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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.
This is the 3rd post in my series about Cognitive Distortions, and I am going to cover Personalization. This is a distortion that can include believing that you are responsible for things outside of your control, or it could also mean interpreting things in a way that always reflects back on you. As with all cognitive distortions, this may be something that we have all done once in a while, but if you find that you get in the habit of taking things personally when you don’t really need to, you may want to reflect on how you’re thinking about events that happen around you.
On the first part, believing that you are responsible for things that are actually out of your control, you might feel a sense of guilt or shame about things that are not your fault or that you couldn’t have controlled. For example, if your partner is struggling with a health condition, but isn’t following their treatment recommendations, and you then feel responsible for not doing enough to help when their health declines. Supporting your partner doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for things that are out of your control. It’s always important to understand what you do have control over, because we all need to be able to take responsibility for our own actions and choices when we can. Yet we also need to understand when something is out of our control, and recognize our own limitations.
The second part of Personalization is when you turn things around to reflect on you when an event or situation may not be about you at all. Sometimes this comes from a sense of insecurity or anxiety. For example, if you walk into the break room at work, and everyone stops talking, and you mistakenly start to believe that everyone must be talking about you behind your back. In reality, that could have happened for any number of reasons. Maybe they were discussing something private, or maybe it was just one of those weird moments when the room goes quiet. Regardless, if you don’t know for certain what’s going on, you don’t have to waste your energy worrying about it. Sometimes we think situaitons are about us when they really are not. One thing to consider is that most of the time, other people are worried about themselves and thinking about themselves. This just means that most of the time they’re not thinking or worrying about you. Of course there are people who spend their time focused on other people, and in general you don’t want to spend too much time involved with people who gossip or are just snarky in general. Even when someone is treating you poorly, their behavior is about them, not you. It’s easier to handle difficult people when you realize that the way they treat others is actually a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Most of the time, you won’t be able to do anything to change those kinds of people, so you just need to focus on being the kind of person you want be.
If you find that you are often personalizing situations at times when you don’t need to, reflect on why you think this has become a pattern. You may need to ask yourself why you feel responsible for things that you cannot control, or if you are holding yourself to a high standard that no one could realistically meet. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself “is this really about me?” to get a better understanding of a situation and understand how much control you really have. Try to practice asking yourself some of these questions when you are thinking about a situation and believe that it is about you or something you did. If you think that insecurity or anxiety is playing a role in how you are interpreting a situation, you can practice reminding yourself that you are working on not personalizing situations. This is one of those times when I will often recommend developing a personal mantra. A mantra can be any simple phrase that you use to center your thoughts and help clear your mind of negativity. It could be as simple as something like “Peace,” or it could be something more specific. For more on developing a personal mantra, see this post:
The Power of a Personal Mantra
Changing patterns of thinking can be challenging, but the good news is that with practice it becomes easier. Once you are used to reflecting on your thoughts and taking more control over your own mindset, you will be building your emotional intelligence and you will feel more in control over your mentality and your moods.
For more about cognitive distortions, see my other posts in this series:
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Having a personal mantra is something that everyone can benefit from. When I work with people who have struggled with self-esteem, feelings of anxiety or even feelings of grief or depression, I have often encouraged clients to develop a personal mantra as a way of staying centered, focused, and calm in the face of difficult emotions. Having a personal mantra can help you when you begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated or defeated. One great thing about personal mantras is that you don’t have to have just one, and you don’t even have to make it up yourself.
Take, for example, the Serenity Prayer. This is a common mantra that is used in addiction recovery circles and elsewhere, and it basically says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” [original credit from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr]. Your mantra can be something like this, an inspirational quote with a spiritual focus, or it can be completely different. You could use a song lyric that particularly speaks to you, or something your mother told you frequently when you were growing up that still resonates with you today. The power of a mantra is in its ability to help you focus your mental energy in a positive direction when you need to transition out of negative thought patterns. People often turn to inspirational quotes or wise old sayings in order to provide some comfort and hope during times of struggle (i.e: “this too, shall pass”).
Creating a personal mantra is just about using the messages that resonate most with you and provide you with encouragement and hope when you need a mental re-set. It serves as a source of positive affirmation and directs you to put your energy in a more productive direction. Whatever words you decide to use for your personal mantra, claim them! Decide that this is your new mantra and you are going to use that positive affirmation to help you through your current struggles or to keep you inspired. You don’t have to go around telling everyone, just make sure you internalize that message and use it when you need to.
Tips for creating and using a personal mantra:
– Think about your favorite inspirational quotes, song lyrics from your favorite artists, or words of wisdom you have heard or picked up on from other people you know, OR just make something up and inspire yourself
– Make your mantra short and easy to remember
– Make sure your mantra reflects something you actually BELIEVE
– Ensure that the mantras you will use are positive, uplifting, and encouraging (avoid picking something like “Life sucks and then you die”)
– Post visual images of your mantra in places where you will see it (in your wallet, on your bedroom mirror, on the wallpaper of your computer screen)
– Set a daily reminder to reflect on your mantra at a useful time such as when you first get up in the morning, or before you step into that dreaded Monday meeting that always sours your mood
– Keep repeating the mantra to yourself silently when you are struggling
– Pick more than one if needed
– You can use one for times when you are overwhelmed (“Serenity Now!”), and another for times you need to be inspired (“I can create the life that I want”)
I have several mantras that I use a various times in my life, but just to share, one that I use is “Get out of the Pool”. This phrase is connected to an analogy I use with my clients sometimes, referring to drowning in a pool of self-doubt or negative self-talk. It means that when I feel like I am lingering too long in self-doubt or negative thoughts, I need to get out of that pool before I drown. Sometimes I have to remind myself to get out of the pool, because I’m wasting my times there and it’s not helping me in any positive or tangible way to keep marinating in that self-doubt.
