Avoidance vs. Distraction – What’s the difference?

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By UB therapist Sari Ticker, PsyD

Clients often come into therapy noting that they are “avoiders” when it comes to coping. They report the tendency to shut out feelings, thoughts, people, and situations that bring up an intense and unpleasant experience. Typically by the time they come to therapy, they are at a point where avoidance is not working for them in the same way. This coping strategy is incredibly common because it works. Until it doesn’t. Avoidance is a passive coping tool that helps us to temporarily block out feelings like anxiety and fear as a way to evade getting to the root of an issue, or potentially even discovering a solution.

Distraction, on the other hand, is active, time-limited and intentional. When we are knees deep in a stressful situation, whether it be at work, problem solving a conflict, or working towards a goal, taking a break can help us in the long run. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. By distracting ourselves with something lighter like watching a mindless television show, going for a walk, reading a good book, or meditating, we provide our minds and bodies with a reset and recharge, so that we can get back to it with a clear mind. Without this, we will inevitably reach complete burn out.

On a biological level, we experience stress as well as other emotions in the back side of our brain that is located close to the base of our head. When that part is strongly activated due to feeling stressed or upset, the front part of our brains in which we rely on for logistical functions and problem-solving, is not able to work as well. Therefore, by allowing time and aiding our “emotional brain” to relax and come down from an intense emotion, we are allowing our “logical brain” to work at its fullest potential.

Moreover, breaking down a larger goal/problem into sizable chunks also helps on a psychological level. One may feel completely overwhelmed and lost regarding where to start. Knowing that you are only committing yourself to an hour of hard work, followed by a pleasant activity feels less intimidating, and perhaps even more motivated to complete the task knowing a distractive and intentional break is coming up.

Therapy is a great way to motivate us to work on ourselves in sizable chunks. Meeting for one hour per week allows us to really focus in and dig deep into our emotions and inner-dialogues. We are still working on ourselves between appointments, but can also integrate “break times” to distract our minds and bodies with something that feels good. This can also be considered self-care.

The next time you decide to redirect your attention away from a stressful thought or situation, ask yourself- am I planning on coming back to this at some point? If so, when? Why do I want to do something else instead- is it because I need to recharge or is it because I am avoiding feeling something uncomfortable?

The therapists at Urban Balance help clients to understand themselves on a deeper level, and can work on exploring these questions with you. Now is your chance to make the active choice.