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How To Distract Yourself From Anxiety

Imagine Yourself Leaving The Painful Feelings Behind

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Picture yourself:

  • Gathering the emotions, balling them up, and putting them into a box
  • Walking, swimming, biking, or jogging away from painful feelings
  • Imagining your thoughts as a song or TV show you dislike, changing the channel or
  • Turning down the volume theyre still there, but you dont have to listen to them.

Are You Stuck In The Anxiety

Distraction is the modern day equivalent of avoiding the dangerous or unknown in ancient times. Uncertainty makes you feel anxious. Anxiety urges you to do something most often that is to gather information. Yet, when no new information about the pandemic is available, checking the news doesnt make you feel better. Your brains quickly learns that distraction is a pretty solid alternative. Its survival 101. The problem is that, distractions can lead to unhealthy habits, and even addiction, that are hard to break. If youre stuck in an anxiety-distraction habit loop, you need to map out the trigger-behavior-reward process that creates and perpetuates your unwanted habits.

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As a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety and habit management, Ive seen a lot of change over the past two months, and very little for the better. One of my patients works at his family-owned liquor store . During our newly minted telehealth visits, he told me that he has been working 70+ hours a week. His business has never been busier. Several other patients have been joining the growing ranks of Netflix binge-watchers as a way to distract themselves. Others still are concerned about the quarantine 15, or gaining weight because they turn to food for comfort.

Lets start with a bit of biology.

Distraction As A Coping Mechanism

Distraction is meant to keep you safe at the moment by preventing unhealthy behaviors that may occur in response to overwhelming feelings or thoughts that arise.

It also helps postpone having to deal with your emotions if its a little too much at the moment or if its happening at an inconvenient time or place.

Also, when youre in a negative headspace, you might have trouble thinking objectively about the situation. You may catastrophize or dwell on those negative feelings, which can worsen the emotions.

In cases like that, you may be tempted to use unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to quickly make yourself feel better.

Although those methods may initially take away the intense feelings, the fix is only temporary. On the contrary, itll actually lead to more problems and overwhelming emotions in the long run.

So while its important to deal with your emotions when they come up, there are also times when they can be so overwhelming that you should take a breather first before facing them.

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Tip : Interrupt The Worry Cycle

If you worry excessively, it can seem like negative thoughts are running through your head on endless repeat. You may feel like youre spiraling out of control, going crazy, or about to burn out under the weight of all this anxiety. But there are steps you can take right now to interrupt all those anxious thoughts and give yourself a time out from relentless worrying.

Get up and get moving. Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment because it releases endorphins which relieve tension and stress, boost energy, and enhance your sense of well-being. Even more importantly, by really focusing on how your body feels as you move, you can interrupt the constant flow of worries running through your head. Pay attention to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground as you walk, run, or dance, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the sun or wind on your skin.

Take a yoga or tai chi class. By focusing your mind on your movements and breathing, practicing yoga or tai chi keeps your attention on the present, helping to clear your mind and lead to a relaxed state.

Practice progressive muscle relaxation. This can help you break the endless loop of worrying by focusing your mind on your body instead of your thoughts. By alternately tensing and then releasing different muscle groups in your body, you release muscle tension in your body. And as your body relaxes, your mind will follow.

Relaxation techniques can change the brain

Take Care Of Your Physical Needs

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Don’t focus on what’s freaking you out. Take care of your physical needs first. Haven’t showered/shaved? Do it. Dishes? Done. Laundry? Folded and put away. Small real-world accomplishments help bring me out of my head and back to reality. It’s also really uplifting to feel clean and sexy once in a while. Feel free to pamper yourself when cleaning. Bath bomb away. Homemade spa days are the greatest.

Holly Drummond, via Facebook

A therapist once told me to schedule my worrying. I know a lot of people with anxiety disorders tend to overthink everything. We’re experts at contingency plans, but this process often becomes obsessive and only makes you more anxious. She told me to schedule a time during the week where I allow myself to worry and think to my heart’s content. Knowing I have a specific time to do that helped me let it go the rest of the week.

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Hold Yourself Accountable With Your Time Away

Okay, youve given yourself permission to ignore the problem until the predetermined time. Thats great! But when your thoughts cycle back to the problem, you have to hold yourself accountable to not revisiting it until the predetermined time.

You can do that by saying to yourself, No, Im not resuming this problem-solving until the predetermined time. Taking a break from it is an important part of the overall problem-solving process. Im not going to sabotage it by re-engaging too soon. I have permission to take a break and Im going to take it.

Also, remind yourself taking a break reduces stress, which can benefit the decision-making process .

What Is A Distraction Technique

A distraction technique is simply any activity that you engage in to redirect your mind off your current emotions. Instead of putting all your energy into the upsetting emotion, you reset your attention to something else. When you distract yourself, you are able to manage your strong emotions by bringing your focus elsewhere.

Distraction techniques are often used along with other coping mechanisms. For instance, once your attention has shifted elsewhere and the intensity of your emotion has dissipated, it is then time to cope with this emotion in a healthy manner. Additional coping can then occur through strategies such as relaxation or other self-help techniques.

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Aromatherapy And Essential Oils

Essential oils, the extract from plants, have been used for thousands of years to treat a number of conditions, including anxiety. Essential oils activate certain areas of your brain and release feel-good chemicals such as serotonin. They have been found to ease symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression, improve mood, and improve sleep.

Recommended use includes diffusing, inhalation, or topical treatment which can aid with anxiety symptoms. When diffusing an essential oil or essential oil blend you will need an essential oil diffuser to fill your space with the desired scent. Inhalation is used by deeply smelling the essential oil straight from the bottle or by applying a drop or two of the oil on something such as a diffuser pad or lava bead that is connected to a bracelet, necklace, or even keychain. You can also place a drop or two of essential oil into your hands, rub them together, then cup your hands and take a few deep inhalations to get the desired effect.

