Distraction Can Help You Cope

It feels awkward to welcome myself back to my own blog and website, but that’s what today seems to call for! I’ve been curiously absent from behind the keyboard as of late, with good reason. August and September both have a way of absolutely drop-kicking my energy and sapping my motivation for anything but the bare necessities. And writing is definitely a hobby that gets shuffled to the back burner. This year, even more so!

Raise your hand if you spent most of the end of the summer oscillating between exhaustion and panic? I sure did.

September has always felt like the start of a new year to me, more so than January does, and I get caught up in such a feeling of trepidation and harried energy the weeks before it hits. Perhaps it’s the end of the summer, or a lifetime of my internal clock being set to the rhythm of school semesters beginning in the fall that makes me want to hide under the covers. It’s a whirlwind of planning, and sorting, and I feel like I set more intentions and resolutions in August than the days leading up the New Years.

Spring cleaning, move aside. It’s time for the Fall Overhaul.

But I am feeling this even more so recently. I’ve never even HAD a plan in the last six months because every day feels like I’m unsure what I will open my eyes to. I’ve been waiting on emails, bracing for impact with each Facebook log-on, afraid to know what’s on the news or what’s happening in my community all while trying to keep the plates spinning at home with a routine that feels anything but regular.

With school bells ringing once again, I am tentatively settling into what feels like the fourth round of ‘new normal’ this year and I am drained y’all. Many families right now are trying to wrap their heads around a whole new structure, a precarious one at that, given the situation we are all facing with COVID-19. Letters are being sent home explaining what to do when a child presents with symptoms related to the pandemic, which if you have kids, you read and laughed at HYSTERICALLY until you cried, because most school aged children present with a runny nose and an upset tummy before they even wake up in the morning. Many returned to work this September in some capacity now that childcare is a little more available but with a sense of foreboding hanging over their heads as the situation could change any minute now.

I feel a bit like I’ve been interrogating my 5 year old every morning over breakfast. Does he feel feverish? Sore throat? Was that a ‘waking up’ sniffle, or a ‘sick and need to stay home’ sniffle? How is this going to affect my day? Has he told anyone he feels sick just because he doesn’t want to go to school?

I’m a bare light bulb and a metal table away from demanding to know who he works for.

It’s Schrodinger’s Cat, Pandemic Version. If I keep the kid’s bedroom doors closed in the morning, I can both assume they are sick AND healthy and live in a perpetual state of the unknown but unchanged.

As the house was finally quiet for all of 45 minutes this week, I sat down for the first time this year and truly tried to reflect on what we had all been through, where we are now, and how we had coped. I’m not sure how long I sat reflecting on this, but at the end of my introspection I came up with one thing:

I am tired.

I am bone-deep, slumped in the chair, brain in a fog exhausted.

There’s a little (read: BIG) part of me that is a perfectionist. I was raised near the end of the ‘put your mind to it and work hard and you can be anything’ movement, which instilled a sense in many generations that any block in our feeling of total contentment or success was because we weren’t being productive enough, or trying hard enough. If I can be anything if I just work hard, then I must not be working hard enough because I’m still not doing as well as I think I should!

I am not someone who deals with uncertainty well (anyone who knows me will readily agree). And I am feeling like I just went several dozen rounds in a cage match with my own anxiety, learning the lesson of acceptance the absolute hardest way possible. Things are happening, and I have no control over them, and I am then sapped of all my mental energy running circles in my brain about what I could possibly do in a number of probable (or improbable) scenarios because DARN IT, I must be doing something wrong if I’m feeling this way! So imagine my inner turmoil when I am faced with a situation that I can’t do a darn thing about (Hi COVID-19)! Suddenly, I crave SOMETHING I can control, fix, manipulate and improve. My Anxiety Gremlin, singing the war-song of ‘YOU’RE NOT DOING ENOUGH’ leaps onto the next thing I can devote my frenzied energy on just to feel like I’m doing anything productive.

Can’t stop the pandemic? Better focus on meal planning for the next 18 weeks.

Worried about school and quarantining? I’m re-organizing the hallway closet.

Living in a world of uncertainty and stress? BUY ALL THE PUMPKIN THEMED THINGS. My house must look like Jack Skellington himself vomited Pumpkin Spice Lattes and the fall aisle at Michael’s all over my front porch.

All of this, to try and compensate for this simple fact: I feel like I am failing because I am not coping better.

So what to do when faced with the impossible? Accept that I cannot change something? That I have no control? Unheard of!

And in the words of my daughter, “I DON’T WANNA.”

It’s hard to accept the unacceptable. To admit I cannot change something, because I’ve been conditioned to believe anything is possible, and it’s my own will power that can change my world, seems like giving up. It seems like playing the victim. But what if that thought is wrong? What if it’s a form of all-or-nothing thinking? What if I really CAN’T just force myself to happiness and this moment in time will suck no matter what I do?

Coming to terms with our own human nature is humbling but healthy. I am not all powerful. And I am also not above being impacted with sorrow and stress and grief over the state of the world today. My attempts to focus on anything else I can control is a distraction, and quite frankly, that is a useful and sometimes necessary coping strategy. When you cannot change a stressful situation and you simply need to survive it, using distraction by focussing on a productive chore or a creative task CAN help you feel better or at least take your mind off the stress. A mental break is healthy for all of us, especially if you pair it with some positive cognitive reframing.

