Distracting Yourself Into a Better Mood
Redirecting your focus is a very healthy coping strategy.
Posted Sep 14, 2017
“My head is full of stuff I am worried about today,” a fellow gym member told me as we were about to start a yoga class. “So if I am standing up when everyone else is sitting down, it is probably because I am not paying attention to the instructor. “
She was right: She was so self-absorbed in her worries that she was always about two yoga positions behind everyone else. About halfway through the class, I noticed her keeping up with the instructor’s moves, and no longer looking so worried.
When the class was over, she said, "I feel so much better! Once I started to focus entirely on whether I was in the correct yoga position, I was distracted from the laundry list of problems that had been bothering me.“
Yoga is one of many distractions that work to relieve, or at least subdue, a variety of emotions from boredom (e.g. “HOW long do I have to wait on the telephone to speak to a representative?!?”) to depression, anxiety, anger, and worry. Think of the scene in a movie or television where people are waiting to hear news about an operation. Someone always says, “Let’s go to the cafeteria and get some coffee.” The coffee is not what is desired; it is the distraction of moving to another place and engaging in another activity (buying and drinking coffee) that may somewhat help relieve the tension.
Sometimes the lack of distraction makes a situation unbearable. Imagine sitting in a waiting area awaiting your own operation. You are awake and alone and there is nothing to distract you from your anxiety and worry. A friend of mine who recently had his cataracts removed told me that, while he was waiting to be operated on, all he could think was "What if something goes wrong and I became blind?" He said. But, "if someone had been there to talk to me, or even if I could have watched television, I might not have worked myself into a panic.”
So-called Retail Therapy has long been recognized as an effective, albeit short-lived, therapy for anxiety and depression. It works, but has its limitations and unfortunate financial consequences if shopping leads to buying items neither needed nor affordable. The distraction of finding something desired and buying it lasts very briefly, and it is a costly way of keeping away unwanted thoughts. But certain shopping venues like gigantic flea markets, or bargain warehouses that require lots of walking and poking through piles of stuff that ultimately are rejected for purchase? They effectively focus the mind and move it away from unpleasant emotions.
Years ago, Boston had a two-story bargain store, Filene’s Basement, where the merchandise was marked down according to how long it had been on the racks. Shoppers hunted for a drastically marked-down piece of clothing or shoes; they rarely found one but considered the hunt itself to be a lot of fun. In order to deal with the death of both parents within a short period of time, one of my mother's friends told me that she would go to the Basement every weekday during her lunch hour.
“I never bought anything, but searching for the ultimate bargain distracted me temporarily from my grief.”
In order for distraction to work; in other words, doing X to take your mind off of thinking about issue Y, it should absorb all of one’s attention. Moreover, the distraction must be easy to initiate, not necessarily require the participation of someone else, and be convenient. Skill-driven physical activities such as indoor rock climbing or paddle boarding, where loss of concentration means falling off the rock wall or the paddleboard, are effective distractions. Still, simpler and more accessible activities like going to a driving range or playing Ping-Pong also work. Games such as bridge or chess or even group activities such as singing in a choir, or joining a conversation group in a language you are learning? They require total concentration and thus, for a while, are a total distraction. Crossword and other word puzzles work, unless they add a level of frustration to an already difficult situation, like waiting for a long-delayed plane. And sometimes a conversation that forces you to concentrate on what the other person is saying is a distraction from an inner voice that talks too much about your concerns.
Overeating is unfortunately often used as a distraction but, like retail therapy, the distraction is short and the cost, in calories, considerable. Indeed, overeaters are advised to redirect to new distraction activities such as: take a bath, take a walk, make a phone call, see a friend, or read a magazine to decrease the eating. These activities, however, are weak distractions and often are accompanied by the eating they are supposed to halt.
Sometimes thinking outside the box is the only way to identify a distraction that will work. Years ago, a weight-loss client complained that he was eating at night to deal with problems from work he was bringing home with him. “You should find something to distract you,” I told him, listing the obvious contenders.
Nothing seemed to appeal to him. Throwing up my hands in frustration I said, "Well, what about learning to play the bagpipes? That will keep you from eating.”
“What a good idea,” he said. “I have bagpipes in my closet. I haven’t played them in years. I am going to l start playing them tonight.”
I really hope he had soundproof walls.