By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2015)
With panic disorder and other anxiety states, there is a tendency to become too inwardly focused and obsessed with imaginary future catastrophes. Those who suffer from panic tend to obsess about physical sensations and get into a negative loop of fearful anticipation, unrealistic thinking, increased adrenaline, and more unpleasant physical symptoms.
One of the best ways to deal with a distressing internal state is to shift the focus outward. Many people who suffer from panic attacks do this instinctively, seeking distractions such as television, books, music, arts and crafts, or conversation with others. However, it can be helpful just to become more interested in your surroundings, really examining the things around you (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), shifting your focus to these external elements and away from the internal and ever-magnifying obsession.
Use Positive Distractions
Often when anxiety attacks, distraction is the best way to treat it. Positive distractions that shift the focus outward include:
- Playing games
- Listening to music
- Doing arts and crafts
- Solving puzzles
- Doing things for other people
Make a Habit of Focusing Outward
There are a number of things you can do to make a habit of shifting your focus outward:
- Join clubs or activities based on your interests.
- Take a class to learn how to do something you’ve always wanted to do.
- Do volunteer work.
- Start a fitness program with a friend.
- Become more interested in other people – get to know your neighbours and ask others about their lives.
- Get out into nature – start hiking or engage in some other outdoor pursuit.
- Take up photography, landscape painting, or any other activity that encourages you to really observe what’s around you.
- Meditate by focusing on objects that have positive significance for you or on feelings of compassion and gratitude for those who have been good to you.
When you do find your focus turning inward, shift to thinking about what you need to do to cope, to relax, to feel better. What could you do for yourself right now to enhance your confidence or overall mood? How can you best take care of yourself during this difficult time? Engage in positive self-talk, and consciously choose to visualize happy outcomes for yourself. Treat yourself as you would a good friend.
Mindfulness is a way of being within the present moment rather than worrying about the future. It increases your awareness of what is around you and enriches all life experiences, including the most mundane.
Mindfulness can help you learn to control your focus, either turning it outward or maintaining inward focus in a more positive way. Information about mindfulness can be found at:
- TheMindfulnessInstitute.ca: What Is Mindfulness?
- San Francisco Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Mindfulness
- Centre for Clinical Interventions: Mindfulness and Letting Go and What Is Mindfulness?
- Forsyth & Eifert (2008): The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Hofmann et al. (2010): The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review
For more natural ways to manage and reduce anxiety and stop panic attacks, see the main Panic and Anxiety Treatments page.
- Maertz, K. (2014). “Panic/Anxiety Attacks.” University of Alberta, UWell.UAlberta.ca.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (2012, January). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.