Let’s be honest here…life with mental illness is a full time job. Some days are not bad, some are even good, but some are completely horrendous. For myself, most days fall into the “not bad” category, where I can function and even have good moments, but they’re still colored by an underlying depression. The good days are a treasure. The bad days, though… The bad days can be really bad. On those days, I lie in bed, watch TV, and pray it ends soon. On those days, it feels like the only way to keep going is by distracting myself, but that leaves me with a question. Is distraction a healthy way to cope, or am I making things worse?
What do I mean by distraction?
Well, in my case, distraction is pretty much anything that keeps me from thinking about how I feel. That means television, video games, and youtube, typically. Of course, not everyone distracts in the same ways. Some talk with people while others might scroll endlessly through their favorite brand of social media. Then there are those who cope through arguably less healthy means, such as drinking or drugs (and many other options). Distraction can ultimately be pretty much anything that keeps you from feeling how you feel, or at least thinking about it.
Actually, distraction is probably one of the most common coping mechanisms out there. It’s natural to want to run away from bad things, be they danger or despair. So, when we’re faced with something that makes us hurt from the inside, distraction is our mental way of running away.
Does that mean it’s healthy, though? Well, that’s a tougher question with a more complex answer.
There are two different things to look at when answering that question: Method of coping and length of the distraction.
Method of Coping
For the most part, it seems like most people agree that there are different methods of coping and that some are intrinsically healthier than others. To clarify, by healthier I mean coping mechanisms that are less likely to do physical harm to yourself. For instance, alcohol as a coping mechanism can lead to liver disease, heart disease, and many other injuries along the way. In that respect, drinking can become a very dangerous coping mechanism, especially if it is a frequent choice for coping.
Healthier coping mechanisms would be ones that do not damage the body, or even potential improve your health overall. A few examples here include drinking a glass of ice water, stretching, and dancing to your favorite music. In these examples, you can temporarily distract yourself from the issues at hand, and they can all result in your being in a better position (i.e. healthier) than before.
And then, of course, there are the neutral options, like TV or video games. These are neither good nor bad, intrinsically. You aren’t likely to get any healthier, but at least you aren’t likely to end up damaged from it. Those are my particular vices when I’m severely depressed, largely because I can’t bring myself to do much of anything.
So, if there are non-destructive coping mechanisms, why is there any doubt about whether they’re overall healthy? Because everything comes with a condition.
Length of Distraction
Here’s the tricky spot. While we can likely agree that damaging coping mechanisms aren’t healthy, we have to wonder about the others. For instance, a commonly recommended coping technique is to exercise. Get up, get moving, and you can potentially raise those happy chemicals and even make yourself a little healthier along the way! The caution, though? It is possible to exercise too much. And if you’re not eating well to begin with (or drinking enough), you could seriously hurt yourself.
In the case of more neutral coping mechanisms, such as TV of video games, length of time plays a huge role in determining whether it’s an appropriate choice. Are you watching a couple episodes of your favorite show to help bring your mood up? Are you getting up in between episodes if you binge? Have you been watching TV 14 hours a day for the last week?
In general, a good rule of thumb is one quite similar to the one we use to determine severity of depression. Is it interfering with your day to day life? If the answer is yes, it’s probably not healthy.
Overall, distraction is actually a very valid form of coping. In fact, many therapists recommend it as a premium way of making it through severe episodes of depression or anxiety, provided it is used appropriately. When it continues to the point that you are not trying to improve, but simply existing, it starts to lose value. When distraction itself starts damaging your life in much the same way the depression will, it’s time to quit.
So what do you think? How do you distract yourself and do you feel it’s a healthy technique?