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Distraction vs. Avoidance: How to Cope With Stress Effectively

Distraction and avoidance are two common defense mechanisms people use to manage difficult emotions. Neither is inherently problematic, but excessively engaging in any one defense mechanism can have significant costs on your physical and emotional well-being. Let's get into what you need to know about the similarities, differences, and how to cope with both.

Distraction Versus Avoidance: Why Does It Matter?

Everyone distracts themselves from time to time. In the middle of a work shift, you spend a few minutes scrolling through social media to decompress. Instead of cleaning your room, you take a nap.

Distraction can also be an important distress tolerance skill. For example, if you're in recovery from a substance use disorder, you might distract yourself from an intense craving by taking a walk or calling a friend. These simple actions can help you feel better and ease the craving.

Avoidance, however, is a more prolonged form of distraction. When someone avoids a situation, person, or feeling, they're trying to suppress their discomfort. They don't want to confront their own fears.

How to Harness Distraction Techniques

Healthy distractions can be beneficial for reducing anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms. With that, not all distractions are created equal, and it's important to choose coping mechanisms that will ultimately lift your emotional well-being rather than erode it.

Enjoy meaningful hobbies: Pursuing activities that bring you joy can help you feel connected to yourself and others. This can reduce negative feelings and help you take care of yourself in a productive, healthy way.

Practice more mindfulness: Meditation is one of the best ways to practice self-compassion and inner kindness during stressful situations. Although there may be a tendency to run from your feelings, mindfulness allows you to simply focus on "what is" in a neutral, desensitized way. This helps you feel more present to yourself and your surroundings.

Engage in flow: Flow state refers to total immersion in a specific task. When you're "in flow," you're in the zone, and you can lose track of time and other feelings. It's possible to achieve flow in many domains, including at work, school, or in various creative pursuits.

Do something for someone else: Focusing on other people's needs offers a sense of emotional distance from your own feelings. Better yet, helping someone else is associated with numerous prosocial benefits, including an increased sense of gratitude, better social relationships, and higher self-esteem.

Engage in grounding techniques: It can be helpful to drop in and ground yourself when you encounter a distressing situation. For example, the 5,4,3,2,1 technique refers to naming five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.

Common Types of Avoidance Behaviors

Avoidance comes in all shapes and sizes, and the behaviors can range in severity based on individual circumstances. Many people with avoidant tendencies struggle with emotional regulation and fear of rejection. It feels safer to avoid emotions than to deal with them directly.

Conflict avoidance: Someone who is conflict-avoidant tends to be passive, people-pleasing, or subservient to others. They will try to avoid conflicts even if it means sacrificing their own needs or preferences.

Emotional withdrawal: Emotional withdrawal is a way people try to keep a sense of safe distance in relationships. This often has to do with attachment concerns, and it can be a way to try to control intense feelings of neediness, jealousy, or dependence on others.

Physical avoidance: Physical avoidance can stem from trauma or negative experiences with touch, safety, and intimacy. People with this type of avoidance may withdraw from specific types of sexual closeness or physical affection.

Escape avoidance: People with addictions escape via drugs, self-harm, alcohol, food, gambling, sex, or any other compulsive vice. Addictions perpetuate a sense of avoidance, as they help people avoid being present with their own feelings.

Future avoidance: Some people experience future avoidance, which refers to deliberately trying to not think about or plan ahead for the future. This mindset can coincide with patterns of reckless behavior, impulsivity, commitment issues, and self-sabotage.

Support For Distraction Avoidance in Southern California

There's nothing wrong with distracting or avoiding how you feel sometimes. We're all human, and we're all doing our best to cope with overwhelming emotions. Subsequently, it's important to implement healthy distraction strategies to stay regulated and take care of yourself during a stressful situation.

At Resurface Group, we help people struggling with avoidance behaviors. In many cases, significant patterns of avoidance coincide with mental health conditions like mood disorders, anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

We help people harness resilience, practice more self-care, and improve their overall quality of life. We are here to support you or your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more about our dynamic programs, including Resurface Connect, our comprehensive virtual IOP.

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