In this post I’m going to talk about how to use a form of sensory distraction called the RAINBOW Method in order to combat a panic or anxiety attack. Having a panic attack can be incredibly distressful, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty breathing or calming yourself. Using sensory distraction is one way of coping during a panic attack, and there are several ways to do this.
What is Sensory Distraction?
Sensory distraction involves using your 5 senses to change your focus from the overwhelming feelings you are having during an acute panic or anxiety attach to a calmer state of mind. It is one method of coping with acute anxiety and panic. I have another full post on using all 5 of your senses for this purpose here.
How to Use the RAINBOW Method to Stop Panic and Anxiety
The RAINBOW method involves the use of your visual senses. The best way to use this method is preferably outdoors, but you can use it indoors if necessary. I usually recommend walking and using deep breathing methods at the same time.
For this practice, you are going to focus on looking for each of the colors of the rainbow in order, and taking deep breaths while you repeat the colors mentally in your head. So first, you will look for something red. It can be a red bird, a red leaf, a red bug, or any other red thing that you can see. Take a deep breath while looking at it and repeat in your head “There is a red bird” or whatever else you happen to be looking at.
Then you will do the same thing with the next color, which is orange. So look for something orange, take a deep breath, and say to yourself “There is an orange butterfly”, or plant, or leaf, et cetera.
Continue to do this with each of the colors of the rainbow, starting with red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. If you get stuck and feel like you can’t move forward, just go back to the colors you’ve already seen, and continue to breathe deeply and slowly repeat your visual observations for each color.
For example, your practice of this method might go something like this:
“I see a red cardinal. (Take a deep breath). I see an orange butterfly. (Deep breath). I see yellow from the light of the sun. (Deep breath). I see green in all of the trees I am looking at. (Deep breath). I see blue in the sky. (Deep breath). I see indigo in the leaves on a bush. (Deep breath). I see violet in a flower that is blooming. (Deep breath).”
You can think of this practice as kind-of like a mantra that you can use during period of overwhelming anxiety to bring your attention back to present moment.
Why Does This Method Work to Stop Panic and Anxiety?
Anxiety is rooted in fear and worry over the future, things you cannot control, things that you have to accomplish, and your own expectations of yourself and others. To calm anxiety, we have to let go of fear and worry and focus on the present moment, because staying in the present allows you to actually release those fears and worries by focusing solely on the moment that you are in right now.
Sensory distraction is one of the ways that you can practice coming back to the present moment and releasing the fear and anxiety you have that are causing such overwhelming distress. The Rainbow Method is one way of using your visual senses to bring attention back to the present moment.
This method can take a few minutes to work, so it is helpful to continue repeating the visual mantra to yourself while you use other coping methods as well to bring your symptoms back under control.
How Does the RAINBOW Method work with other Coping Skills?
Combating panic and anxiety attacks should be thought of as using several different tools in your tool box of coping skills. When you are having an acute panic attack, you need to combat the symptoms using several different coping methods.
If you have medication for panic attacks that you take PRN (per required need), you can use your medication to help you calm down. However, sometimes medication for anxiety attacks can take a little while to work, sometimes up to 15 or 30 minutes, so you need to have some other tools and coping skills that you can use to help you bring your heart-rate down and bring your breathing back under control. For those who do not have a medication to take PRN for an acute panic attack, building up other non-medical strategies to combat panic attacks is also essential.
Deep breathing is a MUST during a panic attack, because you likely have an elevated heart rate and increased respiratory rate, both common symptoms of an anxiety attack. So first and foremost start taking deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to extend the length of your breaths, making each breath longer and slower until you reach a comfortable respiratory rate.
You can also use an essential oil as aromatherapy during a panic attack, which is another form of sensory distraction related to your sense of smell. I have more information on how to use oils for anxiety in this post.
The combination of walking, breathing, and using sensory distraction methods is the best way that I know of to combat an acute panic attack when you do not have access to a medication or do not want to use one.
Responding to Anxiety and Panic
Anxiety can strike at unexpected times. You can be having a good day and feeling confident when your anxiety kicks into overdrive, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with an onslaught of symptoms you didn’t see coming, such as tightness in your chest, difficulty breathing, uncontrollable crying and body tremors.
This is your body responding to stress with a heightened state of arousal designed to put you on edge so that you can confront whatever stressors you are facing at the time. However, anxiety attacks can be disruptive, stressful, embarrassing, and leave you feeling out of control. Learning to use your own senses to combat these symptoms is a key skill to have if you struggle with panic and anxiety.
