Anxiety is one of those silent monsters I deal with on an almost daily basis, and most people I interact with have no idea. I know I’m not alone: Many people who have anxiety mask themselves externally, while internally freaking out.
For me, panic attacks can happen for any reason. I may see something while scrolling through Facebook that, for some reason or another, sets off my anxiety. Or if I accidentally drink too much caffeine at work, that can makes me jittery and anxious, which can lead to one too.
Most of the time, though, panic attacks happen when I’m by myself, doing absolutely nothing. I can be just kicking back, vegging out, and my anxiety decides to flare up into a freak out. I would love to say that when my anxiety starts peaking, I meditate, practice yoga, read, or exercise—all things that I love to do, and try to do often on my good days.
However, I’m simply not that person. As much as I’ve tried to take deep, healing breaths while in the middle of a panic attack, this unfortunately forces me to focus more on my breathing, which I then fixate on and find issue with. When I could probably benefit most from mindfulness exercises or meditation, delving that deeply into my already panicked thoughts tends to only further my anxiety.
What I really need are distractions, a way to turn off my brain before it becomes too overheated and leaves me in a state where I’m burned-out and numb. I need comfort, but packaged and delivered in a way that requires little assembly and processing. And I’m not the only one.
"A panic attack is an extreme fear response," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. "When the mind is soothed with distractions, the body has the opportunity to calm down. Rather than moving into a full panic response, the calmed mind signals the body to relax."
Maybe you’re the same way. Here are some meds-free (but Nicole-tested and expert-approved) ways to calm yourself during a panic attack. I’m not saying that meds are bad, but sometimes you don’t have access to them, or you may not want to take them for any number of reasons.
Watching dumb television can actually, really help.
Richard Shuster, Psy.D, M.S.W., and host of The Daily Helping Podcast says, "When we watch television, we’re generally watching things that bring us pleasure or are interesting to us. When we engage in activities which bring us pleasure and promote enjoyment, there are numerous psychological and physiological benefits including stress reduction. Watching fun and lighthearted programs such as comedies are a good example of this."
Of course, there are downsides to watching television to cope with anxiety. Watching a scary movie or intense drama could have the opposite effect and spiral you into a panic attack. Watching TV at night or falling asleep while viewing can also have adverse effects on your sleep cycle, which Shuster says "can result in increased emotional distress, including anxiety."
Personally, the type of television I absorb best while panicking are sitcoms, cartoons, Disney films, and other mindless content that require little effort to digest or process. It helps to watch something that can help shut down a racing mind. Plus, laughing is a great way to ease out of an anxiety attack.
Back in 2010, I had the worst anxiety I had ever had. I wasn’t in a good place mentally, and it all came to a head when I spent three days unable to leave my bed. Even getting up to use the restroom made my hands shake and sent me into a series of debilitating panic attacks. During that time, I watched The Emperor’s New Groove all day long. Eventually, I was able to relax and find relief in something so familiar when I otherwise felt so lost.
When I’m home by myself and anxious, watching a comfort film or series can do wonders. Typically, that means a show or movie where I can quote practically all of the lines. "Familiar is good, especially when dealing with anxiety," says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., executive director of Innovation360, and author of Struggle Well Live Well. "There's also a distraction technique that involves imagery: Think of your favorite relaxing place—a beach in Hawaii or the mountains of Colorado." Basically, pleasant images can have a calming effect, which is why familiar TV series and movies have been doing the trick for me for so many years.
"Depending upon an individual’s triggers, specific movies can be very calming," Manly says. "For example, someone who is experiencing anxiety as a result of a recent breakup may be triggered by a romantic movie. However, that same person may find an action moving soothing and distracting because the person’s ‘emotional wounds’ may not be triggered."
A 2016 study also demonstrated that watching television has the potential to reduce stress, a response particularly noted in women. Of the women who were polled, those watching television had lower levels of cortisol, which indicates lower stress levels.
What about phone games and social media?
When it’s not possible to watch a movie—say, if you're in line at the grocery store—there are quite a few phone games that may help ease anxiety. A study conducted at Texas A&M indicated that those who played violent video games were able to deal with stress better, became less depressed, and were able to avoid hostility during stressful periods.
However, if violent video games aren't your jam (they sure aren't mine), distracting yourself with a calming video game can still be helpful for folks with anxiety. My favorite is Neko Atsume, a low-pressure game in which you feed cats, buy them toys, and take photos of them playing. That’s it. That’s all there is to it, but it's able to offer me the distraction I need.
And that makes sense, according to Shuster, who says that "computer games such as puzzles and other non-violent games may provide a source of relaxation for those with anxiety."
I’m not the only one who uses the game for this reason, either. When browsing the Neko Atsume subreddit, I found many other players who used the game to deal with anxiety and said that they felt their anxiety diminish once they started playing regularly. It offers a sense of purpose—you're logging achievements—but it isn’t so demanding that it might contribute to burnout.
Social media can also appease anxiety in a similar way: It can help you feel less alone through online support groups and can provide much-needed "support and positivity," according to Shuster. (You get out of social media what you put into it, though—you’re not likely to find peace by Facebook stalking your ex).
Cute animals can make life so much better.
It’s no secret that fuzzy friends help alleviate stress and anxiety. Aside from hanging out with them in real life (shout out to my perfect cat, Ava) looking at photos and videos of little cuties really helps.
"There is a good body of research that suggests animals can have an overwhelmingly positive impact on one’s mental health," Shuster says. "Even if we’re just looking at the picture of a dog or a cat, it tends to evoke a positive emotional response because of the meaning that we assign to pets in general."
And while there are many terrible aspects to Reddit, it's also full of gems. One is r/Aww, where you can find adorable photos of animals, and it’s perfect, especially for the late-night panic that settles in just in time for bed. Yes, I’m the type of person who almost misses their alarm for work by draining the phone battery after falling asleep looking at a GIF of a puppy falling over.
The Dodo is another great resource for adorable animal news and videos. Some of their videos are little over-the-top, and the music tends to make me roll my eyes, but watching cute animals befriend one another is always a win in my book.
"Pets are a wonderful source of unconditional love," Manly says. "Even looking at pictures of animals can bring about states of calm, especially if an individual has had prior experiences of a supportive, calming connection with animals."
Service animals are being used to treat mental illnesses more and more these days (particularly in airports), and in that same way, simply looking at cute animals can help ease an anxious mind and offer a grounding warmth.
These resources definitely aren’t cure-alls, and I’m not certain they’ll always be the most reliable, depending on the severity of the anxiety. But so far, the most tried-and-true way to subdue my rising anxiety is to distract myself.
Nicole Ortiz is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn who has been published with HelloGiggles, xoJane, and Thought Catalog. Her work can be viewed on her site or you can watch her talk to herself on Twitter @neco_ornot.