How To Use Distraction To Cope With Distress

Being human means you will at some point experience distress. You know that tidal wave of overwhelming emotion that pulls you out from under your feet and submerges you under water? For some, when that wave hits, they cope in ways that make their situation worse (i.e., drinking, drugs, self-injurious behavior). Granted these negative coping skills temporarily relieve stress, tension, and emotional pain, but in the long run, they often cause additional emotional pain.

Today I want to share a technique with you called a distraction plan. When a distressing situation arises, a distraction plan helps buy you time so that your emotions can settle down a bit before you take action. Having a plan helps you to cope with a crisis without making your situation worse. The goal isn't to avoid your problems, but rather to soothe your emotions until you can effectively solve the problem.

Why is distraction a powerful tool for distress tolerance? I want you to reflect on a time when you were in “emotional mind” and attempted to solve a distressing problem. How well did that work out for you? Personally, emotional mind typically creates more problems for me, and I do a heck of a lot better addressing problems from wise mind (logic + emotion).

Below are different methods of distraction.

Distract with pleasurable activities: Sometimes doing something that makes you feel good is the best way to distract yourself from painful emotions.

Distract by paying attention to others: Do something for someone else to help take the attention off of yourself. You can also think about someone you care about.

Distract your thoughts: The harder you try not to think about your problem, the more power you give to it. Instead of trying to force yourself to forget a memory or thought, try to distract your thoughts with other memories or creative images.

Distract yourself by leaving: If you’re in a very painful situation with someone and you recognize that your emotions are going to overwhelm you and possibly make the situation worse than it is already, then it's often best just to leave.

Distract yourself with tasks and chores: The next time you’re in a situation in which your emotions become too painful, temporarily distract yourself by engaging in activities.

Distract yourself by counting: Count your breaths, count by increments of 7, count sheep, just count anything.

Instead of waiting for a crisis to hit, have a plan in place to manage distress.


Identify ten distraction skills that you’re willing to use the next time you’re in a situation that’s causing you pain and discomfort. These are the first steps you’ll use in your plan to distract, relax, and cope. The next time you are in a distressing situation, you can refer back to your plan to remind yourself of your distraction plan. You can also write your plan on a note card and stuff it in your wallet if you need a convenient on the go reference.

Click here if you'd like to create your own distraction plan

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