The Upside and Downside of Distraction

If you have read a lot about anxiety lately, you’ll see that distraction is either seen as a good thing or a bad thing.

In this article, I will share my views on the topic.

Distraction isn’t useful when there’s an external problem

Using distraction when there’s a real life problem to be solved in the external world isn’t helpful because it’s basically the same method as avoidance. The way to solve a real life problem is to take steps to effectively tackle the issue head on.

As an example, let’s say there was a problem within a marriage. The proactive method could be to seek marriage counselling. Distraction in this sense would be pretty much useless. It wouldn’t change anything, the problem would still be there. Trying to blur the concrete problem out with distraction will most likely lead to more issues within the marriage.

As we can see from the above example, using distraction for dealing with a external problem is usually an unsuccessful method.

Distraction is useful when there isn’t an external problem – in anxiety

Distraction can be enormously helpful during an anxiety condition. Despite what you may have heard about distraction, it can be an effective method when recovering from an anxiety condition.

I’ve heard people say “but surely distraction is just a way of running away or avoiding the anxiety?”

This does seem like a logical question to ask, but what are we running away from? What problem do we have right now that we’re trying to escape from?

My answer is there isn’t one. Whilst I don’t want to belittle your experience of suffering from anxiety, I know, I suffered for so long and it was horrendous. However, an anxiety condition is self-created and self-perpetuated. There is nothing to fix. There’s is nothing to solve in the external world that will dissolve our anxiety. In fact, anything we do just makes us fall deeper and deeper into the disorder.

Sure we can close the gap on things which are causing us to feel stressed and anxious like having a comfortable job that pays all our bills or confronting a friend to fix a dying friendship, but suffering from a generalised anxiety condition will not get solved by closing the gaps in our life. The generalised anxiety condition would exist either way.

Whilst making an effort to fix things in the external world is very effective, we take this same “fixing mentality” and apply it to our anxiety condition in the hopes that this will get rid of it, but this only makes things a lot worse.

We spend our time discussing our anxiety, complaining about it all the time (no judgement), getting into the researching mode by seeking out more and more information online, going on forums.. basically we are feeding the anxiety and we need to do the opposite of this.

The condition grows stronger when we apply intuitive approaches. You can’t get rid of an anxiety condition by trying to get rid of it.

We can’t fight it off and adopt this fixing mentality where we try to work out what may have caused us to develop anxiety in the first place and thinking that this will finally make all of our anxiety go away. This is what I used to spend my time doing and it just made me sink deeper into the condition.

It’s like quicksand. The more you try to break out of it and the more you focus on it, the more likely it is that you’ll get sucked in.

In order for the mind to heal from sensitised nerves, the opposite has to happen. We need to drop this fixing mentality, completely allow ourselves to rest in the anxiety whilst we place our awareness on the things that hold our attention.

One important thing I have to say is that this process cannot be forced.

Distraction can help because by focusing our attention away from our inner world, we can break the obsessive fixation on anxiety which only breeds more anxiety.

When we stop this inner obsession with our anxiety, when we stop this constant inner focus, we give our nervous system the chance to desensitise. What creates more sensitisation is the constant focusing on our symptoms. We start to create more anxiety around our anxious thoughts and sensations when we spend our time ruminating.

In order for distraction to actually serve us a useful tool, we need to give up the forcing mentality. We need to let go of our unrealistic expectations too.

Whilst changing our focus and doing our hobbies will help us to desensitise, we don’t want to have the mindset of expecting them do to so whilst engaged in them because it will ruin our experience. If we turn our hobbies into something that is going to help us “get rid” of anxiety, then we won’t have an enjoyable experience.

This is a great paradox. I had to learn this the hard way because I was always doing hobbies and then checking in to see whether or not the anxiety had dissipated. This behaviour would just reinforce the anxiety, pulling it back into my conscious mind by the very act of checking.

Just think back to when you engaged in your hobbies before you started to look for a solution to overcoming anxiety. For some of you, think back to when you did your hobbies before you had anxiety.

You didn’t have an agenda attached to them other than doing them for pure enjoyment. This is the mindset you want to adopt. Be natural, go with the flow. Don’t expect anything from your hobbies. You’ll enjoy them more this way, trust me.

Going in with the mindset of “I’m distracting myself so I can block out my anxious thoughts” will not work because this mindset is tainted with resistance. Whatever we resist, becomes empowered through our resistance. Whatever we put out, we get back magnified.

If we fight anxiety, then anxiety uses this same force against us. In reality, we are using it against ourselves.

So, using distraction in an anxiety condition is really about getting out of our own way so we can allow the healing process to happen.

Key points to take away from this article:

  • Distraction is usually ineffective when there’s a real concrete problem to be dealt with. Distraction then just becomes avoidance of the real problem
  • Distraction works wonders in an anxiety condition because the “problem” isn’t external, it’s internal. The problem doesn’t actually exist.
  • This fixing mentality that we bring to our internal world doesn’t work in the same way it does internally. If anything, it breeds more resistance and anxiety.
  • Shifting our focus away from our internal world is key.
  • Adopting the correct mindset when doing hobbies is key

If you found this post helpful, I am very grateful for it 🙂

Until next time

Lawrence Gregory

Hi I'm Lawrence. I write about what has helped me heal/recover from high anxiety and panic attacks. Everything I share here comes from personal experience and what I've learnt from others. I write with honesty and with readers in mind, so you'll never see me share something I haven't had any experience with myself.

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