If you would like a guided mediation audio track of the RAINBOW method that you can use to help you during an acute episode of anxiety or panic, just submit your information on the form below and I will send you a free 10 minute audio track of this method in practice. I designed this guided meditation with my clients in mind who suffer from panic and anxiety attacks. This track will guide you through a deep breathing exercise and the RAINBOW method of sensory distraction, set to calming music, allowing you to focus and settle your overwhelming feelings.
New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to set goals for the upcoming months and assess your progress from the past year, but many people have become exhausted and cynical about new year’s resolutions, and it’s not hard to see why.
“New Year, New You!” messages bombard us in the media, imploring us to better ourselves and stop using excuses for not achieving our goals. It’s tempting to jump into the latest weight loss challenge or resolve to magically change your life by tidying up. But maybe you didn’t follow through with last year’s resolutions, so this year you don’t even want to try. Or perhaps you just don’t like the pressure of having to declare victory or failure at the end of the year and announce your determination to try again.
I’ve seen many people saying they don’t like new year’s resolutions because they don’t follow through or because it feels like a competition, but they still have goals that they are striving towards. For some, it seems like there’s just a semantics issue that doesn’t change the spirit of practicing reflection and striving for new goals. I think all of us, however, can agree that setting goals and letting go of past mistakes is a good thing.
Personally, I love New Year’s resolutions, despite the fact that I’ve fallen short of many of mine. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was by March. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to work on my goals every year, I just seem to decide to put the ones I won’t really get to under the title of “New Year’s Resolution”. Maybe that makes it seem less impactful when I don’t accomplish it. Because sure, I fell short of my New Year’s Resolution, but doesn’t everybody? If I put it on my goals list, though, I won’t put it on the back burner.
That being said, I still love the whole spirit of the New Year because it is a chance to step back and reflect on the past year and see how things have changed, and set your sights to making the next year an improvement in one way or another.
It can be hard to reflect on your year and see that you’ve fallen behind in your goals, or realize that your life has changed in a profound way, perhaps not by your own choosing, such as when you lose a loved one. But reflection doesn’t have to be about measuring progress or failures. It can also be about recognizing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses. Not because you want to overcome every flaw and become a more perfect version of yourself, but because recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is part of being your own authentic self.
So for those of you out there who are ready to set your resolutions and smash them this year- resolve away! I will always encourage you to set high goals for yourself and go for them. Just make sure that your goals are centered around what you really want, and not what you think you should be doing to present a picture perfect version of yourself to the world. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you set goals for yourself.
For those of you who can’t stand the idea of making another failed New Year’s Resolution, keep pressing forward with your otherwise named goals and create plans to accomplish them year-round. You don’t need pomp and circumstance and a Facebook announcement or a new challenge to sign up for to keep plugging away at your career/life/family/health goals.
I want to think our culture has broadly shifted away from the high pressure, high stakes, dogged commitment to presenting perfection as the ultimate goal and solution to all your problems in the New Year. I have a tendency to think that’s true, but then I realize that the reason I don’t see those kinds of messages that much anymore is because I choose not to. I have, myself, shifted away from those kinds of high stakes pressures to be practically perfect in every way, so therefore I surround myself with like-minded social accounts and steer clear of any media, businesses, or product lines that cater to a self-critical mentality. Yet I realize that those kinds of messages are still glaringly present for many people, and we are all still susceptible to absorbing negative messages wrapped in a self-care package, particularly young people.
I’m choosing to UnResolve this year. This just means that I’m planning to continue to work on all of the goals and plans that I have and I’m going to continue to value myself, my family, and my community this year. I’m going to reflect on my past year with gratitude for everything I got to experience and accomplish, and I’m going to look forward to everything still to come and make concrete plans to make progress on my goals. But I’m not going to set another arbitrary resolution that sits on the shelf and does nothing but stare at me, only for me to realize mid-June that I’ve been busy working on my goals.
My life continues to flow year in and year out. My goals will never be truly finished, because I will always look for new ways to move forward, and I constantly resolve to try something over again that I haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, no matter what time of year it is. By the way, I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book, but I did start watching her Netflix show “Tidying Up” and I find her totally adorable and I’m not sure why she gets so much flack for being tidy. I should probably go fold up my laundry now, though. Happy New Year everyone!
