Distraction for pain or stress

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Have you ever become so involved in one activity that you didn’t notice what was going on around you? For example, maybe you were playing a video game and you didn’t hear your mom call you for dinner. Or perhaps you were really focused on a book and you didn’t notice that music was playing or that it had started to rain outside.

As we go through the day, our attention is constantly shifting. Sometimes we pay attention to a lot of things at once, but other times we get caught up in a single thought or activity.

You can block out unpleasant or stressful thoughts by turning your attention to something else. The trick is to become as focused as possible on whatever you choose to concentrate on. This could be a book, a movie, a video game or one of the exercises below.

You can use attention focusing to:

  • take your mind off stressful or worrying thoughts
  • help you get to sleep faster.

Focusing your attention

Focus your attention on your breathing. Notice how each breath moves your chest and stomach in and out. Notice how your breathing sounds and how the air moves into your nose or mouth. Now begin to breathe more slowly. Take a deep breath in and very slowly release it.

Think of three pleasant things that are more interesting than how you’re feeling. They might be places such as a cottage or a beach somewhere warm. They might involve special events such as going to a concert or watching your favourite sports team. Or they might involve doing fun activities with friends or family.

Using imagery

Imagery involves using your imagination. You use your imagination when you think of things such as the taste of a lemon, the colours of the sunset or the sound of a drum.

Imagery is like daydreaming except that you are doing it on purpose. Some people find it easy to use their imagination to distract themselves. Others need more practice to develop these skills.

There are two main ways to use imagery to help with how you’re feeling, whether physically or emotionally: changing a sensation or changing your thoughts.

  • If you want to change a sensation, picture whatever is uncomfortable as having a certain shape, size or colour. Then change it. For example, if you have pain and it feels like the size of a baseball, change it in your mind to the size of a golf ball, a marble or something even smaller. Or change it from hot red to pale pink, maybe even to blue.
  • To change your thoughts, imagine being in a pleasant place, maybe on a beach or in a park with your family and friends. This is much more interesting and calming than worrying!

When you practise using imagery, become involved in the scene as much as you can. To help with this, involve as many of your five senses as you can. For example, if you are thinking about the beach, think about the sound of the water, the sights on the beach, the smell of the ocean or lake, the feeling of the sand and the taste of the salty water.

You can use any pleasant experience to take your mind off how you’re feeling. Try remembering a trip you have taken or a favourite story. Or you could keep a photo or picture of this place in your pocket or on your phone. For imagery to work well, however, the scene should be easy to picture. And, of course, it should be pleasant or calming for you.

Last updated: November 30th 2017