When I used to think of distraction I would instantly think of running away from one’s problems; however, I was taught recently that distraction can be a good tool if used correctly. Of course, any tool can be used for good or for evil, something as a therapist I try to stay keenly aware of. In this three-part post I will be discussing distraction. I will start off with “The Good” and move on to, “The Bad”, and will end off with a discussion on “The Ugly” aspects of distraction.
*This post discusses car accidents and may be triggering for some individuals. Please read at your own discretion.
What is Distraction?
Distraction, to me, is a method in which we turn away from the present by utilizing something that causes us to pay attention to something other than the present. For instance, Facebook is an excellent distraction from the big project that is due on Friday. Some people have even coined the phrase, “Going down the Facebook-rabbit hole” in which one ends up spending hours on Facebook when they only meant to spend a couple of minutes on it. Other types of distraction might include reading, listening to music, and or playing video games (there are many different types of distractions).
How can distraction be a good thing? Isn’t it always better to stay in the present? In my opinion, staying in the present isn’t always the best thing for a person. Depending on your situation, staying in the present may be dangerous.
I once knew a person that was going through a very hard time in her life, she was seriously questioning death and what it would feel like to die. Would it hurt? What would you see? Would her memories all come back to her in one giant flashback? This person had to drive a lot for work and found herself imagining what would happen if she drove her car off a bridge, or what would happen if she rolled her car into a ditch. Would she pass out before impact? Would she feel the impact of the car hitting the water? Unsurprisingly, this woman ended up in multiple minor car crashes.
Eventually, after a very scary car accident, the woman decided to see a therapist to talk about her strange fascination with death. In this scenario, distraction could have helped the woman stay more focused while driving, as the present curiosity regarding death was so overpowering that it was distracting her from her task: driving. Instead of following the thought of,” what would happen if I drove off a cliff?” the woman likely would have been better to acknowledge the thought, put the thought on a mental back burner, and explore the thought later, when she was pulled over or in a safe place. In therapy the woman was able to explore her curiosity regarding death in a safe space where her curiosity did not have the immediate potential of becoming a reality.
The main idea I want to get across with this story is that sometimes we are not in a safe enough place to be present. Victims of torture often learn to disassociate to distract themselves from the present, this is, conceivably, the way they psychologically survive. Of course, this is not to say that our thoughts should stay on the back burner. Anything we push into the unconscious will eventually make itself known in the conscious realm. However, it is important to give ourselves the freedom to say, “I am not in a safe enough space to be present right now”, and then to additionally give ourselves the freedom to distract from that thought. How do you distract yourself in a healthy way when you are not safe enough to be in the present?
Some of my favorite ways are:
*Listening to music
*Listening to audio books
*Going for a run
*Playing (e.g. building sandcastles!)
*Counting (e.g. counting the number of people who I walk by, or counting the number of dogs I see).
*Repeating a mantra