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Making Distraction Work For You

A woman working on a computer who turns her gaze to her little girl who is pulling on her arm. child

Most parents know that the secret to managing toddlers is distraction. If your child is misbehaving, sometimes the problem is that you haven't given them something better to do. While adult brains have grown and matured, some of the strategies of managing undesirable experiences and behaviors aren't different from children to adults.

Even our adult brains are only capable of doing so many things at a time. The best multi-taskers have their limits, and our brain is no exception. While we don't consciously think about it, our brain is constantly managing our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and a number of other things that keep us alive. Then we pile on the added demands of daily life like eating while driving and listening to music or sitting at work talking on the phone and answering emails simultaneously. For most of us, our daily lives are pretty full.

As much as we live in a society that glorifies busyness, (perhaps sometimes in part because we already know that it lets us distract ourselves from some of the unpleasant things we'd rather not dwell on), the limited capacity of our brains to multi-task is actually a gift we can use to our advantage.

If your brain is busy processing information for one sensation, it has a harder time processing information for a second sensation at the same time. This means it will have to choose where to invest its resources.

For example, when you place a hot or cold pack on an area that is painful, it seemingly helps alleviate the pain. The feeling only lasts however for as long as the hot or cold is still affecting the nerves. If you take the hot/cold pack off, as the skin and nerves return to normal temperature, and you begin to feel the pain again like you did before.

The truth is that the pain was never really cured, your nervous system was just distracted from feeling the pain because it was focused on feeling something else.

While the form of distraction may be different for an adult than a toddler, it's value is the same. When the brain is stuck on something undesirable, whether that is chronically spending all it's energy processing pain signals, anxious thoughts racing through our neural circuits, or that embarrassing memory you just can't seem to stop thinking about, we have to find a way to break the cycle.

Distracting your system with something else can be the perfect solution if you can't get your mind off of the pain. It can also help you to re-wire your nervous system over time so that you have less pain. For more on how this rewiring works based on the "use it or lose it" principle, see Hurt Vs. Harm: Re-programming the Pain Alarm.

When it comes to making distraction work best for you, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

How much do you like it?

The more you like the thing you're using to distract yourself the better. The brain is prone to choosing pain and the well worn nerve paths it's developed over years because they are familiar. In fairness, if pain is supposed to tell you about danger, it makes sense that the brain sees this as a top priority and chooses to process pain over most other things.

What's your preferred learning style?

In light of the fact our brains prefer to choose processing pain over almost anything else, it may also help to consider your learning style to decide which methods of distraction work best for you. If your brain is wired to be a visual learner, your brain already has a preference for experiencing and paying attention to sensory information presented visually. Visually distracting things may work better for you.

Do you prefer to be in control or escape responsibility?

Some of us have a tendency to want to be in control while others would rather escape and take a break from having to always be doing things and making decisions. For example, a person who wants to feel empowered by being able to do something for themselves may not find a massage relaxing. Instead, it could feel like just one more thing to have to spend money on and generate a feeling of helplessness because it's just one more thing in which they need help from someone else. The idea of continually requiring ongoing treatment may not be a positive distraction.

That person may prefer engaging in activities themselves to self-treat. The idea of physical therapy may be more attractive. If you can learn some exercises to manage your symptoms, it would give you the control to manage your health more independently after a few visits. This person might prefer distraction techniques like doing sudoku puzzles that engage their minds, over something like watching a movie where they are just observing something being presented to them.

For other people, they find themselves exhausted and tired of doing things all the time. It can seem like everyone at work and in their family is dependent on them to make things happen constantly. Making decisions is overwhelming to them as their brain sorts through all the possible outcome scenarios. For this person, the idea of a passive escape from their symptoms may sound more attractive. The idea of relying on a healthcare provider like a massage therapist that they trust to take care of them might feel easier.

It's important to remember that just like having a learning style preference for auditory learning as opposed to visual learning isn't wrong, neither is having a preference for active or passive treatment approaches. You just have to keep in mind that both have their downfalls. The person who prefers control and active treatment is at risk of becoming an over-doer and not accepting help when they need it. The person who prefers escape and passive treatments is at risk of developing a costly dependence on someone or something that can be problematic if that person or thing is no longer available. There is a fine balance in life between resting and laziness, and between being active and having a control problem.

