Distraction is my go-to device when it comes to tolerating distress. When I am sad especially, historically I’ve relied on watching television to distract me from the thoughts making me feel worse. But television isn’t the most convenient device, even with all the apps I’ve loaded onto my phone. For example, if I’m in the office (where I spend most of my waking hours per week), I can’t exactly discreetly open up my Netflix app, as much as I’d love to do that! When I’m driving, I can’t safely check out what’s on HBOGo.
Given that anxiety can pop up at any inconvenient moment, regardless of my location, I’ve had to rely on other forms of distraction.
In dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive and behavioral therapies are combined with a dash of mindfulness. In my experience with it (as a client), the terms “emotional mind,” “reasonable mind,” and “wise mind” have come up often to refer to the states of mind, and my goal has been to tap into wise mind as often as possible. (For a description of each, check out this website.)
I admit I dwell in emotional mind more than I should. And I sometimes experience anxiety as a result.
Enter crisis survival strategies like distraction, which is only one of the crisis survival strategies I’ve learned in therapy. “Crisis” sounds intense, doesn’t it? Let’s tone that down a bit to mean any level of anxiety experienced, or even negative thinking. These strategies help guide me out of emotional mind and into reasonable or, even better, wise mind.
I have a handout from the Skills Training Manual… by Marsha Linehan, who is the founder of DBT. The top of the handout says:
A useful way to remember these skills is the phrase Wise Mind ACCEPTS.
ACCEPTS is an acronym for Activities, Contributing, Comparisons, opposite Emotions, Pushing away, other Thoughts, and intense other Sensations.
My favorite example of a way to distract with activities is cleaning–typically my bathroom–which is a great way to distract yourself from anger (at least for me it is)! More examples include taking a walk, soaking in a bubble bath, making a cup of tea, journaling (such as in a Positivity Notebook), having a photo shoot with your kids, or playing a game. Sometimes I do these things on autopilot, without noticing I’m distracting myself.
Distracting with contributing includes volunteer work or performing a random act of kindness. Focusing on others can help get us out of our own heads.
Distracting with comparisons can mean reading a news item about a disaster and comparing yourself with those suffering more than you. It can be helpful to realize there’s always someone worse off than you. Even more helpful might be to compare your present self with yourself a few years ago–are you doing better now than you were then?
Distracting with opposite emotions means doing something that creates a different emotion than what you’re feeling. For instance, watching a scary movie (or other emotional movie) or enjoying a stand-up comedy performance can change your mood.
Distracting with pushing away means leaving the situation mentally for a while, putting a wall between it and yourself. A technique that has helped me is to schedule worry time for later in the day. Sometimes I find that I’ve missed my window for worrying (and that I don’t care, at that point)!
Distracting with other thoughts is actually kind of fun. It can mean counting to 10 or 100 (or any other number that intrigues you), reading something engrossing, or–my favorite–watching TV.
Distracting with intense other sensations sounds pretty cool. It means using physical stimulation like holding ice in your palm, squeezing a stress ball, listening to music very loudly, taking a cold (or hot) shower, or snapping a rubber band on your wrist.
I love the handout because it is full of ideas, which I’ve summarized above, for distracting yourself right out of a bad mood, anxiety, or pretty much anything else. Distraction isn’t always bad!
Do you ever use distraction to change your mood?