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.
Anxiety is common mental health condition that affects millions of people every day. While many people use anti-anxiety medications to help manage their symptoms, I often hear from people who want to learn more about strategies to cope with anxiety and panic attacks without using medication.
My general recommendation for coping with anxiety is to think of yourself as having a toolbox. You can use many different tools to cope with your symptoms, and medication may be one of those tools. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, medication may have place in your life as you learn how to manage your symptoms in the best way for you as an individual.
However, even if you take a medication for anxiety or panic attacks, you probably still want some other strategies to help you manage your symptoms so that you feel more confident that you can effectively cope when you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Here are 10 non-medical tools and strategies that you can utilize to help build your coping skills around managing your anxiety and panic attacks:
- Deep-breathing Practices
- Deep-breathing is a necessary strategy if you struggle with panic and anxiety. Deep-breathing techniques increase the oxygen flow to your brain and body, and it is the Number 1 way to combat acute panic and anxiety. Practice inhaling deeply through your nose, holding your breath for 5 seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. Do this at least 10 times to produce a calming effect in your body and mind. Try closing your eyes while you are doing it as well, to increase the focus of your senses on your breathing.
- Another deep-breathing method to try involves closing your right nostril with your thumb while you breathe deeply in through the left nostril. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, then close the left nostril with your forefinger while you release your thumb on the right nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril. You are directing the flow of air throughout your nasal passage in a conscious way. Repeat this 10 times, alternating the open and closed nostril.
- Guided Meditation
- I love using guided meditation apps for sleep, but they are great for panic and anxiety as well. Using an app with your headphones can help you focus on your breath, and listening to a calming voice talk to you in a soothing way will bring your attention back to the present moment. Just go to wherever you usually get your apps from (I just use the app store on my phone) and search for “guided meditation” and look through the options. Many apps have free versions that give you a few tracks, while others cost a few dollars and come with expanded options.
- Yoga is an excellent technique to incorporate into your lifestyle to reduce stress and anxiety. The practice focuses on attention to your breathing as you move through poses that will stretch your muscles, increase your flexibility, and enhance your mind-body connection. Research has shown yoga to be an effective strategy for reducing anxiety and depression.
- Incorporate a hatha-style (gentle) yoga practice into your routine twice a week for 90 minutes for the best results. If that kind of schedule doesn’t work for you, try shorter practices more frequently, such as 15 minutes twice a day. For more tips on building a yoga practice for mental health, check out my post on How to use Yoga for Depression.
- Aromatherapy works by using essential oils to stimulate your olfactory system, which connects scents to your nose and your brain. I have recommended them to my clients frequently as an extra resource to cope with panic and anxiety. You can use essential oils by applying them topically to the skin, in conjunction with a massage, in a diffuser for your entire room, or you can just inhale directly from the bottle.
- The best oils in my experience to use for panic and anxiety are Lavender Oil, Frankincense , and Black Spruce. If you’ve never tried using oils before, you can start by rubbing a drop or two of oil on your wrists, and then bringing your wrists to your nose and inhaling deeply. Just be careful, as some oils that are very strong need to be blended with a carrier oil. The 3 oils mentioned here are fine to use topically on your skin, but if you have very sensitive skin, just mix a drop of oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil like coconut oil or grapeseed oil before applying to your skin.
- Make sure that you use essential oils, and not fragrance oils. Essential oils are derived from plants, whereas fragrance oils are synthetic and laboratory made. Fragrance oils will not have the same effects as essential oils and are not a replacement.
- I have tried different brands of essential oils, but I do prefer to use doTERRA when possible for 3 reasons: product quality, corporate social responsibility, and environmental responsibility. I’ve researched the company and find them to be reputable in those areas, which is important to me.
- Another method of aromatherapy is to diffuse the oil into the air around you. You can use a combination of lavender and frankincense by just adding a few drops of each to a diffuser with water, and then allow the scent to fill the room. Diffusing is probably best as a more preventative method. If you find yourself having acute anxiety, you most likely will find it more effective to apply the oils topically and inhale. Diffusing is great though, for creating on overall calming and relaxing atmosphere in your personal space.
