Patrick B. McGrath Ph.D.

Don't Try Harder, Try Different!

The Truth About Distractions and Anxiety

Distracting yourself means that you never actually experienced what you feared.

Posted Aug 30, 2012

The final safety seeking behavior that we need to investigate is distraction. The use of distraction allows you to actually do the thing that you are afraid of without actually being involved in doing it.

I know that sounds a bit confusing, so let me give you an example of how distraction works. If you are afraid of flying but have to fly, you may use distraction as your way of coping with your fear. Prior to getting on the plane, you may take several anti-anxiety medications. Then on the plane, you may order three shots of liquor. Further, though you are an agnostic, you say a rosary just in case you happen to be wrong, and you blast your music in your headphones as loud as possible so that you do not have to hear any of the airplane sounds, and you hold the hand of the person next to you, though you have never met them before.

While this may all sound as if it is what helps you to get through the flight, it is all just a big distraction from the fact that you are actually doing the very thing that you fear. If you want to really learn how to handle the flight, then you need to just get on the plane with nothing – no anti-anxiety medications (even medications in your pocket are reassurance for just in case you start to get anxious), no drinks, and no other distraction like music or reading materials. You need to just sit through a flight and learn that you can handle being on a plane.

Once you do this, then you will see that your fear of flying will start to decrease, but until then, it will remain the same or just get worse. Distraction only helps you in the experience that you find yourself in, and once it is over you have to use distraction again the next time you face that stressor or else something bad might happen then.

As you can see from this, and the last few posts, it is the Safety Seeking Behaviors that are really a main culprit in the maintenance of stress. It is only by eliminating them that you will truly be able to overcome your fears, because you will finally allow yourself to face the things you fear instead of run away from them.

All of this is also related to when you want to feel better – do you want to feel good right now, or do you want to feel good in the future. If all you do is try to make yourself feel good in the moment, then you will not learn how to handle anything because your main goal will just be avoidance, reassurance, and distraction. However, if you want to really learn how to feel good about things, sometimes you need to suffer through your anxiety and learn that you can handle it. Once you learn that lesson, then your stress will no longer seem like such a big deal.