Distraction and Breathing Techniques for Anxiety Management

Distraction techniques

There are three basic distraction techniques, refocusing, physical activity, and mental activity.  Try out each technique and select the one that suits you best.  Practice your desired distraction technique whenever you get the chance.  It generally takes a few minutes before feeling a decrease in anxiety.

1. Refocusing Focus your attention on what is going on around you, rather than your internal symptoms.  For example, look at an object and study the fine detail.  Make use of all your senses when studying the object, how does it look, smell, feel, sound and taste? Carry out a specific task, such as counting the number of buses you pass or number of people wearing hats.  The main point of this exercise is to occupy your attention, therefore making it difficult for anxious thoughts to enter your mind.  An obvious example is when you feel less anxious when talking to a friend because it takes your mind off the way you feel.     

2. Physical activity – Keep yourself physically active.  Try to choose a task that requires mental as well as physical effort.  This way the distraction will be stronger.  Go for a swim or a walk, clean the car or a room in the house, or do a bit of gardening.  If you are more physically restricted in what you are able to do, try updating your diary or reading an article in a magazine.  If you find this technique useful, be careful that it doesn’t lead to increased activity (see page 5.7).

3. Mental activity – Use your mental effort.  Try practising mental arithmetic, or do a crossword.  Think about a pleasant experience in your life or fantasise about the future, for example, what would you do with a million pounds?  This can be particularly useful when trying to distract yourself from worrying thoughts when trying to get to sleep.

Distraction takes time to practice and time to find the techniques most suited to you. It is useful to have a number of distraction techniques that you can use for different occasions.  Although distraction can be a very useful strategy when our anxiety is high, it should not be used as a way of avoiding problems or become a way of ‘mentally avoiding’ facing your anxiety!

Breathing technique

We all breathe rapidly when we are tense or anxious or doing exercise and this is called ‘hyperventilation’.  We hyperventilate to provide our muscles with oxygen to burn during activity.  Continuous over-breathing causes oxygen levels to rise and carbon dioxide levels to fall causing an imbalance. Some people who have been stressed for a long time develop a habit of over-breathing.  This is called chronic hyperventilation.  The breathing exercises below help to restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide thereby combating the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Breathing exercise

• Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

 • Breath in through your nose allowing your stomach to swell as you do so.  Feel your stomach swell out in front of you.  Try to keep your chest as relaxed and still as you can.

• Breathe slowly and evenly – in through your nose and out through your mouth

• Count your breaths and aim for about ten breaths per minute.

Inhaling gently and evenly through our nose and exhaling out of our mouth reduces the intake of oxygen and thereby helps to restore the balance.     Initially, you may feel as though you are not getting enough air, but with practice you will begin to find this slower rate of breathing much more comfortable. 

Don’t expect the physical symptoms of anxiety to fade away instantly.  You may need to learn relaxed breathing when not in an anxious situation and become confident at recognising the difference between healthy breathing and hyperventilation before trying to apply this technique in an anxious situation. 

You may have to breath in this controlled way for five or ten minutes before noticing any difference.  Continue to practice this breathing exercise until you do it automatically when you begin to feel anxious. 

Though many people find breathing exercises helpful it is possible that you may find that internal focus on breathing makes you preoccupied and even more anxious.  If this happens to you try another coping strategy.  Remember that everyone is different and everything does not work for everyone.

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