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How to Distract and Soothe Yourself When Anxiety Strikes

Kylyssa Shay is a middle-aged American woman living with autism who enjoys sharing hard-earned life hacks with people who need them.

Here are some tips for dealing with anxiety from a PTSD sufferer. They don't cure anxiety, but they often work for me to short-circuit the symptoms in mid-freak-out.

Here are some tips for dealing with anxiety from a PTSD sufferer. They don't cure anxiety, but they often work for me to short-circuit the symptoms in mid-freak-out.

I'm an expert in anxiety—not in treating it but in experiencing it. My first traumatic incident occurred in childhood so who's to say whether or not any given symptom I experience is caused by PTSD or something else?

Anxiety disorders have a great deal of overlap, and I've experienced all sorts of symptoms from a number of them. But I've found some tactics that help me. They don't cure anxiety, but they often work for me to short-circuit the symptoms in mid-freak-out.

I've spent a lot of time searching the Internet for things that would help, and I've found an awful lot of sites and articles that are just advertisements for books, DVDs, and special programs that claim to help people suffering from anxiety. These really irritate me, and the scarcity of helpful suggestions that can be found without having to pay money for them is something I dislike intensely.

That is why I'm sharing actual things that have helped me. They aren't perfect, and they don't always work–even for me—but I figured they might help other people.

Symptoms I Have Experienced

I have PTSD due to traumatic childhood experiences as well as adult experiences with violence, both witnessing it and being the victim of it.

Panic Attacks

I have experienced panic attacks of at least two different kinds: the kind that has a trigger and the kind that comes out of the blue. The panic attacks that have a trigger—such as some dude getting into my personal space without warning—are attached to a bunch of thoughts that trigger sensory flashbacks.

The other type of panic attack I experience is almost more physical in nature. It just pops up out of the blue when I'm minding my own business and sometimes even when I'm enjoying myself in a setting with no possible threats. They are very intense and have strong emotions with them rather than clear memories or conscious thoughts. Neither sort is any fun at all and being absolutely terrified for no darned good reason is extremely unpleasant no matter the cause.

Generalized Anxiety

I've also experienced the generalized sort of anxiety wherein my mind chomps onto and chews on some problem as intently as a hungry dog gnaws a smoked cow femur. This kind is probably the most annoying. It lasts longer, feels more obviously irrational, and interferes with daily life in ways the others don't.

The level of fear is lower, but it goes on and on. And the kicker is that it makes me more vulnerable to the other sorts. It can transform into a panic attack or even a flashback, depending on what particular train of thoughts led to it. It's wacky and embarrassing what things can activate this kind of generalized anxiety and what circuitous routes my thoughts can take to get from, say, worrying about my aquarium leaking to a flashback to being knifed.

Tips From Someone Who Has PTSD and Anxiety

Lucky for me, I've found some ways to deal with these types of anxiety. They aren't perfect, don't always work so well, and certainly don't replace professional help. But if you can feel where I'm coming from, you're well aware that anxiety sufferers will try anything that helps. None of this advice is harmful and the worst you'd end up with is a very clean house and fresh breath.

Distract Your Mind

I distract the heck out of myself in a wide variety of ways. As soon as I consciously realize I’m in a worry spiral or falling into a flashback or panic attack, I do something.

You know how you can train a dog to stop bad behaviors by shaking a can of change at him or calling his attention to something else? The unconscious parts of my mind responsible for this anxiety garbage seem about as smart as that dog. I’m very thankful it isn’t terribly bright; if I had to outsmart anything of my own intelligence, I’d have way bigger problems. Anyway, I can distract my mentally challenged unconscious. I feel fine saying that because, after all, the stupid thing is freaking out when there’s no darned good reason.

So what do I actually do?

I try the first distraction that comes to hand or mind after I walk away from whatever the trigger is—if there is a trigger.

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This includes:

  • Chewing on a very strong mint, the stronger the better.
  • Smelling something with a strong scent.
  • Reading news stories that will make me angry.
  • Looking at cute animals on the Internet.
  • Going for a walk and attempting juggling at the same time.
  • Engaging in heavy exercise.
  • Doing a very difficult puzzle.
  • Reaching for a memory.
  • Reciting something.

The key is to provide either a strong sensory jolt or to use up so much of my attention and concentration that there’s not much processing power left for the anxiety.

Strong smells seem to be particularly effective for me, especially when a different smell has triggered my flashback or panic attack.

Read a Self-Help Book

I found this book on panic attacks to be helpful. I don't buy any of the books I read; instead, I check them out from my local library.

I highly recommend browsing the self-help section of your local library mostly because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to relieving anxiety. I’ve read a bunch of books that weren’t helpful, and if I’d actually bought them, it would have been a waste of money. Read before you buy and you’ll be happier for it. You can also grab a few fun, distracting novels, DVDs, or whatever else you enjoy while you’re at the library.

Drinking tea can be a great way to soothe your mind when it's in overdrive.

Drinking tea can be a great way to soothe your mind when it's in overdrive.

Soothe Yourself

I have a variety of ways to soothe myself. This usually works best if I try distraction, often one of the taste or smell distractions first. They divert my attention while soothing prevents me from going back to the negative train of thought, assuming it’s the kind of anxiety caused by conscious thoughts.

