How to Decrease Emotional Pain with Distraction Skills
by Diane Cerven, MA, LPCC
In the last couple posts, we have been talking about distraction skills to help us with our emotions when they become too big or overwhelm us. In the first post, I talked about using deep breathing (which is also a relaxation skill. View here), and in the second post I talked about playing a 20 minute game to focus our mind on something else (view here). Distraction skills can be anything that will put our mind on to something other than the emotions we are struggling with, but why is that important?
Our Emotions Can Get in the Way
We talked in our first post about having large emotions and how those can get us into trouble (from constantly snipping all the way to yelling at someone, being rude or saying something in a way that others become defensive). Last time, we looked into the depressive thoughts our emotional brain can have. Our emotional brain is important, it is always telling us something. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s telling us that what’s going on is that it remembers a traumatic past or a stressful event. During these self-talk thoughts, we learned how to cope or survive the thoughts. The more these thoughts occur the more engrained our ways of coping become. That’s positive if it’s a good coping skill. When we just listen to our emotions then usually it’s not all that helpful. Some ways we cope or protect ourselves is with anger such as yelling at the person or sometimes we are just flooded and as a defense we shut down. Sometimes we isolate ourselves. Isolation is depressions best friend. If we want our depression to be worse, isolation is a good way to increase the depression.
Emotions are not always good at telling us how to cope. Instead of coming up with positive ways to cope or manage our thoughts, our emotions may have a negative dialogue with us. These thoughts then run through our heads, over and over again. For example, many of us have anxiety. Anxiety when facing a bear is very helpful. It shuts down unnecessary systems, doesn’t take superfluous information, it is working on how to stay alive. This is a good thing. However, when we have that level of anxiety about shopping, leaving our house, driving, talking to people, or taking a test, then our brains are working against us. The thoughts in our head that are making the anxiety worse and are trying to keep us alive are not helpful because the situation is not life or death. These are the times when we need to focus our brain on something else. This is where coping skills are helpful. There are many coping skills we can use, keep reading our posts to find out more.
Distract with Household Chores
Today, we will continue with distraction skills. As you monitor your thoughts or notice your emotions growing or beginning to overwhelm you, then it’s time to work on something else. You can try doing household chores. Let’s face it we all need to straighten or clean something in our homes. This is a perfect way for us to get our mind busy (bonus: some chores give us exercise too).
My first advice is to look around and find something to work on. Make it something doable. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to clean the entire kitchen. That’s a large chore. Instead, focus on something in the kitchen that needs to be cleaned or straightened, like that stack of papers in the corner or those dishes in the sink. We are trying to reach 20 minutes of distraction to decrease our emotions, with the bonus of getting something at least partly done, again, yay!
If your brain is concentrating too much on your emotional thoughts, make a list, and then pick something off it. Here’s my helpful list to trigger some cleaning ideas for you:
o Straightening things on a table
o Doing laundry (clothing, bedding, rugs, couch blanket)
o Washing dishes
o Cleaning out the junk drawer (the one with the old toaster’s manual and dead batteries)
o Cleaning the bathroom
o Getting rid of cob webs
o Watering plants (come to my house and do those too, lol)
o Taking out the trash
o Bathing pets (your pet snake really needs it, ok… maybe not)
o Cleaning floorboards
o Cleaning the refrigerator and freezer (what was that thing)
o Cleaning blinds and windows
o Vacuuming or laundering curtains
o Planting seedlings
o Going through old magazines (the ones you saved for the recipes but never used)
o Sorting through that stack of paper and junk mail (it’ll feel so good for that to be gone)
o Sorting through books and donating the ones you don’t want anymore, same with movies and music
o Putting those old photographs into a photo album (awww look at great-grandma)
o Pruning trees or shrubs
o Washing the car
Ok the list is endless; there are so many projects inside and out to work on that it can become overwhelming. Let’s not add to our emotional stress by focusing on an overwhelming amount of things to accomplish but do something small and short-term to distract ourselves and bring our emotions back down. The goal is at least 20 minutes. When our system is flooded with emotions, it takes about 20 minutes to come back down, so let’s take that 20 minutes and distract ourselves. Set the timer on our phone or stove and work for that amount of time. Along with picking places to clean to make the work more doable, we can also break it down into smaller more manageable tasks. Instead of cleaning out the closet, sort one box. Go through one stack of papers or magazines. Clean part of something or set a time limit. That’s all we need and any progress made is still progress, even if it didn’t get completely done.
Remember that we can use these coping skills with children who are overwhelmed emotionally as well. We can use distraction by redirecting their attention to something they can do. Personally, I would try doing a game first (remember it doesn’t have to be electronic and should last for only 20 minutes), or something physically active or calming, like deep breathing, and then suggest something in the cleaning/straightening realm. It will just go better, depending on your child. Now with children who are overly emotional, telling them to go clean something isn’t going to go well. For those of you who end up yelling at your children to clean up, that causes an emotional reaction in them. Sometimes children are already in the habit to overreact (aka emotionally react) just by asking them to do some household task. They are reacting as if trying to stay alive and you’re the bear. With their brain only responding with how they’ve learned to survive you (the bear), you’re getting resistance, not compliance. Make sure you’re calm, using your distraction skills (or other coping skills), and in calmness help your child to find their calm. If you catch their emotional reactions when they are still minimal, or find something they like, this can help them to redirect their thoughts and energy. When kids see you handling your emotions by distraction, such as with cleaning, they will learn that as well. Showing them how to manage emotions is the best way to teach them.
What’s the Next step to Distracting Myself?
Join us next time when we go over the final distraction skill before we head into new types of coping skills. Coping skills can help, but they cannot take the place of counseling and cannot solve many of the challenges associated with mental illness. If you need more help we’re here for you. To schedule a counseling appointment, call us at 218-366-9229 (Park Rapids) or 218-444-2233 (Bemidji).
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Diane Cerven, LPCC