Once you start intentionally incorporating your personal mantra in your life, you will find that its power will grow. Changing our thought patterns and our limiting beliefs can be done, but you must make a conscious decision that you will actively work to re-focus your energy in a positive direction. You do not have to change everything in your life overnight but starting to use a personal mantra will help you shift your energy and focus in a way that will feel more empowering and will help you get through those times when your thoughts feel like they are controlling you instead of the other way around.
This post originally appeared on Medium.com.
This is the second post in the series I am doing about Cognitive Distortions. For more about what cognitive distortions are and how they negatively impact out life and world-view, see my first post on Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing.
This week I’m going to talk about another distortion called “Disqualifying the Positive”. Disqualifying the positive means we are recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. Perhaps you receive a compliment or a positive statement on an evaluation you receive at work or a paper you have turned in, but you only focus on the single negative feedback you also received on your work. When you are in the habit of disqualifying the positive, it makes it hard to recognize the good things you have done, leaving you feeling inadequate, or sometimes even worthless or incompetent. Therapists sometimes refer to this as having a case of the “Yes, but…”s.
Have you ever had a friend that was feeling down, but when you tried to cheer them up, they just refuted everything positive you had to say? Perhaps you tried to compliment someone on a new opportunity they received at work, and the response was “Yes, but they only gave it to me because they already promoted Becky and she’s not around to do it anymore”. When we constantly disqualify the positive things we have going for us in life, or only look to the negative aspects of the situation, we are really not looking at the given situation with the true lenses of reality. Not only is it inaccurate, you’re missing out on the joy you could be experiencing by allowing yourself to recognize the positive things you have going for you.
In life there are few things that are all good or all bad. Even if you’re going to take a vacation in Hawaii, there’s no way you’re getting around that long plane ride. However, if you focus only on how long and cramped and boring the plane ride will be and how much you’re not looking forward to it, you’ll arrive at your vacation grumpy and tired. Some people have a special knack for disqualifying the positive wherever they go, and in general these people aren’t the most pleasant to be around. Other people always have to spend time pointing out to them the positive aspects of the given situation until they begrudgingly accept that there may be a positive to be found somewhere in there.
The antidote to this cognitive distortion is gratitude. Looking for places to find gratitude wherever you go can be a habit that you cultivate. When we look for the positive in any situation we face, we become happier overall, and we become more resilient to negative situations or feedback when it does happen. Some people can accomplish this with starting a gratitude practice, or you can journal about things you are grateful for. They can be very simple things. Even when negative experiences happen, there is usually a lesson that can be taken from the experience, or a kernel of gratitude that can be found if you look for it. If you lose a loved one, perhaps you choose to include a reflection of the positive memories you had with that person as you journey through your grief process, or perhaps you choose to honor their memory by giving back to a charity your loved one cared about. It doesn’t make the loss go away, but it can help with the grieving process and take something negative and insert a little positivity into the situation. There is a great list of simple things to be grateful for over at Radical Transformation Project here:
50 Things to be Grateful for Right Now
For some people, particularly if you have struggled with depression or low self-esteem in your life, looking for the positive doesn’t come naturally. That’s okay because it is a habit that can be changed if you want to start thinking in a more positive and realistic way about your life and your accomplishments. You do not have to automatically disqualify everything positive that happens to you just because there are also negative things that happen. When we ruminate on the negative and give that negativity more energy than we give positivity, the negativity starts to rule our lives. Sometimes, that negative voice that sneaks up on you when something good happens may really be the voice of someone who abused or neglected you, someone who convinced you that you were not worthy of enjoying your life, or that you didn’t deserve good things and didn’t deserve to be recognized when you did something well. Many of us have to learn to combat those negative voices in our heads by consciously choosing to listen to the positive. Think about it like having that little devil on one shoulder and that little angel on then other shoulder. The little angel is trying to say something positive to you, and that little devil just whispers in your other ear “Yes, but…”
Make a decision that you are going to start recognizing the good aspects of the situations you find yourself in, and stop disqualifying the positive. As with any problem, the first step is recognizing that the problem exists and making a commitment to want to change it. When you start to hear “Yes, but…” creeping into your vocabulary, that’s when you know it’s time to brush the little devil off your shoulder and listen to what your little angel has to say to you. It’s okay to be proud of yourself, it’s okay to be imperfect, and it’s okay to take the good along with the bad in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that we put on rose colored glasses and ignore negative situations that need to be attended to or dealt with. It just means that we don’t disqualify the positive at the same time, thereby robbing ourselves of the ability to see both the good and the bad in a situation.
Battling cognitive distortions is not about disqualifying the negative or never making a plan to deal with a bad situation. It just means that we are looking at the full picture with attention to what the reality of the situation is, so that we don’t over-emphasize negativity when it’s not warranted.
This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team. Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment. The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers. Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”
I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist. The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all. Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”. The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence. It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law. It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser. This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them. We don’t do this with other types of crimes.
Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind. It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”. Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement. Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser. No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse. I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem. Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.
Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward. When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again. Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously. However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes. The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily. Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.
If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days. It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support. Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources. Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process. However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area. If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need. Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report. As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors. However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate. For more information about support and resources, visit www.rainn.org, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.