Using Distraction as a Way of Coping with Emotions

Distraction Techniques Can Help You Keep Strong Emotions in Check

Exercise can be an effective distraction technique. (c) 2007

Purposeful use of distraction techniques can actually be of benefit in coping with emotions that are strong and feel uncomfortable.

People with 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.

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 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.

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.

  • Exercise.

  • Go out shopping (even if it is just window shopping).

  • Take part in a self-soothing behavior.

  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on your breathing.

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.

Chapman, A.L., & Gratz, K.L. (2007). The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Linehan, M.M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press.

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