In Praise of Distraction

Distraction has gotten a bad rap. Dealing with your problems head on, figuring out why you feel that way, changing your thoughts. These are the strategies most employed by self-help books. But sometimes when you are stuck or overwhelmed or just need a break from the hard work of healing, distraction can be the best medicine.

There is a Calvinist thread that runs through the fabric of all healing and development: work harder. And if you knew me, you would know I am not against hard work. But as I have mentioned before, healing isn’t always about effort. When you break a bone, you don’t work harder for it to heal. You set it, you create the right conditions. You splint it so it can’t move. You do other things because you can’t do all of your usual things. And without your active intervention the bone knits back together.

And sometimes this is what the psyche needs too. Sometimes when your emotions are too irritated, when everything is setting them off, when you feel yourself constantly triggered—it's better not to engage the emotion at all. It’s better not to have that part of your brain work. The neuroscience adage is that what fires together-- wires together and when you get yourself in an endless loop of emotions or flashbacks you need to stop those neurons from firing together and ironically the best way to do that is to not do something, or do something else. When the emotion or flashback comes on, change your activity, change your location, put on music, watch a stupid TV show. Drown out, distract out, do whatever you have to do to shift your mind away.

A brain that has lost control is just like a toddler brain. I’m not insulting you. It happens to everyone, you, me, people who have experienced trauma and people who haven’t. And when a toddler loses it—nothing is going to get ‘talked’ away. Your best hope is distraction and jollying them into paying attention to something else.

For anyone whose brain has just had too much stress or emotion—distraction—rest from the stress and emotion can be very healing. It’s the emotional equivalent of putting your brain in a sling. It’s actually not easy to get brains to slow down and relax. In fact, mindfulness and relaxation, are paradoxically difficult practices. The more we sit in quiet, the more we see just how active and spinning our minds actually are. Doing absolutely nothing can actually be too hard, which is why distraction can be better rest. Just something for your brain to pay attention to instead

There are times to work hard at healing and figuring out what is working for you and what isn’t. But when the brain’s ‘check engine light’ goes on because everything feels like it’s on fire, this is the time to switch the engine off, and let it cool down.

There isn’t one thing that will work for everyone. What you need will match your temperament, your mood, your physiology, and your level of distress. Some things work better for emotional pain and some things work better for the endless loop thinking that can be so difficult. Sometimes being out and about among people helps and sometimes it’s an afternoon in your pajamas and a whole season of something on Netflix. Sometimes it’s tackling some project you have long ignored and sometimes it’s reading to your kids all afternoon. It merely needs to be something that when you do it, you notice that the pressure gauge in your system starts to go down. Or you notice that you can breathe better. Or you notice that for these moments you aren’t in pain.

Distraction allows for some of the rest and rejuvenation you will need to head back in to the harder pieces of work. It allows you, sometimes for the first time, to realize that you can switch your emotional or thinking state from one state to another.

I’ve found it helpful as both a therapist and a client to have a list of helpful distractions written on a piece of paper or notecard placed where it can easily be found. The reason this is helpful is that you can make the list with the resources of your whole brain.  When you are in a bad emotional place, you only have your small, toddler brain—so having the list allows you to tap in to your whole brain by looking at it. 

It’s a trial and error process. Some days some things work and some don’t. If you have ever met a 3 year old this will make total sense to you. Some days grilled cheese sandwiches are their favorite food ever. And some days they push it away as soon as you serve it saying they have always hated grilled cheese. Don’t expect yourself to like everything you do all the time. If it doesn’t work, move on to something else on the list. And it can even be helpful if it isn't perfect. If it lowers the volume in your head--if the feelings are less loud or less irritating--that can be a good start. Sometimes you will watch TV and the flashbacks will still be there, but more in the background. Sometimes that is the best you can do.

Just keep adding to the list. And use the distractions to give your emotions or thinking a rest when they need it. And don’t worry. You won’t spend the rest of your life watching re-runs or Youtube. That’s the beauty of healing and growth. When the brain is rested it will want to get busy again and you head back to doing what you need to. But you will know how to give your brain a rest.

©Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD 2015