do to shock your system? Here are a few ways:
- Run your hands under cold water (but not too cold!)
- Bite into a lemon or another food with an intense flavour
- Clap your hands and focus on the feeling and sound
- Gently snap a rubber band against your wrist
Remember to be GENTLE with yourself – you want your shock to be strong enough that it grabs your attention but avoids harm.
Use a Grounding Object
Sometimes anxiety attacks come at unpredictable and inconvenient times. Carrying a grounding object with you can help pull you back into the present when you’re away from home. You could carry an object that holds a special meaning for you and reminds you of a loved one or of a happy day, such as a ring, a keychain, or a stuffed toy. On the other hand, you could carry an object that has a distinct physical feeling, such as a smooth rock, a piece of fabric, or sandpaper.
Fatigue, hypersensitivity to light and sound, and difficulty concentrating are all aftereffects of anxiety attacks that I’m familiar with. Panic attacks are often accompanied by physical symptoms, which are caused by your flight-or-fight response becoming activated. It makes sense that after your body goes through this, there will be a physical impact.
Remember to take care of yourself after an anxiety attack. Practice self-compassion, reach out to a friend if you need, and rather than trying to fight your anxiety, try to accept it as a part of what makes you, you.
This is an edited version of a piece that was previously published on the Healthy U website.