Why Distracting Yourself Is Better Than ‘Positive Thinking’

Why Distracting Yourself Is Better Than ‘Positive Thinking’
Photo: New Africa, Shutterstock

Toxic positivity has earned a lot of backlash recently. Of course, we shouldn’t berate ourselves with negative self-talk, and there’s value in encouraging ourselves when fearful (I routinely utter, “I have all the skills I need” like a dime-store Stuart Smalley before doing anything nerve-wracking), but there’s also value in actually experiencing our negative emotions rather than glossing over them with trite cliches like “good vibes only,” “everything happens for a reason,” and the comically empty, “you got this.”

Research shows distraction to be more effective at keeping anxiety at bay

When we’re worried, common wisdom instructs us to pummel ourselves with positive thoughts. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, this study found distraction to be a better tool for reducing anxiety than “positive anticipatory thoughts.” In it, adolescent participants were told they’d be doing a basketball jump shot — while being rated on their performance by a gym teacher they’d never met — in front of their whole class. (Anyone who had to climb the rope up to the ceiling in 8th grade gym class during the now-disbanded Presidential Fitness Test will instantly recognise the anxiety. For many of us, it’s the adult equivalent of being asked to stand up and share “one thing people may not know about you” in a meeting.)

In the lead up to the jump shot test, half the students were asked to engage in repetitive positive thinking about themselves, while the other half engaged in distractive thinking about mundane things like “three birds on a branch in a tree” or their father’s car. Researchers found that engagement in the distraction task helped participants keep their anxious feelings to a low level, and that those who thought positively “showed significantly increased anxiety levels, more catastrophic thoughts, and more negative predictions of sport performance and appearance.”

Why distraction is not a long-term solution

According to Verywell Mind, the key to using distraction successfully is using it to temporarily take your attention away from a strong negative emotion. While distraction can help ease its intensity, it’s not intended to be a long-term solution or escape hatch to avoid the feeling entirely. (They suggest coming back to the emotion once its initial force has subsided and managing it with a different skill, such as expressive writing.)

Healthy ways to distract yourself

As an adult, healthy ways to distract ourselves range from basic mind tricks like counting backwards in increments of 8, noticing and recalling objects and colours in your environment, and mental challenges like crossword puzzles or Sudoku, to exercise, chores, and video games. (In her book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, Dr. Jane McGonigal agrees that the “constantly escalating challenge” of gaming can build strength, confidence, courage, and perseverance to achieve more difficult goals.)

While too much distraction can certainly have negative outcomes (inability to focus, social media addiction, unsafe driving, and the pile of 673 unrelated papers on my kitchen counter, to name a few), as a temporary coping tool for impending stressful events, it’s valid.

So it looks like next time you’re worried about that first date or work presentation, you’ve got the green light to go play tennis, Call of Duty, or binge-watch Money Heist, after all.

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