‘It’s OK that I can’t change the world right now, because it’s impossible, but I can make my space more tidy and cleaning up improves my mood’ is a perfectly sound way to address your uncertainty about the future.

As long as we don’t go too far down into the hole of total avoidance. I’ve got to touch a little bit on those icky feelings, to acknowledge they are there and ensure I’m being kind to myself about their existence – because trust me, we are ALL in the same boat about this.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is actually a form of psychotherapy that focusses on just this sort of situation by encouraging us to use distress tolerance skills: when things are hard, overwhelming and inescapable but you’ve still got to find a way to push through. I have found myself leaning heavily on these skills in the last few weeks.

DBT is built on the idea of dialectic thinking which means that something can be two things at once.

Something can be good for you, but also be harmful if you have too much of it.

Someone can hurt you and offend you, but still actually mean well.

You can be totally exhausted and at the end of your rope, but still need to keep trying harder.

Your feelings can be valid and totally real, but also may not be helping you if you dwell on them too long.

Can you see how useful this type of perspective can be, especially for those of us who maybe struggle with all-or-nothing thinking?

DBT is a great therapy style for those of us who struggle with self care, relationships, extreme forms of thinking, or even really big feelings. Those with Attachment Disorder (or Borderline Personality Disorder) can benefit from learning some of these tools to offer themselves relief and a sense of control – as well as community, as DBT is best done in conjunction with group work and lots of therapist support! In its purest form, DBT is done well with a very engaged and collaborative process where you spend a good amount of time per week learning and practicing these new techniques in order to apply them to your day to day life. But I also use DBT to offer my clients some quick but meaningful strategies for how to survive a moment that you simply can’t make any better because it’s out of your control.

Sounds like 2020 in a nutshell.

A great acronym to remember is ACCEPTS.

Pushing Away

Activities – Find yourself any activity, (an engaging one!) that takes your mind off the unsolvable problem in front of you. Finding something that makes you feel accomplished can be even better. Go for a bike ride, tidy up the kitchen, tackle some paperwork or just listen to music. It seems simple enough, but I can’t count the amount of times I find myself sitting and dwelling on a negative thought without doing much of anything else. This is a temporary way to at least get yourself redirected and moving, which might snow ball into something more.

Contributing – Try to do something nice for others, or for your community. We’re talking random acts of kindness, volunteer work, writing a letter for someone to brighten their day, helping a neighbour. Putting our focus on someone else helps us shift our perspective and get us out of ‘navel vision’, where we get stuck only looking inward. Reminding ourselves there are others in the world around us, that we can support, might make us feel a little less alone, and a little less helpless.

Comparisons – Similar to Contributing, comparing ourselves to others can help give us a new perspective on a problem. This might get us to ‘unstick’ our thinking and allow a new line of thought to emerge. Ask yourself how others have handled this same situation you are in. What could you learn from them? How big is this problem compared to others in your life? Compare your current self to your past – how have you grown? What lessons have you learned? What would your future self probably tell you about this experience?

Emotions – Seeking out a different mood externally can sometimes jump-start us internally too. Feeling low? Turn on some heart pumping music, something that makes you get up and dance. Put on a scary movie, watch a comedy, read of book that makes you feel warm and cozy. Or just watch videos of puppies, or cats knocking objects off tables. Go on a swing set and feel your tummy drop when you reach the top. Even this forced feeling of a different emotion gives us a break from our current mood and can make it easier to release our heaviness to be open to a different feeling.

Pushing Away – Sometimes the only thing you can do – and the healthiest thing – is to walk away entirely. Get up and go to a different part of the house from where you’ve been feeling the worst. Go outside. Get in the car and go to the beach, or the country. Go for a walk in a different part of town. Can’t get away? Then daydream about some place totally different – it’s not avoidance, just a temporary distraction to break the cycle of negative thoughts and dread.

Thoughts – If your brain won’t leave you alone with all the bad and heavy things going through your head, give it something else to chew on! Engage your brain in a way you can’t avoid, like an activity that takes a lot of thought or concentration. A puzzle, knitting, a crossword, math problems, a paint-by-number, building a model. Anything that takes up a lot of your brain space will help you push those other unwelcome thoughts to the back burner, even for a few minutes.

Sensations – When all else fails, giving your body a different sensation to focus on has an amazing effect of redirecting our mind. Pick one of your 5 senses (although there are plenty more senses we don’t often pay attention to, like direction and balance!) and focus solely on that one experience. Hold an ice cube in your hand. Roll a rock between your fingers. Smell a can of coffee beans. Bite into a sharp mint or lemon. Listen to the rain or wind outside. Pet an animal, or soft blanket. Watch the clouds moving, or the waves crashing on the beach.

All of these strategies offer a very temporary sense of relief. They don’t solve any problems, and your worries might still be waiting for you on the other side of the activity. However, embracing the fact that you’re not responsible for solving every problem that comes up, or that sometimes it’s totally out of your power, is a bitter but necessary pill to swallow. Embracing and accepting that there are periods in our life (Looking at you, every day since March 2020), we are actually a bit powerless, and we do just need to survive this moment is healthy and needed.

I’m not sure if anyone else needs to hear this, but I sure do:

It is not your fault that the world is in disarray right now.

It is not your fault that you do not have an answer for how to fix all of this.

It is not a sign of weakness that you are affected by all of this and feeling stressed.

It is OK that you use temporary distraction and coping skills to ‘just get by’ right now.

You do not need to be at your absolute best DURING A PANDEMIC.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.