Address-and-Distract

An underappreciated tool for coping.

Posted Aug 14, 2020

No author listed, pxhere, Public Domain
Source: No author listed, pxhere, Public Domain

COVID and the political and racial roiling can make an already stressed modern life cross the line into overwhelm.

For example, even if COVID hasn’t touched you, the fear fanned by the media and seeing everyone in masks racing away from you if within 10 feet even outdoors contributes to the discombobulation.

A perhaps under-discussed antidote to stress and overwhelm is something my clients and, okay, I, have found helpful: address and distract:

1. Address. Decide if you can do anything to address the stress's source. For example, if you’re worried about getting a disease, your job or lack thereof, a relationship or lack thereof, is there something more you want to do about it?

So, if you’re afraid of COVID, do you want to get tested, wash your hands more often, socially distance more? If you’re worried about some other disease, should you get checked out? Or do you feel you’re doing about as much as you want to for now?

If you’re afraid of losing your job, do you want to work harder, smarter, change your attitude, develop a new skill, talk with your boss about how you could add more value, quietly reach out to your network for job leads, and/or apply to appealing positions? Or do you feel you need to sit tight for now?

If your relationship is in trouble, do you want to have a conversation or series of them with your partner, by yourselves, or with a trusted friend or relative, or a counselor? Should you break up? Or do you need to accept the relationship as-is for now?

2. Distract. After deciding whether or not to do something to address your worry, you’re more likely to stop worrying about it if you pat yourself on the back for having thought it through, perhaps even realizing you’ll probably survive, even survive the worst case, and then force, yes force, yourself to immediately distract yourself to something more beneficial. Try to pick something that would occupy your mind: for example, work, a phone call, reading, even a video game.

Address-and-distract is often helpful because it’s immediate, relatively easy, and just possibly, because it atrophies the memory neurons for the worry, while building more constructive neurons. That plus your getting in the habit of using address-and-distract may enduringly increase your ability to handle life’s stresses.

Some psychotherapists disagree. They believe that address-and-distract merely kicks the can down the road. They argue that the anxiety likely will reemerge later, perhaps more strongly or pervasively.

My guess is that it varies with the individual and the situation. So, maintain an experimental mindset: Give address-and-distract a good try. See if it’s helpful and becomes easier over time. You can always replace or supplement it with efforts to unearth more foundational sources of anxiety— by journaling, talking with a friend, or sessions with a psychotherapist and/or medication from a psychiatrist.

The takeaway

We all prefer low-risk, low-cost approaches. Address-and-distract certainly qualifies, and it may well help.

I read this aloud on YouTube.