When you are experiencing overwhelming anxiety, or even having a panic attack, sensory distraction can help you re-focus your energy somewhere other than the distress you are feeling. It’s a technique that involves using your senses to distract you long enough for you to calm down or regain your composure. I’m going to discuss a few ways to utilize these techniques and give you some examples so that you can have some extra skills for self-soothing.
You have 5 senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, all of which can be used to help you re-focus and calm down when you are having high stress moments. For each of these there are at least a few ways that you can stimulate your senses to help you distract during high moments of stress or anxiety. I often recommend these techniques for my clients who are trying to find non-medical ways of coping with anxiety and panic attacks.
There are a couple ways you can use sight as a sensory distraction. You can walk outside and start looking around you and focusing on what you see, preferably natural objects, like branches swaying in the wind or clouds moving through the sky. Start to really look for details and try to absorb as much information through your visual observations as possible. Trying to concentrate and store information will challenge your brain to focus it’s energy on something else besides the distress you are feeling at the moment. You could also choose a photograph, piece of artwork or another type of image or object that you find to be symbolic to you. This could be a picture of a relative or family member you love, or something with religious or spiritual significance to you. Just find something that you can look at to remind yourself to center and shift your focus outside of the current moment.
Music is an excellent way to use sensory distraction. However, choose your music wisely. If you are feeling depressed and you go turn on your sad music, you’re not going to feel better. With music we want to think about using opposites. If you are angry or anxious, listen to something uplifting or calming. If you are feeling depressed, turn up your favorite feel good music. Another way to use sound is through the use of meditation apps, audiobooks, or podcasts. Again, think about your choices here. Don’t exacerbate your current distress by listening to something that will further your feelings of anger, anxiety, or sadness. Use an app to calm down with guided meditation, listen to a motivational audiobook, or subscribe to a podcast with a positive theme.
Using smell as a sensory distraction can be very beneficial. Essential oils are great for this part. Good essential oils to use for calming include Lavender Essential Oil, Frankincense Essential Oil , andBlack Spruce Essential Oil . You can actually just grab the bottle and inhale the scents from there, or you could use them in an essential oil diffuser. You can apply on your skin too, but you may need to dilute it with a carrier oil like coconut oil before rubbing directly on your skin. Carry a small bottle of lavender with you for quick aromatherapy whenever you need it.
For this sense, you can think of it in terms of temperature, and focus on either drinking a very cold glass of water or a hot cup of tea. Alternatively, you could suck or chew on a piece of ice. Cooling your body temperature may help calm you down some. You could also try chewing gum or bubble gum, to get more sensation on your tongue and again bring your energy to a different place of focus.
For touch, you could always just grab a stress ball and squeeze away. However, one technique I’ve found can be useful is running your wrists under cold water. Just turn on the faucet and let cool water run over your pulse points, and it may help calm you down by lowering your body temperature slightly and giving you a peaceful sensation on your wrists. You could also use ice for this, either by rubbing ice on your wrist or perhaps your neck and chest. If you have a history of self-harming behaviors, using ice as an alternative to cutting is a good strategy, or you can also use the rubber-band snap method. That just involves wearing a rubber-band on your wrist and snapping it occasionally or when needed to provide an instantaneous re-direction of your focus towards the snapping sensation on your skin. As always, be mindful of what works for you as an individual. With a history of self-harm, you want to make sure this is going to be helpful rather than triggering, so use your own best judgement as to what techniques might be most helpful to you and follow your instincts.
Using these techniques may help you pull some energy away from the feelings of anxiety or panic you are experiencing. By focusing attention to our senses, we give our bodies a chance to let go of that anxiety and re-direct our energy towards something more positive or healing. When managing anxiety, you will benefit from having multiple resources to pull from in order to build your set of coping skills. These techniques can be part of your overall strategy to help manage your symptoms.