Some things I do:

  • Drink a cup of hot tea and think about each sip.
  • Rock, fidget or tap my fingers.
  • Meditate.
  • Remind myself that I am loved and think about by who specifically loves me.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Take deep breaths: Slowly inhale for six seconds, hold the breath in for six seconds, and slowly exhale for at least six seconds all the while silently keeping count.
  • Read

Engage in Multiple Activities Simultaneously

For me, I need to sort of feel out how many tracks my mind is working on at once and keep that many occupied until my unconscious mind gives up on feeling anxiety. Sometime when you are particularly alert but not anxious, try to figure out how many trains of thought you can hold at once. You can do this by performing a bunch of activities at once.

What activities do I or did I do to figure out how many “tracks” I need to occupy?

  • Counting
  • Saying the alphabet
  • Working on a math problem
  • Reciting pi
  • Singing a song, either silently or aloud
  • Visualizing a series of geometric shapes
  • Visualizing a series of colors
  • Attempting to remember the name of someone I went to grade school with
  • Trying to remember the periodic table of elements
  • Thinking of the word for love in every language I know a little of
  • Thinking of another activity to do at the same time
  • Patting my head
  • Rubbing my tummy
  • Tapping my fingers
  • Playing an instrument

If you try to do as many of these things at once as you possibly can, it won’t give you a maximum number, but it will give you some idea. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at how many trains of thought your mind can hold at once.

The easier the task, the more I can do simultaneously. The bad thing about that is that it’s very, very easy to be anxious so the rest of my mind needs to either be actually asleep or engaged in a whole lot of other activities.

Here are four things that help me when I have high anxiety or experience a panic attack.

Here are four things that help me when I have high anxiety or experience a panic attack.

Real-Life Example Using These Techniques

If I start to have the feelings of unreality associated with PTSD—maybe a flashback or an out-of-nowhere panic attack—a typical attempt to stop it might go something like this.

I reach for a sugar-free mint and start crunching it while I put the kettle on to make tea. The panic begins to escalate despite these measures, but I start mentally reciting the alphabet while doing the slow-breathing exercise: six seconds in, six seconds held, and six seconds out.

I keep up the breathing exercises and get the mug and tea ready for the hot water while trying to count silently and recite pi at the same time. This doesn’t reduce the panic, so I open the fridge and start cleaning it while doing the breathing exercises, counting, reciting pi, and listening to the state of the water in the kettle. I then might try to visualize how I want the fridge to look when it’s clean. If that doesn’t do it, I might drop a dab of hot sauce on my tongue while keeping up all the other things.

Depending on the severity of the attack and how long I let it go on before engaging in these activities, this may or may not work, although it seems to shorten the duration almost every time. I try to avoid doing the same thing every time because I don’t want any of the tasks to become too easy.

I know that sounds like a lot, but if you give it a try, you’ll get better at doing a bunch of things at once and likely need to keep adding more to give the negative thoughts no “room” to exist.

If you want to give this distract-and-soothe technique a try, brainstorm a number of distractions and soothers ahead of time because you may have difficulty thinking of any on the spot–although that, in itself, is a distraction. Also, as I mentioned, you may be very surprised at how many things you can think and do at once.

I’ve talked about the sprint so now it’s time to cover the marathon.

If I feel the tension building, I generally start with something that will soothe me.

I might stroke one of my roommate’s kitties while watching an engaging television program if I’m at home. I might read an upbeat book or try a new recipe. Fixing something or starting an art, craft, or DIY project may help, too. Engaging in thoughts and tasks that allow no room or attention for worrying seems to provide me with the most relief.

Prepare in a Calmer State

You may wish to come up with different suitable distractions and soothers for work and for home because, obviously, you just can’t do many of the home-based things at work.

I also have a routine that helps for use while driving. It mostly involves having assorted intense mints on hand and having the radio programmed to channels that often host political programming that will irritate me. It’s hard to maintain a panicked state while yelling at the radio.

Great Online Resource

  • Panic
    This website addresses panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and treatment for them through a blog format as well as in a community forum setting.

Please share your tips for dealing with generalized anxiety or panic attacks. Any suggestion you have may be the one that helps someone else!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Kylyssa Shay (author) from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on February 25, 2015:

Those are two excellent tools to fight anxiety.

promisem on February 24, 2015:

I find that hard exercise helps a lot. So does writing.

anonymous on July 08, 2013:

My trigger is crowds. I can handle the grocery store because I use the same one every time, but get-togethers are really hard for me. I'll use the ladies' room, turn on the sink and run cool water over my wrists.

flycatcherrr on July 04, 2013:

This is a really useful reflection on your own experience, very helpful! Now I have a mental image of a whole series of train tracks along which the panic will run towards meltdown, if permitted, so the need is to find as many distractions and/or soothing things as required to limit the onrush of panic engines to a traffic level that can be coped with... poorly worded, I know, but it's a useful analogy for me. Strong peppermints, eh? I never would have thought of that, but it makes sense to look at all different kinds of sensory input. Thanks for this!

victoriuh on July 03, 2013:

I also turn to scents. Play-doh and crayons are two of my favorites. Preparation is key to helping me through the attacks.

Paul from Liverpool, England on June 12, 2013:

A variation on the theme, if I may. If I'm likely to be in an awkward or dangerous situation, I try to anticipate - I prepare and rehearse different scenarios. That could be general behaviour all the way down to anticipating specific questions or comments. As interaction with other people can be one of the worst anxiety provokers, have a few standard responses ready. If someone asks you a question you can't answer, try "Sorry, I don't know. I'll look into it and get back to you" rather than stammering and shaking (been there, done that, no more).

TapIn2U on June 10, 2013:

Thank you for the tips! It will surely help others. Sundae ;-)

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