Emotion Regulation 1.7: Conscious Distraction

Conscious Distraction

We continue a series on how to effectively manage emotions, so that we can engage more thoughtfully in relationship. All of the skills we discuss are designed to support the ultimate goal of wisdom (see post titled, “Emotion Regulation 1.0”).

The skills we’ve been discussing so far are designed to increase your awareness of your internal world, so that you can have more control over it, rather than the other way around. Only when you become aware of what’s going on inside of you can you then employ the crisis management and survival skills that we’ll discuss over the next five days.

The first crisis management skill is conscious distraction. When we become aware that our stress, anxiety and fear is hijacking our brain–and our life, we can consciously choose to focus on the bigger picture. When we’re in the center of the chaos, it’s hard to see anything but the disruption. We can make a conscious choice, however, to notice other realities in our lives.

We can distract ourselves with Activities, Contributing to others, Comparing to worse times, Emotion substitutions, Pushing away bad thoughts, and Thoughtful Single-mindedness. If it helps, you can make an acronym out of the bold letters for an easy reminder: ACCEPTS.


Conscious distraction requires that we be aware of our catastrophizing so that we can actively pay attention to those things we can control, and to consciously let go of those we can’t. To be sure, catastrophizing can actually make some of us, those of us who default to victim mentality, feel better. Crisis can make us feel entitled to better things, and we can find justification for our complaining, whining and otherwise not taking responsibility for what is within our control.

Catastrophizing can also be a way to trick our psyche into being pleasantly surprised when life doesn’t go as badly as we’d imagined was possible. Of course, then we can also take the victim position for all the stress we endured because of what we were convinced could have happened. None of this serves the ultimate goal of wisdom.

Consciousness is Key

I can’t stress how important it is for distraction to be a conscious choice, not an unconscious defense mechanism (tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand), which doesn’t contribute to the ultimate goal of wisdom.

See if you can recall situations in which you used distraction unconsciously and consider the outcome. Then try to employ distraction consciously in a current dilemma of your life–assuming you’ve already done what’s actually within your power to do. If not, take responsibility for what you can, and then consciously distract yourself from what you can’t. Notice the differences between distracting yourself unconsciously and distracting yourself consciously. Which supports wisdom?


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