Active vs Passive Distraction

When life gets difficult, it can often become tempting to distract yourself from your own thoughts and feelings. Loved ones may scold us for this, telling us that we should confront our feelings, because distracting ourselves doesn’t accomplish anything. However, distraction is an important part of distress tolerance. Imagine Jill, a young woman who, in typical romantic comedy fashion, gets fired and dumped on the same day. Sure, distracting herself isn’t going to help her find a new job, but binge-watching her favorite TV series would give Jill time to let her emotions around the problem cool down before she decides to start working on it.

Of course, different kinds of people may require different kinds of distraction. For Jill, a more passive distraction like watching TV is perfect; she may not have the energy to do much else. However, her now-ex Bob is worried about how awkward their break-up is going to make things with their mutual friend group. If he sat down to watch TV, he would still be worrying about it. Bob needs a distraction that he can throw himself into, something that takes so much effort and focus that he can’t spend any time worrying. So instead, he decides to pick up his guitar and practice a new song he’s been trying to learn. Bob opts for a more active distraction.

The examples above not only show the difference between passive and active distraction, but also how to match what kind of distraction you need to your mood. For a lot of people, depression makes it hard to do things, so a more passive distraction may be preferred. Jill would not have had the energy to practice an instrument while depressed. On the other side, anxiety often manifests as a sort of nervous energy, which can easily be redirected. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people find anxiety paralyzing, so they may prefer a passive distraction despite being anxious. The important thing here is that the activeness and passivity of your distraction match your energy level.

What some people find to work as a distraction, others might find works better as emotional regulation. Maybe the real reason Jill didn’t want to play music is that it wouldn’t distract her at all, and would instead remind her of Bob even more! A few days after the break-up, Jill may still be feeling sad and missing him, so she sits down at her piano and plays the saddest song she knows. Here she is not using music to distract her from her feelings. On the contrary, she is leaning into her emotions, and letting them out. The song she plays could be the same exact song that Bob was trying to learn on his guitar; the important thing here is the approach. Jill is choosing an activity that matches her mood. If she was angry about the breakup, she might play an angry song, or go to a kickboxing class. If she was sad, but didn’t want to play music, she might write a long letter to Bob, then shred it.

Not only is distraction anecdotally helpful, but research has been done to track symptoms in those who do and don’t use the technique. A Swedish study showed that patients admitted to the hospital after a car accident were less likely to develop PTSD if they played Tetris within a few hours of admission. Some of the core symptoms of PTSD involve recurring thoughts, intrusive memories, and flashbacks, and it is thought that distracting a person from ruminating over the event blocks this pattern from forming. Those who distracted in this study had fewer intrusive memories in the week following, and these intrusive memories diminished faster. An earlier Oxford study showed that in a case of simulated trauma, playing Tetris was the best of three options, with taking an online trivia quiz as worse than doing nothing. This indicates that choosing the wrong distraction technique (in this case, a passive one rather than an active one) can actually be hurtful. In this case, it makes sense that a failed distraction could actually train the brain to ruminate even while occupied. A distraction must be sufficiently distracting without being overwhelming.

This is not to say that distraction is always the best technique to use in a given situation. Distraction works best as distress tolerance, and is not a replacement for emotional regulation. As discussed above, the two work differently. Distracting yourself instead of using emotional regulation can lead to unprocessed or buried thoughts and feelings. In the moment, it can be hard to tell whether distracting yourself is helping or not. Different people have different tells (losing track of time, forgetting to do something important like eat lunch, etc) but generally, distraction should make you feel better, not worse. If you feel worse after a period of distraction, it may not be the right technique to be using. So next time you are feeling overwhelmed and need to veg out, go ahead! Just take the time to think about the kind of distraction you need first.

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