Using Distraction for Coping With Emotions and PTSD

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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?


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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.
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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.