What intensity of stimulation is best?

Also consider your body's preferences for stimulation. Some of us love going to rock concerts with flashing lights, heavy vibrating base, loud music, and people jumping up and down around us. Others find that to be overwhelming and would rather focus on just the sound of an orchestra in a dark auditorium where it is easy to forget the other people who sit in still silence around us.

What is therapeutic for one person may not be for another. Some people love the casino with it's bright lights, the shows, the smells of the buffet, and the thrill of the potential to win money. There are many people however who prefer a quiet familiar environment at home where they know what to expect, and they can keep the level of light, and sound at lower levels.

How do you feel when it's over?

It bears mentioning, that you may think that a high degree of stimulation is your preference, but this can be abused. It's important to ask yourself how you feel after the stimulation is gone. If you feel better while distracted, but returning to being aware of your symptoms leaves you in agony, and worse off than you were before, you may have to re-evaluate if this is helping. This can be a warning sign that you are actually doing things that are harming you while you're distracted.

Distraction techniques should help you to get a vacation from your pain, and when you stop being distracted, you should feel recharged, like you have more energy to cope with and handle the pain that you still have.

Need Some Ideas?

Here are some ideas about things you can use to distract your system categorized by sensory system and learning style. Keep in mind that having a hybrid of different options is generally the best strategy. We all know that too much of a good thing, isn't a good thing and moderation in life is important. (e.g. if food is your primary distraction technique, it may start to have negative health consequences)

A Chart with a list of distraction methods for each of the five senses.

Sound / Auditory Learners

  • Listening to music

  • Listening to the radio

  • Listening to podcasts

  • Listening to audiobooks

  • Listening to the TV

  • Listening to the sound effects of a video game

  • Listening to nature sounds/white noise machines

  • Guided meditations

  • Talking with other people and listening to them

  • Playing and instrument

  • Learning a language

  • Talking to yourself in the mirror

  • Journaling/writing - giving words to your thoughts

Sight / Visual Learners

  • Watching television

  • Viewing social media sites like Pinterest, or YouTube

  • Watching a play/performance

  • Creating/viewing visual artwork

  • Playing video games

  • People watching at the mall

  • Reading - making associated mental images in your head

  • Graded motor imagery and Guided imagery meditations

  • Looking at yourself in the mirror

Touch / Kinesthetic learners

  • Exercising in general - walking, swimming, yoga, dancing etc.

  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

  • Getting a massage

  • Physical intimate touch with a partner

  • Applying hot/cold

  • Vibration from music, percussion/massage guns, or vibration plates

  • Journaling and writing out your thoughts - through the movement of your hands

  • A repetitive movement oriented hobby like knitting

  • Playing an instrument

  • Learning sign language


  • Aroma therapy – using candles, essential oils, or other scented objects

  • Cooking/Baking

  • Brewing coffee

  • Gardening

  • Spending time outdoors


  • Eating

  • Drinking

  • Wine tastings

  • Sampling foods at grocery stores

  • Sucking on hard candy

  • Chewing gum


  • Pet therapy - engaging with animals

  • Volunteering - getting the focus off of yourself and onto others

  • Socially engaging with friends/family

  • Doing puzzles – being intellectually engaged in completing tasks

  • Art therapy - creating something

  • Reading - encourages auditory engagement with words, and visual engagement as you conjure images of what you've read

  • Working – draws your focus onto something other than your pain

  • Hobbies – focus on something enjoyable rather than pain

Keep in mind some activities use multiple systems. We traditionally think of watching television, but you are also usually listening to it at the same time. We may think of reading as being auditory because it involves words, but in actuality, your eyes are the thing moving along the page, and your mind is creating images of what you are reading, and/or a word picture in your head.

Lastly, it's important to keep in mind that the results from reprogramming take time, we are creatures of habit, and we don't learn new skills overnight. Your brain has to essentially learn a new sensory processing language. It may take some practice before teaching it to speak like this feels like your native language. This is especially true if you've been using the old language for a long time. If you've had chronic pain for 20 years, it's important to be patient with yourself. What did not start yesterday, won't likely be gone tomorrow.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational purposes and is not a replacement for individual medical advice from a licensed healthcare provider. If you would like to schedule an evaluation for personalized healthcare recommendations, call or click to book online today.

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