This post is going to outline the best strategy I have for my clients to manage an acute panic attack when they do not have a prescription medication that they use to manage their symptoms, or are waiting for their medication to kick in.
For people who experience regular panic attacks, medication is often a necessity, but as I’ve discussed in other posts about panic and anxiety, you will likely need several strategies to manage your symptoms. For others that have only occasional episodes of panic or anxiety attacks, you may not need a regular medication, but you may want to have a PRN medication that you can take as needed. Others will find that they can employ non-medical strategies to combat their symptoms and they can manage their symptoms without a prescription.
Panic attacks are a distressful and uncomfortable set of symptoms that can range from mild to severe and which often require intervention of some sort. Individuals may experience a panic attack in many different ways, but during an acute panic attack, you may experience:
- Tightness in your chest
- Difficulty breathing
- A sense of dread or overwhelming stress
- Increased heart rate
- Uncontrollable tearfulness
- Feelings of choking
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
Those who have experienced panic attacks know that they can be very upsetting and when they happen you need to take action or symptoms may worsen. The strategy I’m outlining here uses 3 coping methods in combination to combat an acute panic attack when you feel one coming on. I’ve talked about several ways to cope with panic and anxiety in this post, where you can read more about other strategies to use.
What to Do
The most effective way I know of to manage an acute panic attack aside from medication is a combination of:
Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you inhale as deeply as possible, pause for a few seconds before releasing your breath out again. Continue with these breathing exercise as long as necessary and try to focus only on your breath and release other thoughts and fears you may be having in the moment.
While you are doing this breathing exercise, get up and walk at a comfortable pace. Walking helps you to get rid of the excess energy that comes along with a panic attack and distracts you so you don’t feel like jumping out of your own skin.
- Essential Oils
The oils here are the extra boost that can provide that additional relief you need when you’re experiencing a panic attack. There are 3-4 oils that you can use that have been demonstrated to be effective in managing anxiety, and which can be used safely during a panic attack. The best oils to use are Lavender, Frankincense, Bergamot and Black Spruce .
To use this method:
- Rub a few drops of Lavender Oil onto your chest or décolletage area
- Then take a few drops of Frankincense Oil and rub it onto the back or nape of your neck and across your shoulders/traps
- Rub a few drops of Black Spruce Oil or Bergamot Oil onto both wrists or inner forearm area
- Begin walking at a comfortable pace, preferably outdoors if possible, and taking deep breaths.
- Bring your wrists up to your face as you walk and inhale deeply
- Take at least 10 deep breaths with your forearms up near your nose and continue to walk
- You can continue with this process until you feel calmer and your symptoms start to recede
As always, if you have a medication that you take for panic attacks, you can and should use your medication as prescribed to combat your symptoms. However, this method can be used to help relieve some of your symptoms while your medication starts to kick in. If you don’t have medication for panic attacks and need another way to help you when you begin to feel panic coming on, this is the #1 method that I teach and recommend to my clients who have anxiety and panic attacks. I have used oils for years myself, and I have recommended lavender oil in particular to all of my clients with anxiety problems for quite some time now. This particular method I learned partially from consulting with a friend of mine who is a wellness advocate for doTerra. I personally use doTerra oils whenever I can because of the quality, environmental, and corporate social responsibility policies. However, doTerra doesn’t offer a Black Spruce oil so I’ve purchased that one through different brands as needed.
Why Does This Work?
Plant oils and other preparations such as herbal supplements have been studied for their medicinal properties, and some have been proven to be clinically effective with certain symptoms. Lavender oil has been demonstrated as an effective intervention through research to reduce anxiety. Black spruce and Frankincense both have grounding properties that help with that overwhelming feeling that comes along with a panic attack. Lavender has a sweet, calming scent that makes you feel relaxed and calmer, and Bergamot has a citrus scent that is uplifting and refreshing.
Black spruce smells somewhat like a Christmas tree and has a property called bornyl acetate that can have a relaxing effect on the musculoskeletal system, which could be why it is so effective for anxiety as well.
Frankincense has been used medicinally and ritually for thousands of years, and has anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, and anti-microbial properties. It has a sweet and spicy scent that can be comforting and calming. Frankincense stimulates the limbic region of the brain, which may help regulate stress. Most of the research on frankincense has focused on its healing properties for cancer, skin conditions, and arthritic conditions. However, more research is being done to study its effects on emotional health as well.
