Anxiety and The Power of Distraction

October 31, 2021

There’s no denying it: it’s been an anxiety-inducing few weeks. As the COVID-19 crisis escalates around the world, and governments make drastic steps to curb the pandemic, many of us are feeling fearful and uncertain. For those who already struggle with anxiety disorders, current world events compound mental health issues, and exacerbate symptoms.

With lots of us practicing social distancing, working from home, or even in self-isolation, our anxious feelings can be heightened more than ever. However, there’s a lot you can do to limit the impact that anxiety has on your life without even leaving the house.

There are lots of practical ways to tackle anxiety, but in this post, we’ll focus on distraction techniques. Distraction is especially relevant right now. Many of us have too much time on our hands and find ourselves glued to the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle. By learning some simple distraction techniques, you can give yourself tools to respond to anxious feelings and limit the impact of the current situation on your mental health.

How does distraction reduce anxiety?

The aim of distraction is to create distance from things that are causing emotional distress. We aren’t trying to numb or escape the feelings. But we are trying to create space so we can process ideas and emotions in a more rational, calm way.

With distraction, we step away from anxious thoughts and feelings temporarily, so we can address them more effectively afterward. Distraction works best when it keeps us from ruminating on things: but doesn’t stop us from taking useful action when we need to.

Distraction techniques focus on shifting your attention away from anxious or fearful thoughts and towards positive or neutral thoughts instead. Often, this means focusing on something external to you – like things you can see, hear, or smell. It can also mean engaging in a task that requires brainpower and focus. This shift in focus away from the internal to the external reduces physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety.

Distraction vs. avoidance

Video call. Nice positive man waving with his hand while greeting his friend

Distraction is not the same as avoidance. We’re all guilty of avoiding things that make us feel uncomfortable or anxious. Drinking alcohol is one of the most common avoidance strategies: just think of all those times you ignored a stressful task and headed down to the pub for a pint instead.

But while distraction is a healthy way to manage anxiety, avoidance isn’t. Avoidance behaviors encourage us to numb complicated feelings and never address them. Distraction, on the other hand, gives us a break from anxious feelings without avoiding dealing with the cause of those feelings.

Top 10 Distraction Techniques for Reducing Anxiety

Lots of everyday activities can work as effective distractions if used right. There are also some simple techniques from psychology that you can learn and try at home. All of these suggested distractions can be done at home, so they’re perfect for these days of social distancing.

1. Learn mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness techniques like deep breathing, body scans, and visualization all distract us from anxious feelings and force us to focus on other sensations. During a body scan, for example, you focus on each part of the body in turn, paying close attention to everything you can feel.

2. Try some mental math

Simple mental math tasks force us to concentrate on something other than our anxiety. Try counting backward from 500 in multiples of seven, or adding up the items on your latest grocery receipt in your head.

3. Write a letter

Writing also requires our complete focus. Plus, who doesn’t love to get a letter in the mail?! Write to a friend, family member, or long lost relative. Of course, it’s important not to write about the cause of your anxious feelings – as that will lead to rumination. Share some good news or funny stories instead.

4. Focus on your environment

When you start to feel anxious, pull your attention away from what’s going on inside your head. One simple exercise to help you pay attention to your environment is to name four things you can see, three things you can touch, two things you can hear, and one thing you can smell. This is called externalizing.

5. Get some exercise

Exercise is an excellent distraction method: and there’s plenty of ways to exercise at home. The more physical and mental effort the exercise requires, the better. Find a YouTube workout or yoga class that demands your full attention. Both the focus and the endorphins produced by exercise will reduce your anxiety.

6. Tackle a puzzle

Puzzles and games can be a great way to encourage your attention towards something positive. Sudoku, crosswords, word games, and online quizzes are great examples. Things that we find fun and exciting tend to be more effective at reducing anxiety because we want to focus on them.

7. Play video games

Despite what people say about them, video games have been shown effective at reducing anxiety. They have clear rules, are engaging, and demand our full attention. They’ve even been shown to reduce the amount of physical pain people feel when receiving medical treatments!

8. Have a laugh

Humour is an amazing tool that we humans have to reduce anxiety and help us feel safe. If your housemates are around the house too, swap funny stories with them. If not, find some YouTube videos of your favorite comedian or sitcom, and settle down for a good laugh.

9. Get creative

Draw a picture, make a sculpture, bake a cake, write a poem, play the guitar. Any creative pursuit offers a great mixture of concentration, external focus, and physical activity that’s effective for reducing anxiety. If you aren’t the creative type, try something simple like an adult coloring book or learning origami.

10. Reach out to a friend

Finally, our relationships are one of our best sources of comfort. And that doesn’t change when we’re staying home. Reach out to friends for a video chat – just remember not to spend the whole time focusing on your anxiety. Try to be actively engaged in the conversation (no checking the news at the same time), and you’ll feel a huge benefit.

We’re living in very strange times, and we could all do with some distractions right now. Find time to build some (or all) of these techniques into your day, and it will help reduce your anxiety. And when you start to feel anxiety rising, you’ll have heaps of tools you can rely on.

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