Is Distraction a Healthy Coping Strategy?

It’s tempting to deal with problems by not thinking about them and instead distracting yourself with other activities. But is this a healthy way of coping?

That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question researchers from Sweden actually posed as the starting point for a recent study, titled (logically enough) Is Distraction an Adaptive or Maladaptive Strategy for Emotion Regulation?

What makes this topic interesting is that if you think about it, it’s easy to see distraction being either a healthy or an unhealthy way of handling stressful situations.

On one hand, it’s healthy not to dwell on things or get caught up ruminating about your problems. On the other hand, it’s not healthy to avoid your problems altogether or to live in denial. So, distraction, good or bad?

The answer the researchers came back with was a resounding “it depends.”

After surveying 638 adults in the community and 172 in clinical care, then crunching the data, the researchers identified two distinct groups of people who used distraction to regulate their emotions.

The first group accepted their problems but still used distraction to regulate their emotions. The other group used distraction as a way to avoid addressing their problems altogether.

As you might have guessed, the first group fared better overall. People who paired distraction with acceptance had higher wellbeing and quality of life. They were also underrepresented in the clinical group. Meanwhile, people who paired distraction with avoidance had lower wellbeing and quality of life, and were overrepresented in the clinical group.

The magic combination, then, seems to be tackling your problems head-on but using distraction to keep those problems from dominating your thinking.

There’s some previous research that fits with this idea. A 1-year study of 488 male workers in Japan found that for those in stressful jobs, pairing problem-focused coping with distraction coping lowered stress and improved job performance. In other words, when the men were in stressful jobs, dealing with their problems in a practical way but using distraction to keep from thinking about those problems too much made them better able to handle stress.

The upshot of both these studies is that it looks like distraction can be a healthy coping mechanism as long as doesn’t become all-out avoidance. Provided you accept your problems and address them with practical, problem-focused solutions, there may be something to be said for throwing a little distraction into the mix too.

Image: Flickr/Fernando Arroyo


  1. Mr Clean on September 5, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    The observations about men in stressful work situations seemed like old news to me. 35 years ago I came across some video recordings called “Where there’s a will there’s an A.” I think. It recommended, among other things, to not work on the stressful object, in this case studying for a test, more than 30-45 minutes or so. Then do something for at least 5 minutes that is a complete distraction. Including other aspects of the activity to counter in the distraction period added to the benefits.

    For instance, if sitting and studying for 6 hours to pass a college final, every 30-45 minutes, (I can’t remember the time instructions exactly) get up and go for a brisk walk. Get a lot of full breaths. Next time walk to a different area, or play a video game (remember – 5 minutes!) Do some push ups, stretching or yoga. Clear the mind. Don’t think about the material. Move the body. Chat at the water cooler. Efficiency goes up, the ability to absorb and retain material, and all mental processes as well, supposedly using this technique.

    It worked for me – I got an ‘A’ every single time! In every single class! Plus it was a lot more fun. I knew I would get the chance to break soon. I was more enthusiastic and able to retain information a lot better. It became an adventure about being creative on maximizing both the mastery of my material and how much fun could I stick in when it was time. I could go on 4, 6, 10 hours like this. But, a more significant break in there for eating and such, but the same priorities of doing something very different from what the prime object demanded.

    And at test time, I was totally relaxed and feeling so well prepared, especially compared to most others who were stressing and studying till the last minute. The test was like a victory dance by this point.

    • Neil Petersen on September 7, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks for sharing those strategies, Mr. Clean! You’re right, giving the mind a break can be really helpful.