- You can also use oils in your bathtub by just dropping 5 drops in the water. Using oils along with Epson salts will provide a relaxing bath experience. Again, lavender and frankincense are great options here. If you don’t use a bathtub, try dropping a few drops of oil in the bottom of your shower towards the opposite end of where the drain is where not as much water will wash it away so quickly. It will still diffuse a little into the steam of your shower.
- Journaling can be therapeutic as both a preventative strategy and acute anxiety. Any journal or notebook will do, so try doing a quick entry at night before you go to bed to help you get all your stressors off your mind before going to sleep. Or, you can keep a small journal with you throughout the day and start writing when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Many people find writing to be very helpful as a coping skill, so it’s worth trying. You can also try writing down your stressors and fears and then burning them in a fire-pit or outside on a driveway as a symbolic way to rid yourself of those feelings.
- Mindfulness Practices
- Mindfulness is another practice that has support from research demonstrating its effectiveness as a measure to improve psychological wellbeing. Mindfulness practices will not stop a panic attack that is already in progress, but it is a good strategy to promote mental health and resilience by consciously devoting mental energy to developing healthy habits both mentally and physically. To get started with a mindfulness practice, try to devote 30 days to changing your habits by paying extra attention to your nutritional, exercise, and mental health needs and reducing unnecessary distractions that create extra stress such as excessive social media and technology use.
- Walking is great for your heart and your mind. If you feel a panic attack coming on, getting outside to walk is one of the best things you can do right away to help calm yourself down. Walk at a comfortable pace, which may be faster or slower depending on how you feel as an individual and what your body is telling you that you need at that moment. Take deep breaths while you are walking and if you happen to have your essential oils with you, inhale some of the oils while you are walking and breathing deeply. This is one of the most effective combinations to combat an acute panic attack. You can also use one of the guided meditation apps in conjunction with walking, which may also help reduce acute anxiety.
- Sensory Distraction
- This strategy involves using your 5 senses to distract yourself and redirect energy to your body in the present moment. Try stimulating your senses by running cool water over your wrists, inhaling from a bottle of calming essential oils, using a scalp massager to stimulate your ASMR response, visual identification, or other methods. For a full description of how to use sensory distraction to help with panic and anxiety, see my post on the topic here.
- Emotional Support Animals and Pets
- If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) already, then you know how important your animal can be to helping reduce anxiety. Companion animals can have a soothing presence and provide unconditional love. ESAs can be cats, dogs, rabbits, or even snakes. The most important thing is that building a physical connection with your ESA or pet can help you calm down when anxiety is building, and stroking or cuddling your animal can produce feel-good endorphins that combat the negative energy of anxiety. You can check out more about the benefits of animals in this post.
- Art can be an amazing medium to express yourself and cope with overwhelming feelings. If you are artistically inclined and depending on your interests and talents, you may choose to paint, draw, sculpt, write, or play music when you feel overwhelmed to release and re-direct that energy.
- If you (like me) are not so artistically inclined but still love art and want to try using it to help with stress, then Adult Coloring Books are the way to go. There are lots of adult coloring books out there now with many different themes, so pick one and grab a set of colored pencils or pens and try it.
Refocusing Your Mental Energy
What all of these strategies have in common is that they bring your attention from the source of your anxiety and stress back to your own body and mind. They all include a method of directing your energy and attention towards what is happening in the present moment and using that energy towards mental and physical healing.
Anxiety is associated with worrying about the future in some capacity. Many people with anxiety conditions worry about having an unexpected panic attack and they experience stress and fear about whether they will be able to cope with it when it happens. Bringing our attention to the present moment with strategies such as these can help reduce the anxiety that you feel about potential outcomes that may happen in the future. This doesn’t take away our need to think about the future, and it doesn’t change our need to attend to our own needs in the present. But it can help balance those emotions and bring them into proportion.
I think of managing anxiety as a two-part process. You need to have an overall strategy to create a sense of balance and general stress reduction methods to improve your overall quality of life. Then, you also need to have that toolbox full of coping skills that can help you in the acute moments when you begin to feel overwhelmed or panicked. The strategies outlined above can help with both.
If you are regularly incorporating some of these strategies into your life, you will experience an overall reduction in stress and improved sense of balance in your life. However, during moments of panic or overwhelm you want to also have methods such as aromatherapy and sensory distraction to help calm you down when needed.
You may have already practiced some of these strategies before, but if there are some you haven’t tried yet, try to incorporate some new methods into your routine. You may be surprised to find out what works for you, and none of them will do you harm if you practice them mindfully.