Your reaction to essential oils is individualized as well, and thus it is a good idea to make sure you try out the scents by inhaling them from the bottle first before you apply them topically on your skin. These oils are all safe to use topically, but if you have very sensitive skin you can use one to two drops in a carrier oil to reduce any skin reaction. I have had clients who have not enjoyed the scent of Black Spruce or Frankincense, and so for those clients I’ve recommended sticking with Lavender and Bergamot, because those oils are pretty universally enjoyed. However, I think that the grounding properties in Black Spruce and Frankincense are really powerful because of the heightened state of arousal that occurs during a panic attack. Make sure that if you use this method that you are using essential oils and not fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic compounds made in a lab, whereas essential oils are distilled from real plants and contain the properties of those plants, making them a natural and concentrated element of that plant. Fragrance oils will not do anything for you and will likely result in a headache if you try to substitute with them.
Panic attacks are very real and require real solutions. This method is the best way that I’ve found to help my clients who suffer from panic attacks and need a concrete method to combat those symptoms when they occur. While everyone may have a different experience, most of my clients with anxiety are willing to try new methods to help combat their symptoms if they haven’t found success with other methods. I’m most interested in making sure my clients have all the tools possible to manage their symptoms, so this is one way that I can encourage people to try something new that might just help them find some relief when needed. As always, if you have a panic disorder or other mental health condition, please seek support from your mental health providers or primary care doctor to consult with about ways to manage your mental health symptoms. As a licensed clinician, I can provide advice and suggestions, but this is not a substitute for consulting with your own providers. That being said, I do hope that you will try this method and see if it works for you if you are suffering with panic attacks or anxiety.
Many people are familiar with the practice of pet therapy, as well as service animals, but I’ve noticed a rise in both the benefits and recognition of a newer category of animals known as emotional support animals (ESA). Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for their owners in the same way that service animals are. Service animals may be trained to do things that help people with mobility and sensory conditions or other disabilities, and they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that they legally are allowed at any public place that their owner goes and receive protections from housing discrimination, among other legal protections. They specifically do things that the individual cannot do for themselves, such as guiding or alerting people, picking up objects, responding to PTSD symptoms under duress, or assisting with other tasks. Emotional Support Animals are not specifically trained to do these things, but may otherwise provide comfort and reduce distress in conditions such as anxiety and depression. ESAs are not service animals and are not covered under the ADA. Nevertheless, emotional support animals can be an important and legitimate tool for people who experience relief from distress when spending time with and receiving affection from their animals.
The benefits of service animals are considered a necessary aid to people with special needs. We have long been accepting of service animals in public places (I once saw a woman with a service pony in a Target), and more recently have increased the training and accessibility of service animals for veterans through different programs specifically targeted for veterans with physical or mental health injuries. However, despite these socially acceptable and recognized benefits, people with less severe conditions are sometimes mocked or dismissed when claiming the need for an emotional support animal. It’s true that with any specially recognized category there is potential for abuse by people without true needs who want to claim benefits. Yet just because someone’s condition doesn’t necessarily disable them, this doesn’t mean that their ESA isn’t providing a true benefit to them.
Many people who are high functioning have learned to cover their conditions well, and continue to work and engage in other areas of their lives while still suffering from depression or anxiety in private. When an ESA can provide some relief from these symptoms and comfort to those who are suffering, I can find little reason to deny people the right to maintain access to their animals. Mostly, people with ESAs simply want access to housing that they may otherwise be denied if they want to bring their animal with them. Apartment complexes with no pet policies will usually allow ESA animals with documentation from a medical or mental health provider certifying the need for an ESA, whereas they would be legally required to do so under the ADA with a certified service animal.
An emotional support animal is more than a pet. While from the outside it may look as though someone is functioning just fine, you don’t know what symptoms a person may be experiencing privately. Anyone who has loved an animal can attest to the very real comfort and companionship they provide. An ESA can be an invaluable tool for people with anxiety, depression, or other related conditions that helps them improve their quality of life and cope with their symptoms. With proper training and care, there is little downside to accepting ESAs more openly in our society and reducing the stigma towards people who use them responsibly. Even if you do not need an ESA or suffer from a mental health condition, your relationship with your pet is meaningful and can improve your quality of life. Bonding with an animal helps you focus on the needs of another being, and they can reward you with affection and unconditional love. If you want to learn more about ESAs, visit therapypet.org.