The cost/ benefit of distracting yourself from pain

Distracting yourself from distress, turmoil, or emotions can sometimes be an adaptive and functional way to cope. However, distracting oneself can also become problematic when it becomes a way to avoid problems.

Here are some scenarios in which it makes sense to distract yourself from pain:

  • When you are stuck in the car and you really, really have to go to the bathroom. It is generally not useful to think about waterfalls and running water! Distracting yourself is wise.
  • When you are at the dentist or are receiving some other painful medical procedure, it can be helpful to focus on something besides the pain.
  • When you are in a relationship and there is turmoil, ambivalence, or other threats to the relationship itself- and texting, contacting, or demanding an immediate answer from the person makes things worse. Focusing on something else for a while can give the relationship a break, allow for uncertainty, and allow things to fold in their own time frame.

Distracting is generally not adaptive when it becomes a way to avoid people, conflict, or situations that can get worse if not attended to.  Distracting can be a strategy for the complete avoidance of solving problems- even if the problems are difficult or painful to address. Some people can sense that distracting is a way of pushing away, fighting reality, or avoiding people completely.

Approaching (as opposed to distracting) can be a way of hearing painful things, allowing for unwanted emotion, and acknowledging that others are upset. Sometimes this can move people toward each other, because it is an open acknowledgement of the difficulty of being in relationship.