There’s no hiding from the fact that we’re all a little bit stressed and anxious right now.
Yesterday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and as the number of coronavirus cases in the UK grows faster every day, it’s hard not to feel a little bit on edge. Indeed, for many of us, the pace at which the situation is changing (and the amount of information we have to digest as a result), can be particularly anxiety-inducing, so much so that we’re panic buying and stockpiling in an attempt to feel in control.
But just because we’ve got so many great wellbeing advice and anxiety-busting techniques at our fingertips these days, doesn’t mean we have to put them into action all the time. Sometimes, in fact, distracting ourselves is the best thing we can do to deal with feelings of anxiety and upset – and according to psychologist Katherine King, too many of us dismiss distraction as a valid approach.
“Many of us are taught to face our problems, fess up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, buckle up, and roll up our sleeves,” she wrote for Psychology Today.
“In one way or another, each of these messages is meant to counter our human tendency to run away from emotionally painful situations. This is frequently good advice,” she adds.
“Nonetheless, these messages also overemphasise moving towards our problems and unnecessarily pathologise the instinct to move away from them.”
Instead of forcing ourselves to confront our emotions in a moment when they’re proving to be particularly distressing, there’s power in taking time out, King argues, especially when we’re stuck ruminating on one particular subject. Besides the fact that it’s not good for our bodies to put ourselves under anymore stress than is necessary, taking time out from an upsetting, stressful or painful situation can stop us from engaging in self-destructive behaviours.
“It does not serve our long-term wellbeing to continue to circle around a problem over and over again,” she writes.
“Distracting ourselves from emotional struggle gives our minds and bodies a break. It allows the nervous system to relax and get out of fight-or-flight mode. Once this happens, we will start to be able to think through our problems more clearly and come to better solutions.”
Distraction can be anything from taking yourself on a walk, putting down your phone or sitting down to watch a television show. Active activities – e.g. those you have to properly engage with – are probably the best to turn to if you’re feeling particularly distressed, such as doing a creative activity like drawing or painting, or taking yourself to the gym or for a run.
Described by King as “the first step in learning to establish a sense of safety and control over our inner lives”, distraction is a powerful skill for all of us to learn and master.
“Once you can regulate the intensity of your own emotions, life begins to feel less turbulent and overwhelming,” says King. “Emotions begin to feel less scary because you will have your hand on the lever controlling how strongly you experience them, and have a reliable way out if it gets to be too much.”
Engaging in positive, non-destructive activities to give you some mental clarity is the best thing you can do for your mental health when it all gets a bit too much. So next time you’re feeling particularly stressed and upset, don’t beat yourself up for putting your problems to the side for a bit.