Distraction: Helpful or Unhelpful When Treating OCD?
Using distraction as a helpful coping skill is often misunderstood. I frequently encounter clients who explain that distraction is one of their most commonly-used skills when coping with an intrusive thought, image, or feeling. They explain that it helps redirect their focus onto something else, so that they don't have to experience the high levels of discomfort and anxiety associated with their obsession - and when distracted for long enough, their anxiety subsides. It's hard to argue with this rationale because the truth is, your anxiety will subside after being distracted for long enough. The downside, however, is that this relief is short-lived. Distraction is a compulsion. When you encounter your next trigger, your anxiety will escalate, you will reach for a distraction, and round and round the cycle goes.
Distraction is a form of running away from a thought/feeling. When you do this, your mind is learning that the particular thought/feeling you are experiencing is bad, dangerous, and needs to be avoided. Your mind will continue to be on the lookout for these thoughts and feelings, and as a result, you will begin to notice them more, rather than less. The more you avoid, distract, or engage in any compulsive behavior, the stronger your fear of these thoughts/feelings will be.
A more helpful way of coping in the face of an intrusive thought/feeling is to practice mindfulness. This can be used as a form of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) during moments where the time and place do not allow for a prolonged and uninterrupted ERP practice; for example, when you are occupied at work, with your children, or out with friends. Using mindfulness means choosing to allow your uncomfortable thoughts, images, and feelings to be present, while you simultaneously reengage in the more meaningful activity in front of you. It is about redirecting your focus back to the present moment, while allowing the discomfort to remain for as long as it needs. The rationale is that you are showing yourself you can still engage in what is important to you, even in the face of discomfort. It is teaching your mind, "I don't need to get rid of unwanted thoughts, images, and feelings in order to engage in a valued activity." This begins to put you in charge, not your OCD.
To help determine whether you are engaging in distraction vs. mindfulness, think to yourself, "what is the purpose behind refocusing my attention right now?"
If the purpose is to try and reduce your discomfort by not thinking about what makes you anxious, you are engaging in distraction.
If the purpose is to not push away what you are thinking and feeling, but to observe, acknowledge, and allow your thoughts and feelings to exist while you choose to focus on a more valued activity in front of you, you are engaging in the helpful skill of mindfulness.
Mindfulness takes practice - It is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened. While a challenging skill at first, mindfulness will give you a positive and healthy alternative to running from, and trying to escape, discomfort. Instead of fighting your thoughts and feelings with distraction, you will gradually learn to coexist with them, and over time, they will not feel as intense or threatening as they may now seem.
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