Anxiety - Distraction Doesn’t Work

After reviewing some popular anxiety books and programs I noticed that a few of them recommended the technique of distraction for anxiety and panic prevention. For some people this can be a useful technique. It gives the anxiety sufferer a chance to undo the automatic anxious habits they normally fall into...

Imagine you are at home worrying and stressed. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. What happens? That’s right, anxiety and worry, at least for the moment, vanishes. You’ve broken the anxiety cycle.

With general anxiety, sufferers get caught in a stream of "what if...?" thoughts, each thought conjuring up worse and worse scenarios. This causes ever increasing feelings of anxiety, which further feeds more negative thoughts and feelings.

With panic attacks, a combination of thoughts, feeling and bodily sensations creates a similar downwards spiral. By using distraction you can snap yourself out of these cycles. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But...

For many people this technique can actually worsen anxiety. By continually avoiding uncomfortable or sometimes painful thoughts, feelings and sensations, your brain begins to associate those things as dangerous or something to be feared. These danger or fear references are stored in part of the brain called the amygdala.

The next time you encounter that worry thought or that panic sensation the anxiety response your brain recognises it as something potentially dangerous and gears your body up to counter that danger. This results in feelings of anxiety and sometimes full blown anxiety attacks.

And the more you avoid those things the greater the danger reference in your brain becomes, so the situation becomes worse and worse. Before you know it even the slightest reference to your worry or fear can cause intense anxiety. Distracting yourself *sensitizes* you to your fears and worry.

Try this simple experiment: try not to think of a pink elephant. Of course when you try not to think about it, the thought of pink elephants keep popping up in your mind. Trying not to think about something is often futile.

Secondly just because you consciously avoid thinking about something doesn’t mean it still won’t take it’s toll on your body and mind. The subconscious mind will still "think" about anything it deems important -- this can create background anxiety, which manifests itself in feelings of stress. Until those nagging fears or issues are addressed the background anxiety will still persist. Distraction is akin to burying your head in the sand.

A far more powerful method is one that *desensitizes* you to worry thoughts and fears. So that you can usefully think about whatever you like, or enter potentially scary situations and be able to deal with them in healthy logical ways.

One of the best ways to do this is through the skill of mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches you how experience and feel your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, without triggering the anxiety response. When this happens your mind no longer associates those things with danger, you are able to deal with them in a more relaxed and rational way. The anxiety response is nowhere to be seen.

For more information on how to conquer anxiety, click > AnxietyZap