Using Distraction as a Way of Coping with Emotions

Distraction Techniques Can Help You Keep Strong Emotions in Check

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Distraction is a helpful skill for coping with heavy emotions. (c) 2007 iStockphoto.com/photoGartner

Purposeful use of distraction techniques can actually be of benefit in helping people cope with emotions that are strong and uncomfortable. What exactly is distraction and what are some examples of distraction that may be helpful?

Emotions, Distraction and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience very strong and uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and shame.

These emotions can be very difficult to deal with, and as a result, they may lead people with PTSD to use unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug use (self-medicating.) Although alcohol and drugs may initially work in taking away an intense feeling, this is only a temporary fix. In the long-run, alcohol and drug use often leads to more intense emotions and other problems.

Given this, it is important to learn how to cope with very strong emotions in the moment using coping skills that do not put you at risk for long-term negative consequences. One such skill is distraction.

What is Distraction?

Just as the name implies, distraction is anything you do to temporarily take your attention off of a strong emotion. Sometimes, focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. Therefore, by temporarily distracting yourself, you may give the emotion some time to decrease in intensity, making it easier to manage.

What Distraction is Not

A key part of the above definition of distraction is the word, "temporarily." Distraction is not about trying to escape or avoid a feeling. With distraction, it is implied that you eventually will return to the feeling you were having. Then, once the intensity of the feeling has reduced, you will try to use another skill to manage the emotion, such as expressive writing.

Distraction can keep you safe in the moment by preventing unhealthy behaviors (such as drug use or deliberate self-harm) that occur in response to a strong feeling, as well as making a feeling easier to cope with in the long-run.

Does Distraction Really Work? - The Science

It may seem clear that taking your mind off of an intense emotion would be helpful, and research supports this finding. Distraction appears to be helpful in regulating emotions not only with anxiety-related disorders, such as with PTSD, but with depression and even acute and chronic pain.

It appears that there's a physiological basis that may help explain these findings. Scientists have found that certain structures in the brain are closely related to PTSD.

The amygdala (part of the limbic system) appears to be over-stimulated in people suffering from PTSD. This part of the brain is thought to be responsible for processing memories as well as conditioned responses to fear. Studies have found that distraction is able to decrease the activation of the amydgala. Distraction also appears to create changes in some areas of the pre-frontal cortex which are also affected by PTSD.

What Can I Do To Distract Myself?

There are a number of things you can try to distract yourself.

Listed below are some common distraction techniques.

  • Count backwards from a large number by sevens or some other number (for example, 856, 849, 842, 835, etc.).
     
  • Take part in a fun and challenging game that requires some level of attention, such as a crossword puzzle or Sudoku.
     
  • Focus your attention on your environment. Name all the colors in the room. Try to memorize and recall all the objects that you see in a room.
     
  • Do something creative. Draw a picture or build a model.
     
  • Do some chores, such as cleaning the house, doing laundry, or washing dishes.
     
  • Read a good book or watch a funny movie.
     
  • Call or write a letter to a good friend or family member.
     

Finding Your Own Distractions

Try to come up with your own list of distraction activities that you can use when you experiencing a strong emotion that is difficult to cope with in the moment. The more you are able to come up, the more flexible you can be in coming up with the best activity depending upon the situation you are in. This may feel forced and artificial at first, but with time you will find that distracting yourself from difficult emotions becomes much easier and almost automatic.

Sometimes we dismiss some of the easier methods of coping with our emotions. It's almost as if having to practice more—or tolerate the side effects of more medications—means a treatment approach will work better. Thankfully, studies are telling us that this "too-good-to-be true" skill for handling tough emotions really is true—at least when combined with a comprehensive treatment program to help you cope, and eventually thrive, with PTSD.

Sources:

Aubry, A., Serrano, P., and N. Burghardt. Molecular Mechanisms of Stress-Induced Increases in Fear Memory Consolidation within the Amygdala. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2016. 10:191.

Moyal, N., Henik, A., and G. Anholt. Cognitive Strategies to Regulate Emotions – Current Evidence and Future Directions. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014. 10:1019.

Usuberg, A., Thiruchselvam, R., and J. Gross. Using Distraction to Regulate Emotion: Insights from EEG Theta Dynamics. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2014. 91(3):254-60.

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