There’s no real way to distract from the fact that it’s been bleak. I’m not sure I want to either. Because there’s nothing to be gained by denying that it’s been a tough time for a lot of people — whether it’s having to deal with COVID-19 themselves, as a care-giver or dealing with devastating personal losses (my family included). While I agree with the general sentiment that we shouldn’t distract ourselves from what’s happening around us and ignore reality, I’m here to tell you that distractions are okay and even healthy when done right, if you’re going through a tough time.
Distractions are anything you do to temporarily take your mind away from a strong negative emotion. It can be watching a light-hearted TV show, listening to some music, playing an immersive video game or reading a new murder mystery novel. The key word here being “temporarily.”
Personally, I started to feel guilty this week for seeking distractions. Multiple times this week, I’ve turned off my notifications and turned to a giant feminist dragon fantasy novel called “The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon because I needed a break. I did some research about coping mechanisms and distractions and found out that according to Dr. Rochelle Perper, PhD Clinical Psychology at San Diego CA, “the goal of healthy distraction is to reduce the intensity of unpleasant emotions so that we can more effectively manage them and develop creative solutions to the things that are troubling us.”
TL;DR: Distractions can actually help you!
In her book, “SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully,” Dr. Jane McGonigal describes how distractions can be a powerful tool for reducing the impact of painful or negative experiences. They can also strengthen our ability to tackle new challenges head on. Distractions don’t necessarily have to be an avoidant or escapist tactic!
Can distractions turn unhealthy? Sure. Like anything, being aware about how you’re using distractions helps. There’s no set formula here because what’s a healthy distraction for one person, is detrimental for another. Chelsea Robertson, from the Semel Institute of Neuroscience, writes “identifying why and how you engage with personal technology may be the difference between healthy and destructive behavior.”
A good starting point would be to ask yourself why you need a distraction and how it’s helping you. Are you using it to escape your life or are you distracting yourself to make your life better? Are your distractions making you feel worse overall or are they helping you recuperate?
A small reminder that distractions, however well-intentioned and healing, are a privilege. Today especially, reality for many people doesn't allow for distractions. If you have the ability and time for distractions, I hope you use them to regain your energy. I hope you all have many healthy distractions up your sleeve, and I would love to hear about them!
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