Note: Always consult with your doctor when making decisions about your options for medication and the severity of your symptoms.
People experience mental health symptoms on a scale, which is to say that the severity of their symptoms vary widely amongst individuals. For example, most people have a bandwidth of happiness in which they exist regardless of their circumstances. Think about happiness as being a scale from 1-10, in which 10 is the most happy, joyful, and blissful mood you can experience, and 1 is being so depressed that you are suicidal. Some people never get to that feeling of 1. Even when things are really bad, such as experiencing the pain of grief, or significant financial hardships, or experiencing a severe trauma or assault, they still never get to the point at which they are suicidal. Maybe that person stays within a bandwidth of 5-9, so that when things are really, really, bad, they would rate their happiness around a level 5, and when things are going really, really well, they get pretty close to that 10 on the happiness scale. There are other people, though, who never ever get to that feeling of 10. They tend more towards depression, and when things are really, really going well, they experience their happiness around perhaps a 7, but when they are really struggling with things going on in their life, or something pretty bad happens, they can become suicidal and really struggle to cope with their circumstances.
All this means is that some individuals may need more interventions depending on where they fall on an overall bandwidth of their symptoms. The same analogy above can be considered when you are thinking about symptoms of anxiety as well. Some people tend to have more of an anxious nature, while others may be very laid back in how they handle life’s curveballs, and many of us land somewhere in between. You can use this analogy to help you determine how severe your symptoms are and whether or not your symptoms are likely to improve with non-medical interventions such as traditional talk therapy, utilizing your coping skills, and reaching out for support from family and friends, or whether you need to seek out medical interventions.
I have found in my clinical practice that many people do not want to take medication for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other diagnoses or symptoms. This is understandable, because no one wants to feel like they have to have a crutch to help them cope with life. However, there is no shame in using a medical intervention when needed to help you better manage your mental health. We use medication all the time to address our physical health needs. Just as we preserve our physical health by using non-medical interventions such as diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes when necessary, we can use our coping skills, support systems, and lifestyle changes to preserve and promote our mental health. However, just as we sometimes need an antibiotic or another medication to manage a temporary or chronic physical condition, we may need to use a mental health medication to manage a temporary or chronic mental health condition.
If you are wondering whether medication is right for your mental health, consider the following in order to help you make a decision about whether a temporary or long-term mental health medication is something you should discuss with a therapist or doctor.
- You have been diagnosed with a mental health condition that includes symptoms of psychosis or other features that necessitate medication management.
- If you have a mental health diagnosis that includes symptoms such as hearing voices, dissociative states, or severe mood swings, medication may be something that needs to be included in your long-term treatment plan. While some diagnoses may be temporary in nature, other conditions such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, or bipolar disorder require long term treatment and medication is frequently a part of the treatment recommendations. Understandably, there are many people who resist being on medication long term. People with these conditions often do benefit from their medication protocols, but they can be susceptible to lapses in medication compliance because they begin to feel better and mistakenly believe that they no longer need the medication. This can result in a harmful cycle of symptom escalation, which could be avoided with regular compliance with their medication protocols. If you have a more severe clinical diagnosis, it is important to recognize that medication can be an important part of maintaining a good quality of life, with your symptoms being closely monitored by your treatment team and your medications managed by a doctor you trust.
- Your symptoms have been ongoing for a month or longer.
- We all experience temporary struggles in life that can affect our mood and can increase symptoms of depression or anxiety. However, sometimes those feelings become overwhelming and our regular coping skills aren’t cutting it when it comes to managing our mental health. For example, you may experience a significant loss in your life and grief becomes overwhelming. Or, you might be going through an extremely stressful life change, and your anxiety starts to escalate to the point at which you begin to experience panic attacks. While some stress, depression, or anxiety is normal when you experience these major life changes, if you are experiencing significant distress for a month or longer, please consider consulting your doctor or a psychiatrist to help you learn what medical options may help you experience some relief.
- You have begun to experience physical manifestations of your mental health symptoms.
