PTSD Coping Using Distraction for Coping With Emotions and PTSD By Matthew Tull, PhD Matthew Tull, PhD Twitter Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Learn about our editorial process Updated on June 28, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Akeem Marsh, MD Medically reviewed by Akeem Marsh, MD LinkedIn Twitter Akeem Marsh, MD, is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist who has dedicated his career to working with medically underserved communities. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images Purposeful use of distraction techniques can actually be of benefit in helping people cope with emotions that are strong and uncomfortable. What exactly is a distraction and what are some examples of distraction that may be helpful? Overview People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience very strong and uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and shame. These emotions can be very difficult to deal with and, as a result, they may lead people with PTSD to use unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug use (self-medicating). Although alcohol and drugs may initially work in taking away an intense feeling, their use is only a temporary fix. In the long run, alcohol and drug use often leads to more intense emotions and other problems. Given this, it is important to learn how to cope with very strong emotions in the moment using coping skills that do not put you at risk for long-term negative consequences. One such skill is a distraction. Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Emotional Crises Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares a technique that can help you when you're experiencing an emotional crisis. Click below to listen now. Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts What Is Distraction? Just as the name implies, distraction is anything you do to temporarily take your attention away from strong emotion. Sometimes focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. Therefore, by temporarily distracting yourself, you may give the emotion some time to decrease in intensity, making it easier to manage. What It's Not A key part of the above definition of distraction is the word, "temporarily." Distraction is not about trying to escape or avoid a feeling. With distraction, it is implied that you eventually will return to the feeling you were having. Then, once the intensity of the feeling has reduced, you will try to use another skill to manage the emotion, such as expressive writing. Distraction can keep you safe in the moment by preventing unhealthy behaviors (such as drug use or deliberate self-harm) that occur in response to a strong feeling, as well as making a feeling easier to cope with in the long run. Does It Really Work? It may seem clear that taking your mind off an intense emotion would be helpful, and research supports this finding. Distraction appears to be helpful in regulating emotions not only with anxiety-related disorders, such as with PTSD, but with depression and even acute and chronic pain. It appears that there's a physiological basis that may help explain these findings. Scientists have found that certain structures in the brain are closely related to PTSD. The amygdala (part of the limbic system) appears to be over-stimulated in people suffering from PTSD. This part of the brain is thought to be responsible for processing memories as well as conditioned responses to fear. Studies have found that distraction is able to decrease the activation of the amygdala. Distraction also appears to create changes in some areas of the pre-frontal cortex which are also affected by PTSD. How to Distract Yourself There are a number of things you can try to distract yourself. Listed below are some common distraction techniques. Call or write a letter to a good friend or family member. Count backward from a large number by sevens or some other number (for example, 856, 849, 842, 835, etc.). Do some chores, such as cleaning the house, doing laundry, or washing dishes. Do something creative. Draw a picture or build a model. Exercise. Focus your attention on your environment. Name all the colors in the room. Try to memorize and recall all the objects that you see in a room. Go out shopping (even if it is just window shopping). Practice mindfulness. Focus on your breathing. Read a good book or watch a funny movie. Take part in a fun and challenging game that requires some level of attention, such as a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. Take part in a self-soothing behavior. How to Use Mindfulness for PTSD Finding Your Own Distractions Try to come up with your own list of distraction activities that you can use when you are experiencing a strong emotion that is difficult to cope with in the moment. The more you are able to come up, the more flexible you can be in coming up with the best activity depending upon the situation you are in. This may feel forced and artificial at first, but with time you will find that distracting yourself from difficult emotions becomes much easier and almost automatic. Sometimes we dismiss some of the easier methods of coping with our emotions. It's almost as if having to practice more—or tolerate the side effects of more medications—means a treatment approach will work better. Thankfully, studies are telling us that this "too-good-to-be-true" skill for handling tough emotions really is true—at least when combined with a comprehensive treatment program to help you cope, and eventually thrive, with PTSD. PTSD: Coping, Support, and Living Well A Word From Verywell While these distraction techniques are useful, they do not replace other forms of professional treatment including therapy. If you have PTSD and are experiencing very strong and uncomfortable emotions, consider seeking help from a mental health professional who can help you identify these emotions and strengthen your skills for coping with them. PTSD: Coping, Support, and Living Well 5 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Moyal N, Henik A, Anholt GE. Cognitive strategies to regulate emotions-current evidence and future directions. Front Psychol. 2014;4:1019. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01019 Dolcos F, Iordan AD, Kragel J, et al. Neural correlates of opposing effects of emotional distraction on working memory and episodic memory: an event-related FMRI investigation. Front Psychol. 2013;4:293. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00293 Shafir R, Schwartz N, Blechert J, Sheppes G. Emotional intensity influences pre-implementation and implementation of distraction and reappraisal. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;10(10):1329–1337. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv022 Aubry AV, Serrano PA, Burghardt NS. Molecular Mechanisms of Stress-Induced Increases in Fear Memory Consolidation within the Amygdala. Front Behav Neurosci. 2016;10:191. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00191 Uusberg A, Thiruchselvam R, Gross JJ. Using distraction to regulate emotion: insights from EEG theta dynamics. Int J Psychophysiol. 2014;91(3):254-260. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2014.01.006 By Matthew Tull, PhD Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for PTSD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.