In Relapse Prevention 101, one of the techniques recovering addicts learn is distraction. Many are already familiar with the unhealthy version of this skill. After all, people often develop addictions in an effort to distract themselves from the pain of daily life. If addiction is itself a distraction, how could distraction aid in overcoming this disease?
The Role of Healthy Distraction
Distraction is generally considered undesirable. Think distracted driving or imagine people overscheduling themselves or spending hours in front of the TV trying not to have to cope with life. But healthy distraction is different.
When faced with a craving to use drugs or alcohol, healthy distraction allows you to direct your attention to some other activity, preferably one that requires your full attention (and that isn’t destructive or compulsive like drug abuse). For some, this may be talking to a friend, going to a meeting, working out at the gym, or taking a walk in nature. For others, it might be journaling or dancing or reaching out to help someone else. It could even be as simple as sitting still and being mindful of your surroundings.
Mental distraction is a technique that has been used effectively for a number of physical and mental health issues. We often tell people in the throes of anger to count to 10 or remove themselves from the situation before doing something rash. A study published in Current Biology found that distraction also can serve as a form of pain relief that reduces the number of pain signals that reach the brain by triggering the release of endogenous opioids in the body.
How Distraction Works
Though seemingly simple, choosing to distract yourself from a craving or painful emotion is actually far more complex than the automatic response of drug use. First, you must recognize that you’re having a craving or feeling distress. Then you must accept that the craving is a normal part of recovery without responding reflexively, devise a plan to distract yourself and take positive action—all while your natural inclination is to get drunk or high.
Distraction often works to prevent a slip-up. When a negative emotion surfaces, our tendency is to go over the problem repeatedly and ruminate on our worries and fears. Rather than improving the situation, this doubles the suffering. In addition to the original concern, you have the added worry and negativity brought on by either resisting or dwelling on the problem.
Distraction breaks this cycle. It takes you out of your negative, unconscious, and habitual way of thinking, reduces the intensity of the negative emotion so it is easier to manage, and allows you to take a conscious time-out. That doesn’t mean you deny or run away from difficult emotions. Later, you’ll return to the emotion and process it when you’re in a better position to come up with a creative resolution.
Another benefit of distraction is that it buys you time. Most cravings last just two to three hours. If you can delay responding, solutions may arise that weren’t obvious in the intensity of the moment. The less you struggle against a certain emotion, the likelier you are to resolve it. Other times, there is no answer and feelings simply need to be managed using other skills. Each individual must find for themselves the appropriate balance between addressing emotions head on in the moment and getting a temporary break from them.
But doesn’t distraction contradict the concept of mindfulness in recovery? Not necessarily. You have to be self-aware to acknowledge the feeling of distress, and then choose to distract yourself mindfully (“I’m feeling distressed, so I will focus my mind on something else until the moment passes.”) This is in sharp contrast to the old go-to distraction of using drugs or alcohol, which numbs the mind and impairs self-awareness and decision-making.
In addiction recovery, cravings and painful emotions are inevitable. We all need a break once in a while to prevent negativity from creeping in and taking over our lives. Distraction is an easy and harmless coping skill to replace unhealthy, habitual patterns with conscious efforts to safeguard your recovery.
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees addiction treatment programs at Promises Treatment Centers in California and Texas, The Ranch outside Nashville, Clarity Way in Pennsylania, and The Sundance Center in Arizona. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter @drdavidsack.