Counting has a proven track record when it comes to helping us with common problems such as falling asleep (think sheep) or controlling an angry outburst, but can this numerical elixir help someone in extreme distress, specifically during a panic attack?
Used as a distraction technique, counting provides an easy, readily available way to redirect thoughts and gain relief from the distressing symptoms of a panic attack.
Of course, getting to the root cause of the attacks is the best way to deal with them, but that usually takes time. So, until you have it figured out, using counting as a distraction is a good tool for your panic attack kit.
So, what exactly is a distraction technique? According to Katharina Star, PhD;
“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.”
Counting can be used on its own or together with other methods to help you ward off an attack or help you survive one that’s already raging.
Here are three ways to use this technique to help get you through to the other side.
1. Counting Backwards.
This is an easy one to bring out at the start or even in the throes of a panic attack. It provides built-in structure to the distraction, doesn’t require any props and you can literally do it anywhere, anytime. The best part, you can be as discreet as you like.
I personally like to count backwards using intervals when I feel an attack coming on. I’ll start at 100 and reduce the number by 5’s. Or I’ll start at 1000 and reduce by 20. Once I count down to zero, I start the process over again until I feel calmer.
It doesn’t really matter which numbers you choose, as long as you are not used to counting in this way. Not really a “math person”, this type of counting requires a lot of focus on my part. On several occasions, it has been enough to take my attention away from my physical symptoms, allowing me to regain some composure.
2. Breathing Exercises.
Counting and breathing go hand in hand when it comes to getting relief during a panic attack. I’ve tried many counting/breathing methods and have found two that are really effective. I use them both, depending on the time of day and where I am.
The first is called “Equal Breathing”.
This is the one I use during the day and/or in public.
It originally comes from the practice of pranayama yoga, can be done sitting or lying down and quite simply; involves inhaling for the same length of time as you exhale.
It helps to close your eyes and just be mindful of how you’re already breathing. After a few moments;
- Slowly count 1-2-3-4 as you inhale through your nose.
- Exhale through your mouth for the same four-second count.
- As you inhale and exhale, be mindful of the filling and emptying of your lungs.
As you continue to practice equal breathing, it’s fine to change your breath count as long as you inhale and exhale for the same number of seconds.
The second method I use is called “4-7-8 Breathing”.
I like this one for those night time attacks at home, as it actually does make me sleepy if I practice it for 10 minutes or more.
Another element of pranayama yoga, Dr. Andrew Weil calls this one a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system” and it goes like this.
- Sitting or lying down, exhale and empty out your lungs.
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.
I like to press my tongue against the ridge behind my upper teeth, purse my lips and make a whooshing sound when I exhale, like I’m blowing the panic out and away.
3. Sensory Awareness.
A third way counting can help out in a panic crisis is through pairing it with a grounding exercise. Using sensory awareness, the 3-3-3 method helps bring you back down to earth while in the throes of a panic attack.
Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, says that “Whenever you feel your brain going 100 miles per hour, this mental trick can help center your mind, bringing you back to the present moment.”
This method works by distracting the mind with what we can notice in our immediate environment, using our various senses.
It’s an easy technique to use anywhere at any time. Here’s how it works:
- Look around you and count three things you see.
- Listen to the sounds around you and name three things you can hear.
- Move three parts of your body; your toes, finger, wiggle your nose etc.
So, there you have three ways counting can help ward off the symptoms of a panic attack. If you need to rely on a distraction to get you through to the other side, counting is a time-tested method, available anytime, anywhere.