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How to Distract Yourself from Difficult Emotions (In a Healthy Way)

By: Katy Ainslie-Wallace, LPC, SAC

Often times therapists teach their clients to use distraction when they are faced with a difficult emotion. (I'm talking about healthy distraction NOT avoiding or procrastination). The idea being that you do something different until the difficult emotion passes, and you are able to calm down enough to remain effective in your interactions with others and yourself.

The science behind distraction is that you can only do one thing at a time. We often believe that we are fabulous multi-taskers, but the truth is that we are only giving our attention for short amounts of time to one task at a time. (Click here for an article about the myth of multitasking.) So, if you divert your attention away from that which is causing angst, then the energy is going into something different.

Think about it: Have you ever been angry about something? Then you keep thinking about how mad you are, and you see all the other things that happened and the anger just keeps growing? Then you feel justified in your anger, and begin gathering your pitchfork and lighting your torches... and you know how the rest goes. Things escalate quickly before you’ve had a moment to even think. You have been hijacked by the emotion train where all rational thought is trailing behind on the caboose.

When we notice that we are experiencing an overwhelming emotion, and we have a history of being ineffective when in or acting on that emotion, we divert our attention to get through the emotion.

The hope is that we do something else for a while, and then we can return to the issue. What we DON'T do is distract in order to avoid the emotion. We are just taking a break. Like Ross and Rachel. It’s just a break. Except it won’t take us multiple attempts and seasons to get back to it ;) Actually, perhaps Ross and Rachel should have used this technique…

Why: Again, the purpose is to help you avoid doing something you may regret, give yourself a little space until you can get that prefrontal cortex (the rational, decision-making part of your brain) back online, and can lessen painful emotions.

How: Try using the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) Skill of Wise Mind ACCEPTS:

Activities - Do something! Go for a walk, workout, watch a movie, do some art, etc.

Contributing - Do something for someone else!

Comparisons - Think of a time where you have gotten through the same difficult emotion.

Emotions - Do something that elicits a different emotion, like watching comedy.

Push Away - Push the thoughts or emotions away for awhile (i.e. imagine putting it in a box).

Thoughts - Count to 10, list things, puzzles, watch a movie.

Sensations - Step outside if it’s cold, take a warm bath, or anything that uses your senses.

(Click here for the full list and more ideas of how to practice this skill).

Once you are calm, you can return to the event that caused you distress and handle it effectively. If you find yourself getting upset again, take a few deep breaths, and if that doesn’t help… distract for a bit longer. Or even better, talk to someone.

Take care,



If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Katy, you can reach her via email: or call our intake line: 608-709-6972.

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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