Part of my role as a therapist is to assess whether or not someone is using distraction or avoidance when they tell me “I just try and keep myself really busy.” Distraction is a healthy coping skill, and sometimes quite necessary when we are in the midst of trying to contain or reign in an emotion. Avoidance on the other hand, is going to catch up to you eventually as it tends to inhibit growth.
So when do we use distraction? Borrowed from the model of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) by Marsha Linehan, I have come to appreciate this series of questions that we can ask ourselves when faced with intense emotion:
- Am I able to solve the problem? (Is the solution available to me? Is this my problem to solve?) Answer Yes or No
- Is it an okay time to solve the problem? Answer Yes or No
- Am I in Wise Mind enough to solve the problem? (In other words, am I accessing enough of my rational brain or are my emotions still too intense?) Answer Yes or No
And here is the key: If you have answered yes to all three questions, move to solving the problem. This will allow you to experience movement and give you a sense of direction. If you have answered no to even one of the questions, move to distraction.
Have a coffee with a friend, clean out a closet, go for a walk, watch a favourite show, play a board game, take a hot bath, do some baking. Moving to keep yourself busy until you can answer yes to all three questions is a healthy way to use distraction as a coping skill until you feel able to solve the issue at hand.
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