Distraction Techniques for Panic Disorder

Man sitting alone on stairs

Tanya Little / Getty Images 

People with panic disorder are typically faced with a range of difficult emotions, such as worry, anxiety, sadness, and embarrassment. Panic attacks, the main symptom of panic disorder, often occur with strong emotions, including fear, uneasiness, nervousness, and apprehension.

To cope with these challenging emotions, many people who experience panic turn to maladaptive behaviors. For example, to try and deal with these emotions, one may avoid certain situations or possibly try to mask these emotions through the use of alcohol.

Maladaptive ways of coping only temporarily make the emotions go away, increase anxiety, and can have long-term negative effects. But, distraction techniques can help you manage the symptoms of panic attacks.

What Is a Distraction Technique?

A distraction technique is simply any activity that you engage in to redirect your mind off your current emotions. Instead of putting all your energy into the upsetting emotion, you reset your attention to something else. When you distract yourself, you are able to manage your strong emotions by bringing your focus elsewhere.

Distraction techniques are often used along with other coping mechanisms. For instance, once your attention has shifted elsewhere and the intensity of your emotion has dissipated, it is then time to cope with this emotion in a healthy manner. Additional coping can then occur through strategies such as relaxation or other self-help techniques.

Signs of a Panic Attack

When a panic attack occurs, you may feel overwhelmed by the uncomfortable physical sensations of the attack. Common somatic complaints include:

  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Trembling

These physical sensations may lead to a greater sense of fear and anxiety, as the person experiencing these panic symptoms worries that they will lose control, embarrass themself, or even possibly face medical issues due to their symptoms.

How to Distract From a Panic Attacks

The next time you experience a panic attack or intense anxiety, try to keep emotions in check by temporarily distracting yourself. The following is a list of some distraction techniques you may want to try when faced with overwhelming emotions:

  • Count Your Breaths: Inhale and exhale, counting as one then inhale and exhale and count two, etc. Continue counting each cycle of breath until you reach 10. If you lose count, go ahead and start over from one.
  • Use Entertainment: Read something of interest, such as reading a book or flipping through an enjoyable magazine. If reading doesn’t work, you may want to try watching TV or a movie to set your mind on something else. Listening to music may help you feel calmer. Research has also shown that playing video games can be effective for distracting people from anxiety.
  • Engage in a Relaxation Technique: Relaxation techniques such as visualization, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), or mindfulness meditation can help you re-center and find a sense of calm.
  • Participate in a Creative Pursuit: You may find that strong emotions are lessened when you get your creative juices flowing. Some activities may include making art or crafts.

Relaxation activities can help divert your mind and let you refocus on more pleasant thoughts. Plus, it is difficult to feel anxious and upset when in a relaxed state of mind.

  • Talk to a Loved One: To distract yourself, consider calling a friend or loved one. Be careful not to spend your time talking about the negative emotions you are feeling. Research suggests that ruminating over negative emotions with friends can make anxiety worse. Rather, ask your loved one about his life and notice how it distracts you from your upsetting emotions.
  • Try Some Form of Physical Exercise: There are many different exercises that are beneficial to panic disorder. When strong emotions take hold, try participating in some form of exercise. You may want to take walk outdoors, hit the gym, or stretch through a few yoga poses. If crunched for time, you can always try doing some jumping jacks or other easy and quick exercises.
  • Write It Out: Writing exercises can be another powerful tool for distraction. Through journal writing, you may find that your emotional self is able to refocus and adjust to managing your emotions through the writing process.
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hall CB, Lundh LG. Brief therapist-guided exposure treatment of panic attacks: a pilot study. Behav Modif. 2019;43(4):564-586. doi:10.1177/0145445518776472

  2. Roberson-Nay R, Kendler KS. Panic disorder and its subtypes: a comprehensive analysis of panic symptom heterogeneity using epidemiological and treatment seeking samplesPsychol Med. 2011;41(11):2411–2421. doi:10.1017/S0033291711000547

  3. Inan G, Inal S. The impact of 3 different distraction techniques on the pain and anxiety levels of children during venipuncture: a clinical trial. Clin J Pain. 2019;35(2):140-147. doi:10.1097/AJP.0000000000000666

  4. Manzoni GM, Pagnini F, Castelnuovo G, Molinari E. Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysisBMC Psychiatry. 2008;8:41. Published 2008 Jun 2. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8-41

  5. Carlucci L, D'Ambrosio I, Innamorati M, Saggino A, Balsamo M. Co-rumination, anxiety, and maladaptive cognitive schemas: when friendship can hurtPsychol Res Behav Manag. 2018;11:133–144. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S144907

  6. Lattari E, Budde H, Paes F, et al. Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety symptoms and cortical activity in patients with panic disorder: a pilot studyClin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2018;14:11–25. doi:10.2174/1745017901814010011

  7. Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: a preliminary randomized controlled trialJMIR Ment Health. 2018;5(4):e11290. doi:10.2196/11290