Distraction vs. Avoidance: How to Cope with Distress

February 18, 2020 Megan Griffith

Distraction and avoidance are very closely related, but distraction is a much healthier coping mechanism than avoidance. When I'm feeling something particularly distressing, distraction is a healthy way to help get me through that tense, panicked moment. Avoidance, on the other hand, is a less healthy way to survive distress, and it often creates even more emotional turmoil. What's the difference though, and how can distraction help get you through those intense feelings of distress?

The Difference Between Distraction and Avoidance

Distraction and avoidance are very similar. I often find myself slipping from one into the other without even noticing at first. It's only later when I feel my emotions building up and panic rising as I realize I am not ready to deal with them, that I realize I've actually been avoiding my emotions instead of simply distracting myself from them. Now I'm working on developing a better boundary between distraction and avoidance, and that starts with defining how they differ from one another.

Avoidance is:

  • Fear-based -- When I avoid my emotions, it isn't out of a desire to cope with them in a healthier way, it's out of fear that if I actually felt my emotions, they would overtake me and I would never resurface.
  • Habit-forming -- In my experience, when I avoid my emotions, I quickly lose control over how my emotions (and avoidance of them) affect my life. All I know is that I'm not prepared to handle how I feel, so my life starts to revolve around ways to avoid my emotions.
  • Ineffective -- Avoidance works at first, and it may even work for years, but eventually, it stops working; and when it does, all of that avoided distress comes rushing back at once, making it even harder to deal with. As a coping mechanism, it simply doesn't work very well.

Distraction is:

  • Temporary -- When you decide to distract yourself from your emotions, it is always with the intention of coming back to process them when they are less overwhelming.
  • De-escalating -- Distraction should decrease the panic associated with your feelings of distress.
  • Short-term -- You can distract yourself from intense feelings in the moment, but you can't distract yourself from a huge, ongoing problem in your life. That's avoidance.

How Distraction Can Help You Cope

If distraction is so closely related to avoidance, and avoidance is unhealthy, why even bother with distraction? Well, the truth is that even though distraction lives on a slippery slope just north of avoidance, it really can be a huge help when it comes to getting through periods of intense distress.

Sometimes, my emotions are simply too big for me to handle in my current state of mind. If I felt them, I would fall apart completely and maybe even engage in self-destructive behaviors. One way to keep myself safe and healthy is to distract myself from my emotions instead. For me, distraction usually looks like zoning out and watching TV or playing a silly game on my phone. By doing these things, I am giving my brain time to process my pain on the back burner, and when I come back to it later, it will be less intense and I'll be able to sort through it all more easily. As long as I actually come back to those emotions and deal with them, it isn't avoidance.

Have you successfully used distraction to help you cope with distress? Do you struggle to use distraction as a healthy coping mechanism without slipping into patterns of avoidance? Share your story with the community in the comments.

APA Reference
Griffith, M. (2020, February 18). Distraction vs. Avoidance: How to Cope with Distress, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Megan Griffith

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