“The only thing to fear is fear itself” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
Distracting myself has been one of my best coping mechanisms when it comes to fighting an anxious thought or an upcoming anxiety attack. Watch Netflix, bake bread, go for a run. It cleared the way to deal with my issues one by one. To slowly work on the things that were important to me at that moment, instead of trying to juggle it all. However, the distraction itself has perhaps turned into another harmful pattern. Here’s what I tried to do about it.
Distractions as a coping mechanism
When I was 21, my mother passed away. Only a year later I lost my father too. Meanwhile, I was also struggling with social anxiety. Imagine if I could fully grasp what had happened, the severity of the situation would be so overwhelming that I might have lost my mind. I distracted myself with Netflix, sleep, and a side job that had just the right amount of social contact. In the 5 years after, in between all of the distractions of normal life, bits and pieces of the memories come back, at different times in my life.
As psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck stated:
“At the beginning, [distraction] can give the person a sense of relief. If the person gets panicky on a bus, it gives them a sense of relief if they have an assignment where they [read] the different advertisements under the roof of the bus. (…) And secondly, it gives them a sense of control.”
Distracting myself from anxiety has been my best coping mechanism, not just after my parents died. Very often, doing one thing wasn’t even enough, because it wouldn’t fully distract my mind from the anxious thoughts entering it. However, in the last couple of months, I became aware of a strong urge to distract myself all the time, especially when I had a day off. It seemed unnecessary because I felt like I was a lot better at dealing with my anxiety. Still, there was a voice telling me I’d better start looking for a distraction right away. Just in case.
In case what? In case my emotions decide to take over and pour down an entire bucket of water on my face, leave me gasping for air, wondering when I’ll feel less lonely again. Just in case someone has an attack of anxious thoughts planned and I have a complete blackout, forgetting all the ways to fight it.
What happened? My coping mechanism turned into another form of anxiety.
When to stop distracting yourself
I learned that when struggling with anxiety and using distraction as a coping mechanism, the distraction can easily turn into a pattern as well.
According to cognitive-behavioral psychologist Dr. Simon Rego ‘distraction may be a “safety behavior” that allows patients to control or avoid anxiety out of fear that the physical sensations they experience during panic are dangerous’. This approach can give a sense of relief and make someone feel safe, but it is only maintaining the anxiety in the long run.
Eventually, you end up with another habit to unlearn after harvesting the benefits of it. In the best case, it created the space to deal with the issues you tried to distract yourself from in the first place. Yet, if you consistently fall back on binging Netflix shows, without dealing with other problems you face, it might be good to assess the severity of your coping mechanism.
The solution, according to Dr. Rego:
“These patients should be encouraged to gradually and systematically experience anxiety symptoms and learn to manage or tolerate them.”
The only way to find out where I was at, was to stop distracting myself. The idea itself made me restless because I didn’t know whether taking a break would put me back into my anxious mind. Perhaps I’ve overcome parts of my anxiety already, but since I became so used to distracting myself, letting go of that could turn into a new anxiety trigger.
How I stopped distracting myself
I sit down and simply do nothing, perhaps enjoy a cup of coffee. Very often I notice that my mind starts to protest at first. “Are you sure about this? Aren’t you afraid of going into overthinking mode? You’re playing with fire.” I try to ignore all the tension in my body and see if I can focus on any emotion that starts to overwhelm me, apart from the thoughts about anxiety itself.
If I hang in there long enough, with a minimum of 20 minutes, I will feel a sense of relief, but also of gratefulness. I might even feel proud for trusting myself to sit with this uncomfortable feeling, and not let it get the better of me. Eventually, a different voice arises that values the silence, the idea that right now all I have to do is enjoy the moment. Being a little more present in my own company.
Give it a go
If you’re up to giving it a try, keep in mind that my approach is what worked for me, but it can be different for anyone.
Sometimes setting a timer on 20 minutes can be very effective. It is not the same as meditating, because meditating can also be seen as a form of distraction and usually focuses on what is happening around you. What you are doing is full-on facing your fear: the fear that not distracting yourself is a bad thing.
It might not be that easy to do it again another time, but if you succeed once, it is a great place to start from: the knowledge that you are able to get the better of your fear.