Learning to Stay: The Hidden Costs of Distraction

Distraction can be a relief. It can also keep us from feeling fully alive.

What are you are aware of, right now, in this moment?

Take a moment and notice what draws your attention. Sounds in the room? A sensation of warmth, or coolness? A feeling of ease or of discomfort from the way you are sitting? Are you aware of any tension in your body—a tightness in your face, chest, or shoulders? Or maybe just the opposite, a sense of calm and relaxation?

Are you aware of any thoughts? What are they about? Worries? Plans? Doubts or curiosity about this activity? Just notice your thoughts, no need to follow them or get pulled into them.

How about feelings? Are you aware of any emotions as you let your awareness turn inward for this brief moment? If you take a slow, deep breath, and release it even more slowly, what do you become aware of?

This is a brief exercise in becoming present. It sounds simple, but for many of us, it’s surprisingly difficult to stay present with our experience in the here and now. We live in a world of endless distraction. For anyone looking to avoid an awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations, the options are endless and immediate: pick up a smartphone, open up Facebook or Instagram, and start scrolling. Open the fridge and start snacking. Flip on the television, turn up the music, have a drink, numb out just a bit.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities, of course.

Immersing oneself in a great TV show or film, sharing a drink, connecting with friends on Facebook, all of these can be enjoyable, relaxing, and perfectly good ways to unwind. But problems may arise when we use any of these activities routinely and reflexively to avoid staying present with our own inner experience or with a challenging situation in which we find ourselves.

Moreover, recent studies suggest that overuse of distraction activities that entail repeated bursts of short-term attention (e.g., scrolling through news items or social media posts), as well as continual multi-tasking, can actually negatively affect a region of the brain associated with attentional focus and emotional control (the anterior cingulate cortex).

Everyday stress and anxiety can lead us to seek out distraction in order to avoid whatever we are stressed or anxious about. This can give our behavior a compulsive quality—we may find ourselves continuously getting on Twitter or Instagram, eating or drinking or somehow distracting ourselves to avoid sitting with an inner experience that is calling out for our attention.

And for people struggling with psychological trauma, shame, or unresolved grief, a common feature is the persistent avoidance of memories and feelings that threaten to overwhelm the limits of what they believe they can tolerate. Avoidance through distraction can become a core strategy for managing distress.

All this distraction comes at a cost.

In the case of “everyday” stressors and anxieties—conflicts at home, unrealistic demands at work, financial worries—distraction can offer a brief respite. However, in the end, staying present with our experience, however uncomfortable it may be, opens us up to the discovery of new perspectives and solutions. It may also open us up to our fear of enacting a potentially helpful solution that may lead to big changes (e.g., leaving a job or a relationship, having a difficult conversation).

Staying present with an attitude of acceptance to our experience allows us to be compassionate with ourselves, and to be more receptive to others who can offer emotional and practical support. In the case of conflict with a friend or partner, it can be tempting to shut down and withdraw, or blame, or quickly apologize and acquiesce, but these are all ways of avoiding staying present with the discomfort of conflict and whatever feelings it evokes. Avoidance makes it hard to stay connected and find our way to a genuinely easier place.

For people struggling with unhealed trauma, shame, or grief, distraction in small doses can be a great relief. But as the old adage goes, that which we resist tends to persist. We simply can’t outrun our unwanted feelings and deeply held beliefs. They endure with remarkable power, until we stop running and turn to face them with acceptance and a willingness to experience their intensity.

Thankfully, like waves in the ocean, previously avoided feelings move through us when we turn to face them, and usually, they recede, with successive waves less powerful and less frightening. In the case of trauma and prolonged grief, we might need a therapist or other guide who can help us tolerate the intensity of our feelings. And for shame, cultivating self-compassion and acceptance can be transformative—but only if we are willing to face the parts of ourselves that carry our shame.

I am reminded of a wonderful quote by the late Fred Rogers (“Mister Rogers”), on the power of facing and sharing our difficult experiences:

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

So how do we shift from distraction and avoidance to what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls “learning to stay”? There are lots of techniques. Here are few I like:

  • Slow down your exhales, and notice what you becomne aware of. Count silently as you inhale: 1…2…3, and again, more slowly as you exhale: 1…2…3…4…5. This will slow your breathing and heart rate, and create a pause of awareness. After a few such breaths, you might ask yourself, “What am I aware of right now?” Just see what arises. If you’re in the middle of a difficult situation, after slowing things down with a few slow breaths, try asking yourself, “What do I really want to do right now? What will help me most in the long run?”
  • Do some brief mindful journaling. There are a lot of smartphone journal apps, or you can use a voice recording app, or good old paper and pen; it doesn’t matter how you write or record your entry. The goal is to simply write or speak aloud what you are aware of feeling in the moment: tense or tight, anxious, worried, sad, angry, excited, whatever. As you write, notice what you become aware of—feelings or thoughts that arise, sensations in your body. There’s no need to try and understand what you discover; simply be curious about it and open to it. After a few minutes, save what you’ve written, and move on. Check out this resource on mindful writing and meditative journaling. And here’s a link to expressive writing, a well-researched approach similar to mindful journaling that has shown both physical and psychological benefits.
  • Cultivate intentionality. First, try to identify ways you routinely distract yourself when you’re feeling anxious or distressed. Whenever you find yourself engaging one of these behaviors (e.g., opening the fridge, getting on social media, pouring a drink), pause for a moment, take a few breaths, and ask yourself: “Why am I doing this right now?”If it feels like you’re distracting yourself from something, consider first paying a few minutes of attention to whatever you’re trying to avoid. You can always have that drink, or log into Twitter, after you’ve taken some time to attend to whatever needs attention.
  • Develop a mindfulness practice. Sit or walk or even jog “mindfully” for a few minutes each day. If you’re outside, take off the headphones while you do this. Bring your attention to the here and now. That means noticing what’s around you, or what you feel in your body, or what sensations or feelings you become aware of. Try to stay with this awareness, without moving into thinking or analyzing or planning or worrying. Just stay with whatever you notice.If you want to meditate, that’s great, but avoid becoming rigid about focusing on your breath, a common instruction in meditation guides. The breath is just an anchor, a simple focus for our wandering attention. If we get too doggedly focused on our breath, it can become just another distraction, a way of not opening up to feelings and physical sensations that need our attention.Try to bring an attitude or spirit of acceptance to whatever you become aware of. This means sitting without judgment with whatever you notice. In a recent set of studies, researchers found that awareness plus acceptance was more helpful at increasing positive emotions than awareness alone.  There are dozens of excellent mindfulness teachers and guided meditations online. Two of my favorite teachers are Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield.
  • Take a mindful walk, run, or bike ride in nature. There’s evidence that spending time in nature—a park, the beach, a forest—can have significant benefits for the body and mind. But what does it mean to walk, run, or bike mindfully? It means staying present, noticing your surroundings, and not getting distracted by thoughts, worries, or plans.Each time you find yourself lost in thought, simply bring your attention back to the sounds and sights and smells of nature that surround you. 

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