- When your body starts to show physical signs of your mental health stress, it is probably time to consult with a doctor about your symptoms. For example, some anxiety under periods of stress is normal, but when you start to experience panic attacks, tightness in your chest, or hyperventilation, you have crossed a threshold at which medication management may be another tool that you can benefit from to get relief from the distress. This applies to depression, too. Many people experience bouts of depression during difficult times in their lives, but when your depression is causing extreme fatigue, disrupted sleep, changes in weight, body aches and pains, or other physical manifestations, you may benefit from trying an anti-depressant under the supervision of a qualified doctor.
- You have tried utilizing your coping skills and support system but your symptoms have not improved.
- I am a big advocate of utilizing non-medical interventions for mental health treatment and building the right skills to help manage symptoms on your own. However, this doesn’t mean that medication can’t be an appropriate tool to use when your other skills are not helping you to feel better. We all need to develop and use our own coping skills and reach out to our positive support systems when we are distressed. Yet if you have tried these interventions and you are still suffering, there is no shame in seeking out more help when needed. This doesn’t mean you have to be on medication forever, but medication can help your brain chemistry a little bit, and help you get back to feeling normal (whatever that is for you) again.
- You have had thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or other people, or you have engaged in self-harm behaviors such as cutting to relieve or manage your symptoms.
- Self-harm behaviors or suicidal ideations are significant indicators that you may need some help with medication management. No one deserves to feel like they need to harm themselves to experience relief from anxiety or depression, and no one deserves to feel like their life is not valuable enough to fight for. If you have engaged in self-harm behaviors (including disordered eating behaviors like restriction, binging, and purging) or you have thoughts of wanting to harm yourself, you need to talk to a professional about getting your symptoms under control so that you can stop harming yourself and start working towards recovery. Your life and your mental health are worth fighting for and you should not feel ashamed about seeking medical help. If you have significant anger issues that result in you having thoughts of wanting to act out in violence or harm others, you also may need to seek medication in addition to traditional therapy in order to prevent an escalation of these impulses.
- You are engaging in other forms of self-medication such as overuse of alcohol, marijuana or other substances to get relief from your symptoms.
- If you find that you are using alcohol or other substances on a regular basis to experience relief from symptoms of depression or anxiety, your efforts may backfire on you. Alcohol is a depressant, and thus it may temporarily make you feel more relaxed or less anxious, but it can ultimately exacerbate your symptoms. Alcohol also interferes with your sleep, and the lack of quality sleep can also exacerbate your symptoms (hint: passing out is NOT quality sleep!).
- Substance use functions as a form of escapism for many people, but your problems are still there when you wake up in the morning. If you really want to get a handle on symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, think about your use of substances and whether it is really helping you improve your life, or if it is just serving as a form of self-medication or causing you to avoid seeking professional help.
- Alcohol and other substances can interfere with many medications. If you have consulted with your doctor and decided that medication is right for you, be sure to let your doctor know about your drinking or other habits so that they can ensure you are informed about potential interactions or side effects when taking your medication.
So, what if you have been on medication for mental health symptoms, but now you are feeling better and you don’t want to be on medication any longer? First, recognize that if you are feeling better- this means the medication is working as intended. Some people want to get off medication as soon as they start to feel better, but understand that you may need to stay on the medication for a while longer, especially if you are getting good results. Sometimes people stay on an anxiety medication or an anti-depressant for a year or longer. However, if you have done the work of developing stronger coping skills, or you have had success with traditional therapy and feel as though you are ready to wean off of a medication that you have been utilizing to address your symptoms, you can seek guidance from your providers about your options for the next steps. A good provider will be honest and frank with you about your progress and the risks and benefits of changing your medication protocol. However, if you have decided to go off of your medication, make sure that you do so under the guidance of your doctor. Many medications build up in your body in order to reach a therapeutic level (the dosage at which they are most effective). It is very important not to wean yourself off of a medication without consulting your doctor, because your doctor may be able to help you get off the medication slowly so that you do not experience harsh side effects or a dramatic return of your symptoms. You do not have to feel ashamed about pursuing medication when it is right for you. Think of it as just another tool in your toolbox of coping skills. Deciding to take a medication doesn’t mean you have to stay on it forever, and it doesn’t mean you don’t still have to do the work of going through therapy or otherwise building your other methods of coping and obtaining support. Just understand that medication is a tool, not a panacea to resolve your problems. A medication is not going to magically make your problems go away, but it may just help you get the relief you need to keep moving forward with your life in a healthier and happier way, and there is no shame in that.