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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Herriott, AMFT

Healthy Distraction Techniques

We’ve all been told, at one point or another, that we can’t keep avoiding our problems. That’s true. However, sometimes the problem is something that can’t be solved right away. What do you do then? You can’t avoid the problem forever, but you can give yourself a bit of a break. Not only could a little distraction shift your focus elsewhere, but you might even have a changed perspective the next time you address the situation. Marcus Aurelius wisely said “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Let’s learn how to lessen this pain. 

Since we cannot control all of the obstacles life throws our way, we need to teach ourselves how to tolerate intense emotions. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy acronym ACCEPTS reminds us of ways we can do this. ACCEPTS stands for: Activities, Contributing, Comparisons, Emotions, Pushing Away, Thoughts, and Sensations. Each letter represents a different way you can redirect your focus. First, take a moment and identify something that you currently need a distraction from.

Next, keeping that stressor in mind, reflect on the following questions:

  • Activities: What will take my mind off of things?

  • Contributing: What can I do to make someone else’s (or my own) day a bit better?

  • Comparisons: How am I doing now compared to in the past?

  • Emotions: What emotions do I want to be feeling?

  • Pushing Away: What can I temporarily block out?

  • Thoughts: What do I need to focus on?

  • Sensations: What kind of stimulus do I need?

Your answers to these prompts will help you determine which distraction techniques may work well for you. When you need a break from the stressor, start by considering the first letter A (Activities) and do something unrelated that you enjoy. If that doesn’t work, try the next letter C (Contributing) and practice shifting the focus to someone else–perhaps you could show appreciation for your partner by cooking them dinner or call an old friend and catch up. Make your way down the list to experiment with different strategies, or skip around between them however you’d like. Do whatever feels right. 

Let’s look at an example: Sam is trying to enjoy a nice holiday dinner with her family, but her uncle wants to talk politics. He does not react well when someone challenges him or expresses a different opinion. Sam was just dragged into the middle of the conversation and doesn’t know what to do. She notices herself starting to get upset because this seems to happen every holiday.

What can she do? Using the ACCEPTS acronym, here are a few ideas:

  • Activities: Sam can start a separate conversation with her grandmother. She could also play a board game with her younger cousins or do the daily Wordle.

  • Contributing: She could help the host clear the table and wash the dishes. Or maybe Sam wants to hand out holiday gifts to her family members.

  • Comparisons: She’s very overwhelmed. The emotions are still intense but her communication has gotten better. This time, she said: “Hey, can we please not talk about politics?” Her uncle did not listen, but Sam felt validated when a few other family members nodded in agreement. Usually, she doesn’t say anything.

  • Emotions: Sam wants to be feeling joyful and at peace. She keeps reminding herself to stay calm.

  • Pushing Away: She can temporarily block out her uncle–there are many people to talk to at the family gathering. Sam can also create physical distance by leaving the room.

  • Thoughts: Sam realizes that she needs to focus on spending time with her family. She only gets to see them a few times a year and wants this night to be a happy memory.

  • Sensations: Sam is feeling out of touch with her body. She steps outside for a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and feel the cool breeze on her face.

Challenge yourself to apply the ACCEPTS distraction method this week. You may not be able to completely eliminate your stress, but bringing it down even one notch can make a difference. Sometimes your emotions may try to overpower you, but remember that you have the opportunity to regain control.

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