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.
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 report that they feel better in a variety of ways when they spend time in nature. Hiking, walking, going to the beach, gardening, outdoor sports, and camping all have tangible benefits to your mental health. Nature helps us disconnect from the stressors of our everyday lives, reminds us of our connection to the earth and the cycles of life, and facilitates spiritual connections by engaging our senses and quieting our minds.
Some people intuitively know that they need that time in nature or outside in the fresh air in order to keep mentally well. But sometimes we forget that nature is a powerful healer, and if you did not grow up in an environment in which exposure to nature was routinely encouraged, you might not have considered how much of an impact that exposure can have.
In the field of mental health, therapists and doctors are used to making clinical recommendations such as medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups to help clients on the path to mental wellness. In outpatient settings, there is attention given to building coping skills such as meditation and exercise, but we don’t always do a good job of encouraging our clients to spend time in nature as a valid practice to improve mental health. This is unfortunate, because nature provides so much that can boost mental health and it does so for free in most cases.
How Does Nature Benefit Your Mental Health?
Research supports the positive benefits of nature exposure in a variety of ways. One study found that neighborhoods that had more green space such as forests and parks had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. This was found to confer benefits to communities in many ways, including encouraging physical activity, increasing social interaction, and protecting against air and noise pollution. Another study found that patients who were in a nature-based horticultural program saw more improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that those benefits lasted longer once they completed treatment.
Here are some of the benefits that exposure to nature provides:
Sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, an important vitamin that helps us stay well. Vitamin D has deficiency has been associated with poor cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. We know that exposure to sunlight boosts your mood, because of research done on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD occurs in areas that do not get exposure to sunlight for many months out of the year due to their proximity to earth’s poles. People in these areas often experience depression during those months because of the lack of exposure to sun. The treatment for this disorder actually involves using light boxes to transmit the necessary benefits of light to people suffering from SAD. This study found that workers who had exposure to natural elements and sunlight in the workplace reported less depression and anxiety and more workplace satisfaction. In fact, exposure to direct sunlight was the dominant predictor for anxiety traits; so if you have anxiety getting exposure to sunlight could be key in managing your symptoms.
Mental stress is a primary factor in anxiety and depressive conditions. The more stress people are under, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, burnout, cognitive decline, and physical manifestations of their mental health problems. Research continues to build support for nature’s ability to decrease stress, improve mental clarity, and reduce symptoms associated with mental health problems. One way to use this information to your benefit is to try and fit in a walk outdoors before, during or after your work day whenever possible. Even small amounts of outdoor activity can build up to give you improvements in your quality of life that will boost your mental health.
Everyone knows that when children can’t pay attention to a task, you send them outside to play for awhile. We live in a time where we are increasingly disconnected with nature. Surveys have shown that Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors. Screen time and consumption of media has increased exponentially, and this has had an impact on our collective mental and physical health. However, a review of the research reveals that exposure to nature has the ability to actually restore our attention. Excess concentration can lead to “attention-fatigue”, which most of us have probably experienced, like when you stare at a page and read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining the information. Getting out into nature can reset our attention span by provoking fascination, which allows us to recover from mental fatigue.
Getting dirty has tangible mental health benefits too. Getting dirt under your nails and inadvertently into your mouth can increase the good probiotics in your gut. A healthy gut has been linked to good mental health because your gut is connected to your brain through your central nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Traditional thinking maintained that psychological conditions did not have a biological origin, but the latest research is finding that our mental health is actually very much connected to our bodies and specifically our gut. The bottom line is that exposure to nature, specifically getting dirty, can improve your gut health which has demonstrable benefits to your mental health. For more on this, read my post on Gardening for Mental Health.
- Fosters Spiritual Wellbeing
Nature has long been a place where people go to restore their spirit and reflect on their connection to the earth and the universe we inhabit. Observing natural wonders such as the beauty of the plants, the unique qualities of wildlife, or the power of water and wind forces us to realize how small we really are and how short our time here on earth is. These kinds of reflections often lead to feelings of gratitude and serenity. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many religious writings have revered nature throughout history. Traditional Native-American spirituality wholly incorporates reverence for nature into religious practices. Spirituality is highly individualized, but many people rely on their spirituality to help them cope with mental illness. Thus, the spiritual restoration that time spent in nature seems to provide is an important benefit conferred upon those who seek spiritual refuge in natural spaces.
How Can I Boost My Mental Health through Nature?
It’s not hard to understand why being cooped up indoors for most of the day with little exposure to natural light and fresh air can leave you feeling sapped for energy, mildly anxious and a little depressed. Given all the benefits of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing, everyone should be making an effort to make time spent in nature a priority. Particularly if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, spending more time in nature can help you gain improvements in your symptoms and keep you more balanced overall.
To put this into practice, first take an assessment of your resources. If you live in a rural area, you probably already know where to go. Whether you can hike local trails, wander in the nearby forest, or spend time near the closest lake or ocean, plan to get outside more and spend time really getting to know the natural spaces near where you live. You can journal outdoors, take pictures of natural wonders, or just use the time to process your thoughts and feelings and get some clarity about your goals and intentions. This may be more challenging if you live in an urban area, but there’s still plenty of options. If you live near a park, plan to take walks there. If you have few natural spaces around you, bring nature to you. Buy some houseplants and start doing some container gardening. If you have a porch or a deck, make that a little outdoor sanctuary with plants, bird-feeders, or a mini-fountain for a water feature. Even just taking a walk around the block can give you a boost. You’ll still get exposure to sunlight, and you can take time out to observe any bird or other wildlife that is hanging around. Most importantly, get creative and look for the opportunities that you have to foster your own relationship with nature and support your own mental wellness.
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.