Why meditation isn't always the answer: distraction as a force for good

As we’re all faced with uncertainty, perhaps the hardest of scenarios for us humans to exist in, and many of us are experiencing enforced restrictions to our freedoms for the first time in our lives, it is completely understandable that fear and worry might be present. Chuck in concerns over income, a giant dose of separation, and the realisation that you might need to embrace the bidet concept, and for some that might just tip anxiety into panic and overwhelm.

Over the last two weeks a lot of people have said to me, “there’s going to be a greater need than ever for what you’re offering.” Whilst I of course, extol the virtues of mindfulness, and can see why it is so needed at times like this, I’m aware that it’s not the quick fix people might be hoping for. Some may well give meditation a try in the hope it will help them manage their experience – after all, who doesn’t want to stop worrying, be able to switch off, sleep soundly, and maintain an internal sense of control in the midst of a world in flux? – And word on the street is that mindfulness can do all these things.

Mindfulness really can do these things, but like anything worthwhile, it’s not instantaneous. To use a topical analogy, it’s the healthy immune system rather than the paracetamol. A foundation of mindfulness increases our capacity to flow with the ups and downs, as a healthy immune system supports our chances of experiencing milder symptoms when unwell, and a speedier recovery. And we all know a healthy immune system isn’t something that happens overnight. If we’re run down, it’s not as simple as downing some Berrocca; we need to rest, eat nourishing foods, move our bodies and engage in activities that bring us joy. We build it up consistently over time, and mindfulness is no different.

So, if you’re feeling drawn to start a mindfulness practice right now, please do! Just know that it may take time for its benefits to become apparent and that sitting down for a ten-minute meditation will not always leave you feeling calm. That’s normal and quite ok, but in the meantime it’s worth having some tricks up your sleeve. The one I’m going to recommend right now is really simple, we’re actually all experts at it already. It’s called distraction!

Distraction gets a bad rap, but when deployed with intention, it can be used to great effect. When we get worried, we start to engage in mental time travel, conjuring up (usually upsetting) future scenarios, and dwelling on past ones. If we’re aware enough to realise what we’re thinking as we’re thinking it, we have a chance to do something about it. But have you ever tried to stop thinking about something? It’s quite the ask and can lead us into tricky territory. I used to try all the time and it never worked, even when I tried really, really hard. Willpower is an important ingredient here, but we need to add a bit of knowhow to that willpower, and then we’ve got a recipe for success! So here goes…

When you notice you’re becoming a bit overwhelmed, panicky or over-thinking, intentionally distract yourself. I suggest having a go-to distraction that you know works for you. Mine is an episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. It’s a show I know so well that I don’t need to concentrate on it, which is important especially if I’m watching before bed as I don’t want to be drawn into a compelling thriller when I’m trying to drop off to sleep. But it’s engaging enough to take my focus and stop the worry chain in its tracks. And it’s comforting – its familiarity is a soothing presence. You could choose anything – washing the dishes, stroking the cat, tidying a cupboard, drawing a picture. The only criterion is that it works for you.

If you’re experiencing more severe anxiety, and it is leaning toward panic, you’ll need to be more focused in your distraction (sounds like an oxymoron, I know). A technique I was taught to great effect when suffering with recurrent panic attacks, and have shared with many others since, is to pick an object in your immediate surroundings, and describe it in as much detail as possible. You can do this out loud if you’re with someone or you simply prefer to. Once you’ve described that, pick another object and describe that. And repeat. As many times and as often as necessary. Really allow yourself to commit to the exercise. Why don’t you start by describing the picture at the top of this post – what do you see? What objects, shapes, colours, textures? Tell me everything you can notice about it.

Distraction may seem like the antithesis of living in the moment, and I recognise for some readers this may raise questions. To fully address that is beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to reassure you that this is a technique to use when worry or panic are setting in. You are not going to live your life in a permanent state of distraction to avoid confronting reality, oh no! Quite the opposite in fact. This is recognising that certain states of mind don’t serve us at all and wisely deploying proven techniques to step out of them, so you can reset and move back into your day with a healthy mind.

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