You should be sure that the essential oils you use are pure oils and not mixed with chemicals. Some good brands to use include: Mountain Rose Herbs, Plant Therapy, Young Living, Doterra. You can do your own research to find a brand that will best work for you and your budget. Remember that a bottle of essential oil will last a long time since you typically use only a few drops at a time.

Essential oils that are great for treating anxiety include:

  • Lavender
  • Vetiver

The Overall Solution To Obsessive Thoughts

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No matter what you do at home in your spare time, you will still need to address your anxiety directly. Remember, your disorder causes obsessive thoughts, so the only way to truly stop these thoughts is to stop the disorder.

Anxiety is a manageable condition, but it is important to find the right treatment. Some of the better options for obsessive thoughts out there include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – This is easily one of the most effective therapies for obsessive thoughts as it specifically targets problematic thinking and provides actionable strategies to eliminate it.
  • Lifestyle Changes – Sleep, exercise, and reducing day to day stressors can all help eliminate anxiety and obsessive thought patterns.
  • Medications – Though not preferred by many, there are several very effective medications that can help you cope. At times, medication may be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

These are only a few of the many different options available for addressing obsessive thinking and anxiety, and as long as you seek out the one that works best for you, management is possible.


Obsessive thoughts defined as persistent thoughts that are difficult to remove are common in many anxiety disorders. The irony is that the anxiety caused by the thoughts themselves often lead to more of these same thoughts. Strategies to reduce the thoughts involve learning not to fear them, embracing the anxiety, and integrating more comprehensive anxiety treatments.

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Connect With Friends And Family

This can be one of the hardest things to do when feeling depressed, but it is one of the most rewarding activities. Isolating oneself from others may seem like a good idea, but put a limit on it and then get out there again.

Confiding in friends and family members can have a huge positive effect on your mood.

Question And Challenge Your Thoughts

When our mind focuses on these types of unhelpful and irrational thoughts, rather than being rational and healthy, this causes anxiety.

A useful technique to help calm anxiety is to learn how to pause and move past these destructive thoughts, before they have a chance to take hold. Learning this technique may take some practice but is a strategy that is well worth mastering.

When you feel yourself having an unhealthy thought, pause and really think about the following:

  • How is this thought going to make me feel?
  • Is it a fact or an opinion?
  • Is it a rational or irrational thought?
  • What are other outcomes to think about?

You may find it difficult to do this technique automatically at first. So try keeping a journal in the evenings, where you jot down any unhealthy thoughts that you had during that day which made you feel anxious. Take the time to consider these thoughts and answer the questions above. By practising this, you will then start to feel able to pause and move past unhelpful thoughts as you have them.

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Try 6 Meditations To Help Reduce Anxiety

Looking for more meditations to help you feel calm? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses and single meditations on topics related to anxiety, including:

  • Managing Anxiety 10-day course. Cultivate a new perspective on fear and anxiety.

  • Unemployment Anxiety single meditation. Recognize and release stress about job loss and the future.

  • Letting Go of Stress 10-day course. Enjoy a healthier mind by developing your awareness of stress and learning how to reframe negative emotions.

  • Stressed single meditation. Notice what you’re holding onto and how to drop the preoccupying storyline.

  • Why can’t I sleep? single meditation. This exercise will help you practice calming the mind and body during the day, so you feel more ready for sleep when bedtime comes.

  • Difficult Conversations single meditation. The prospect of a difficult conversation can drive feelings of anxiety and fear, but by lesseing habits of reactivity and developing a calmer, more patient mindset, you can both listen and express yourself more clearly.

Activities To Distract Yourself From Your Anxiety

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  • Get your heart pumping, lungs breathing deeply, muscles working, and positive hormones flowing. Walk. Jog. Run stairs. Jump rope. Swim. Move your body any way you are able and you enjoy. Think of it as sweating the anxiety out of you. Even light exercise can relieve anxiety.
  • Make something. You can use creativity to reduce anxiety. Tap into your creativity without any expectations for the result. Just create for the sake of it. Maybe you’ll build a birdhouse or flower box. Paint . Make a blanket, perhaps. Or many blankets. A lot of hospitals and nursing homes ask for donations of homemade blankets to comfort people mentally and physically.
  • Learn something new. Browse a bookstore and gather a few books on a topic that sounds interesting to you. You can do this at a library, too. You can explore on your own with no pressure to perform. If you enjoy classes and preparing work for a grade, that is a great distraction, too .
  • Care for something. If you don’t have a pet and having one is feasible, there are many small animals that are low-maintenance and easy to care for. If that’s not an option, you might consider volunteering at a humane society. Or tend to plants and flowers.
  • Wash your car or bike. Washing by hand is cleansing for your vehicle and your mind. The suds are symbolic of washing away thoughts. It’s great exercise, too.
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    Visualize A Daily Task You Enjoy Or Dont Mind Doing

    If you like doing laundry, for example, think about how youd put away a finished load. The clothes feel warm coming out of the dryer. Theyre soft and a little stiff at the same time. They feel light in the basket, even though they spill over the top. Im spreading them out over the bed so they wont wrinkle. Im folding the towels first, shaking them out before folding them into halves, then thirds, and so on.

    Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

    Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day weekends included.

    Your routine before going to bed also matters. Consider giving yourself wind-down times. For example, 20 minutes with no devices. Instead, you could read a book or take a bath.

    Avoiding potential triggers, like watching TV or scrolling the news on your phone, is key.

    Creating a sleep routine will help you fall asleep faster and reduce the chances that youll lie awake, worrying about unfinished tasks or the next morning.

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