If we are in the middle of a difficult situation and, for whatever reason, cannot make things better right away, then distraction may be a helpful tool to consider using.


Distraction skills are important because they temporarily stop us from thinking about situations that are causing emotional pain. This briefly interrupts our contact with painful stimuli, which helps our nervous systems to calm down. (And we usually make wiser decisions when our brains and bodies are calm.) Taking a step back from a difficult situation also gives us time to explore different options and find an appropriate coping response.


Distraction by temporarily stepping away

If we are in the middle of a stressful situation, and recognize that our emotions are about to overwhelm us and possibly make the situation worse, then it may be best to leave. Temporarily stepping away may be better than adding fuel to the emotional fire. We can return later once we have regained our poise.

Distraction through activities

Engaging in other activities can help to turn our attention away from difficult experiences. We might exercise, clean, play a game, watch television or a movie, browse the internet, eat something … whatever gives us some temporary respite. We can’t be in crisis-mode 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It’s not sustainable. We can give ourselves permission to take a break.

Distraction with other thoughts

The human brain is a wonderful thought-producing machine. It churns out millions of thoughts every day. Most of the time, this makes our lives much easier. But unfortunately, we can’t fully control what our brain thinks about all of the time. Sometimes the mind stumbles onto painful thoughts or memories. And simply telling our minds to “Stop!” doesn’t work. What seems to work better is to turn our attention to other thoughts — like pleasant memories and images — that do not reactivate painful emotions.

Distraction by turning our attention to others

When we are in pain, our attention often becomes fixated on ourselves and our problems. Turning our attention outward — towards others — can sometimes help to interrupt this fixation. Think of someone you care about, contact a friend or family member, do something for someone else, volunteer.

Distraction with the five senses

Attending to simple but pleasant sensory experiences provides a small amount of peace that can help to break the cycle of distress. What smells are relaxing and soothing to you? Sounds? Tastes? Images? Physical sensations? Experiment and find out which ones work for you. Then seek them out when overwhelmed.

Distraction through other emotions

Sometimes it helps to replace our current emotional state with a different emotional state. For example, if we had a bad day at work and come home in a bad mood, then watching a comedy might be particularly helpful. This intentionally interferes with the current mood state, in a way that is adaptive.


Do not confuse distraction with avoidance. When we avoid a distressing situation, we choose not to deal with it. But when we distract ourselves from a distressing situation, we still intend to deal with it in the future — when the timing is better.


The upcoming newsletter articles will explore other, more sophisticated Distress Tolerance skills. Stay tuned …