Distraction: Love It or Leave It?

In my last article, I talked about Dr. Sally Winston’s notion of the “while.” Essentially, Dr. Winston suggests that we feel the feelings WHILE we take the action. You don’t have to wait until they pass OR you feel better, AND you certainly don’t have to avoid because you are in your feels.

Practicing the “while” helps increase our distress tolerance, which is “the tendency to persist in task- and goal-directed behavior while experiencing negative internal states.” It’s our ability to manage our responses to stress-inducing factors.

Many of us know, all too well, that anxiety feelings can cause distress. And when we resist or fight them, ultimately, they come back stronger. The “while” is one way to experience anxiety without resisting it.

A question I get asked all the time when clients are first feeling their way through this is, how to tell if they’re distracting themselves or practicing the while. It’s a great question.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say I have health anxiety, and I’m practicing how to not engage in my checking and reassurance compulsions every time I think I’m getting sick. I’m going to need to practice feeling unsure, scared, worried, off, perhaps even irresponsible all while I work, make my kids dinner, answer emails, walk my dog. That may seem daunting.

But how do I know I’m not using all activities — busy-ness — as distractions? And even if I am distracting, isn’t that better than engaging in compulsions?

More great questions! My first response is to look at what distinguishes distraction and intentionally shifting our attention. The difference may seem small, but it’s really important.

The difference is in our attitude and mindset. When we’re distracting, the attitude is often “I don’t like how I’m feeling, so I’m going to do something to try and divert my attention away from it.” When you stop the distraction, the feelings may come back and then you feel worse and find something else to distract you.

The relief, if any, is short lived.

When you’re practicing “the while” or an attention shift, the attitude is “the thoughts can be there, AND I’m intentionally treating them as meaningless. “Maybe I am coming down with something, but I’m not going to cross that bridge until I’m actually on it.”

The practice is in not reacting to the thoughts or the whoosh of sensations they bring. We accept them and put our attention where it matters: getting dinner on the table, walking the dog, answering emails.

We’re building our distress tolerance.

Our reaction to uncomfortable feelings is what changing our relationship with anxiety is all about. Getting the hang of this takes practice and willingness! Some moments will be easier than others. The key is to remember that we’re not looking for the distress to go away. We’re looking to get better at riding its wave. Contact me if you want to explore this further.