Distractions: For Better, or For Worse?

One of the popular coping mechanisms most often quoted by self-help websites, short articles, or purported “ways to help your anxiety” is distractions.

Distractions range from averting your attention to a video or a game to focusing on a particular object in the room. It can be reading, running, homework, or even social media. All of these tactics can be considered a way to remove your thought from dark, confusing, or anxiety riddled thoughts.

If you use distractions, I’d love to hear your experience with them. I will base this analysis on my experiences and the trainings I’ve participated in.

Distractions are often used in all states of frustration, but are commonly suggested for anxiety and depression. In anxiety, these are used as grounding techniques. Some distractions, like averting your attention to something in the room, is just that; you become more aware of the present, more aware of your body in the present, and less aware of the circular thoughts or racing heart rate (depending on your level of anxiety).

I have found this can be quite effective in myself, particularly when it comes down to the pre-panic state: you know, when you feel that warm, familiar wave of dread pass from your head to your toes, when your heart rate starts pumping hard, and your first thought is: here it comes. I had that moment in my old car one day. Terrified, I defaulted to what my therapist at the time suggested—look around and describe an object out loud. And so I did. By the time the light turned green, my panic had reduced over 50%.

None of the other techniques worked well for my anxiety. I found when watching a video, the voices in the videos became background noise to my own anxious circular reasonings. I couldn’t gain enough focus for reading, and any quiet activity (including meditation) only made me more aware of my racing heart. Often these distractions served to increase my anxiety.

Years ago I had taken a psychology course and learned more in depth about the executive functioning of the frontal lobe. I learned about the analytical and reasoning skills which often reside there. I also happened to be taking integral calculus at the time, and noticed a stark reduction in my anxiety while immersed in math.

You could hypothesize this was because the activity of math is very distracting; your focus is not on your thoughts or the world around you, your focus is on using the extremely helpful acronym ILATE (Integer, Logarithmic, Algebraic, Trig, Exponent) to decide how to tackle an integration by parts problem.

I tend to hypothesize that the brain activity that requires math can ease a flight/fight response. I tested my hypothesis a few times only on myself (that means, don’t take this THAT seriously, it’s an IDEA, not a FACT, and I had no control to PROVE that the brain activity required makes a difference). In my pre-panic mode, I did some calculus. Twenty minutes later I had finished my homework and forgot what I’d been so anxious about.

I didn’t just test it with calculus. I tried puzzles too, like Sudoku. It had a calming effect, but not with the same intensity. I used Algebra and easier, grade-school level math. The effect seemed equal to that of calculus. I hypothesized that something about the structure of formula, organization, and arithmetic calmed that flight/fight/panic sense more so than just the logical part of the activity (as we’d see in the solving of puzzles like Sudoku). If you’d like to read a little more about arithmetic, brain development, and implications, you can check out this study here, and browse the references too. I’d like to study this for real one day.

But for depression, this didn’t seem to be the case. I couldn’t muster the energy or the cognitive functioning required for math when depressed. In fact, I couldn’t muster either for any task and found myself lazing away, not bathing, not working, not seeing hope in a future.

Distractions for depression seemed illogical to me, even when I sat contemplating suicide. I didn’t want to put a bandaid on a broken leg, I wanted a way to fix the leg, I wanted something to snap the bone back in place so I could recover properly. Distractions never seemed to do this. Even when a distraction, like zoning out on YouTube, kept me from thinking about dying, I had to watch the videos constantly to get rid of the thoughts. And even then they’d sneak in.

Distractions for depression come from this ideal, I think, that thoughts of suicide and other painful things are inherently wrong. We shouldn’t be having them, so until we can get rid of them indefinitely, or as a way to stop you from acting of them, we put you in front of a screen or a book or the internet. Rather than encourage an exploration of the pain, we must remind you how wrong your pain is by suggesting you do everything possible to stray from it.

But if your pain is a Cougar, the last thing you want to do is turn your back and run.

And so we come to this conclusion similar to many things in psychology: both are right. Distractions can be useful until they become a life-line, until they become the only coping mechanism.

We could also safely say that there isn’t some finite list of coping mechanisms. I didn’t learn how precious math was to me until I experimented with my own inferences; a therapist would have never said, “hey, try math!”. This highlights something important about our mental health journeys, I think, and that something is: explore. There is no limit on what will or won’t help; try everything until there’s nothing else to try. And then try something else, because there’s always something else to try.

We get trapped under this idea that because something works for one person, it should work for us too. Problem is life doesn’t work like that. Distractions may save you pain. Distractions may cause you more pain. Medication may work, medication may not work. There is no perfect treatment because we understand maybe 1/6886th of the brain and its complexities. That should put you at ease, right?

If you have a particularly unique coping mechanism you’d like to share, pop it down below or find me on social media (also below).

I send updates on posts on Twitter and Instagram. I’ve also started a Writing Schedule: new posts will be on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. If an idea can’t wait, I will post on a Sunday or a Monday (follow my Social Media accounts for that).

And as always, thank you for reading.

For updates on posts, research, and conversation, follow me:

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Twitter: @philopsychotic

If you enjoyed this post, please share, like, and follow ThePhilosophicaPsychotic. I appreciate every reader and commentator. You give me more reason to continue this joyous hobby.

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