When Distraction Can Be Helpful For Emotion Regulation

Distraction can sometimes get a bit of a bad rep because it sounds like you are avoiding something rather than figuring out a solution to a problem. However, what about situations where there is no immediate solution? In this case, distraction and self-soothing skills can be a great way to reduce distress, increase positive emotions, and focus on other things that are important to you instead of being in a perpetual state of limbo.

If we refer back to the emotional thermometer, PLEASE skills are helpful for reducing emotional vulnerability (0-10%) whereas STOPP and TIPP are helpful for crisis situations (90-100%). However, for situations that are somewhat stressful (perhaps a 40 or 50 on the distress scale) and chronic (i.e., lasting a long-time), then distraction and self-soothing skills may be the tools of choice. Examples might include: ‘waiting for your exam results to come out’ or ‘an important person in your life is sick and you are waiting to hear from them about their prognosis’. In these cases, there’s no immediate solution and it certainly wouldn’t be helpful to be completely paralyzed that you are unable to go about your daily life or enjoy anything in life.

Example showcasing importance of distraction
When distraction might be helpful for awkward folks like us

Distracting with ACCEPTS

Sometimes it is important to accept that life is stressful and what you need is not to get rid of the stress, but to manage it better. ACCEPTS is a fun and relevant acronym that lists a few activities that might be helpful to deal with chronic stressors. These are strategies that have been used in emotion regulation skills treatments and dialectical behavioural therapy. ACCEPTS stands for:

A – Activities. Distraction with enjoyable activities can be a good way to get your mind off something stressful. Pick activities that work well for you: these can include watching TV, cleaning a room, going exercising, playing a sport or video game, surfing the web, among many others.

C – Contributing. Doing something kind for others through contribution can be another positive distraction technique. These can include helping out friends or family, surprising someone with a gift, doing something thoughtful, or reaching out to a friend.  

C – Comparisons. This one might sound invalidating, but comparisons can sometimes actually be helpful in putting things into perspective. Comparing how you are feeling now to a time that you might feel different or thinking about others in a similar situation can be good ways to feel less isolated in your current situation.

E – Emotions. Pushing away your current emotions with different ones, such as by watching a funny movie, listening to emotional music, or reading emotional books can be ways to get you out of your current funk.

P – Pushing Away. This strategy involves pushing away the situation physically (e.g., by leaving the situation for a bit) or mentally (e.g., building a mental wall between you and the situation).

T – Thoughts. You might also distract your thoughts with something cognitively demanding, such as a puzzle.

S – Sensations. Engaging in tasks that involve other sensations as forms of distraction. For example, taking a hot shower, squeezing a rubber ball, or jamming to your favorite beat.

There a number of possibilities that may be good distractors to get your mind off the stress. Some of these will resonate well with you and some might feel off – pick the ones you enjoy!

Example of a distraction activity.
Recreational activity or evidence-based emotion regulation skill?

<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/photos/electronic-gadgets’>Electronic gadgets photo created by freepik – http://www.freepik.com</a&gt;

Beyond distraction skills, self-soothing strategies can be a great way to engage in self-care and reduce stress. This can be done by soothing each of our five senses. Below I’ll provide examples for each of the five senses.

1. With Vision. Examples include: looking at the stars, making a room pleasing to look at, watching a sunrise or sunset, taking a hike and observing the nature scenaries.

2. With Hearing. Examples include: listening to your favorite song; paying attention to the sounds of the city; listening to sounds of nature.

3. With Smell. Examples include: smelling a scented candle, using your favorite soap or shampoo, making cookies or popcorn.

4. With Taste. Examples include: eating your favorite food, eating nostalgic food, chewing gum, drinking a soothing drink.

5. With Touch. Examples include: snuggling into a warm blanket, putting a cold compress on your forehead, hugging someone you are close to.

Again, I have given a lot of different possibilities, but please choose the ones that give you the most mileage!

Let me know in the comments if there is a specific strategy you like to use to keep your mind off something stressful!

Best wishes,