Using Distraction to Treat Anxiety
Distraction is the process of diverting or shifting your attention from one activity to another. It can be an effective way to treat anxiety. Psychologists also refer to it as refocusing or redirection. Distraction uses a very important principle: shifting your attention to something that is neutral or positive is easier than shifting it away from something that is negative. Attempting to reduce anxiety by saying or thinking such thoughts as “do not be anxious” “stop worrying” “don’t think about that” does not usually work.
The process of telling yourself not to worry or not to think about something only focuses your mind and attention on your worry and anxious state of mind even more and usually intensifies them.
In this article I describe five different types of distraction that provide an effective way to reduce nervousness by redirecting your attention towards neutral or positive activities.
Externalisation is an important feature of many types of distraction. Externalisation is the act of focusing your attention on sensations which originate outside your body. It is the opposite of internalisation, which is the focusing of attention on feelings and sensations which arise inside your body. The act of distraction one’s attention away from bodily sensations and focusing on external factors is particularly important for those who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder. This is because it prevents the initial alarm reaction which triggers and drives the anxiety/panic cycle. Using distraction after the cycle has been triggered enables a panic sufferer to calm down by interrupting negative self-talk and breaking the circle of escalating fear about self-generated symptoms.
The different types of distraction which are listed below are listed beginning with simpler forms and moving on to more complex forms.
The simpler forms are fairly easy to learn and use but only work moderately well when anxiety is high. They are also most effective when used to cope with a worry-producing situation that only lasts a short time, for example, crossing a high bridge, using a lift or waiting in a queue. They also work well for those who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and who are delaying responding to an obsessive thought.
The complex types of distraction take longer to master. They are more effective though, because the more demanding, absorbing or interesting an activity is the more distracting it is. They become easier as you challenge the inaccurate thoughts that you have developed about your condition and start to accept the real nature of your condition (what it is and isn’t).
For people with OCD there needs to be a note of caution. Some of the simple types of distraction are similar to those compulsive rituals that OCD sufferers use to relieve the anxiety of obsessions. If you have OCD, then do not use any form of distraction that is like the compulsive rituals that you use. The more complex types of distraction such as work, play or conversation work better.
This involves using one or more of your senses to focus on an external sensation. These techniques are most effective when carried out in a systematic fashion. For example, if you are using a pattern on a wall to distract yourself, don’t simply look at it, but focus closely and try to identify where the pattern repeats itself and all the particular variations that it contains.
Examples of simple externalisations are:
- Listening very attentively: Listen to background noises such as passing traffic, an overhead plane, and a ticking clock or background conversation.
- Observing closely: Examine the design and patterns on a nearby wall, carpet or clothing; read signs; observe the intricate activities of the people around you; or observe closely the surrounding scenery.
- Tasting or smelling: Taste and smell chewing gum or sweets that you carry around with you; note the various smells around you.
- Feeling textures: Feel the texture of paper, clothing, a chewing gum wrapper, or the steering wheel of the car you are driving.
- Changing your activities or surroundings: If you are inside, then go outside; if you are sitting down then go for a walk; if you are in the kitchen, go into the living room.
- Carrying out repetitive activities: Count cracks, lights, floor tiles; tap your finger rhythmically; fold a piece of paper in a systematic way.
Simple tasks that require concentration
Simple mental activities that need you to concentrate – such as recalling the words of a song, calculating how much a total purchase will cost, balancing a chequebook, timing an event like a trip to a friend’s house, or remembering an event that arouses positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction of happiness – are often difficult to perform when you are very nervous. However, with practice they can become effective sources of distraction.
Conversation is an effective type of distraction that can be used almost anywhere. Even talking on the telephone or using Skype can be as effective as talking to someone in person. If you are standing in a line or queue then talking to a stranger next to you can be a good form of distraction.
Talking and conversation is most effective as a distraction when you are an active speaker rather than a passive listener. It is also sensible to ensure that the subject of your conversation is not related to your anxiety symptoms or to a situation that is causing you to worry.
Many people use work as a form of distraction without even being aware that they are doing so. Work can be physical or mental and can involve a job out of the home or housework. Work is most distracting when it is pleasurable, challenging, interesting or involves competition.
Activities that have become automatic because they have been repeated often are less effective than those that require more attention. One way to improve the distracting ability of routine work is to carry it out in a different way. Use your imagination. For example, if you change the order in which you carry out the particular components of a job this can help.
Play includes anything that is both enjoyable and interesting. Working at hobbies, computer games, video games, dancing, sport and crossword puzzles are examples of play that can be used as effective distractions. Activities that require physical activity are usually more distracting than those activities that are sedentary or passive. Also the greater the pleasure derived from the activity, the more distracting it is. The key is that the activity really holds your interest.
Play can often be combined with other types of distraction. To give an example, you can construct a game out of simple externalisation by trying to connect the dots on acoustical tile to form faces or make up stories about the people around you. You can create simple games that need concentration such as guessing the number of telephone poles on a stretch of road. Initially it may be difficult to be playful and find humour in anxiety-producing situations. With practice, however, it becomes easier and distraction can become one of your techniques to treat anxiety.