Is it okay to use distraction in order to resist a compulsion? If you don’t know the answer to this question, keep reading. If you think you know the answer to this question…keep reading.
The argument for distracting is twofold.
1.) First, distraction can be used to delay the compulsion. When the urge to perform a compulsion or mental act arises you shift your attention away.
If you delay the compulsion long enough, it’s believed that you might forget all about the urge to do the compulsion. But, if you give in and perform the compulsion, at least you put it off and found a way to do it by distracting.
2.) The second purpose for using distraction is to avoid anxiety.
The evaluation of anxiety, in this example, is that it’s crippling and therefore should be avoided. Stay busy and try not to have any downtime. If while trying to push through a fear you become overwhelmed and panicky, use a distraction to get relief.
So…Is it OK to Use Distraction to Resist a Compulsion?
Authors of “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts,” Martin Seif and Sally Winston state, “As with all anxiety disorders, avoidance of anxiety is both what maintains and strengthens it.” They advise therapists, “Overcoming the disorder means counterintuitively moving clients toward experiences that increase their distress.”
On the other hand, Fletcher Wortmann, an OCD-Thriver and author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder explains: “There is no shame in occasional escapism.”
At this point, it’s important to note there is plenty of research that proves distraction lessens the limbic system (the fight, flight, freeze) response probably more than any other form of emotional regulation.
That’s why many talk therapists encourage clients to distract from their anxiety by hyper-focusing on the minutia of the environment (using the five senses.) Another technique often taught is to hold an ice cube until the anxiety goes away.
However, OCD therapists don’t typically teach distraction because we’ve learned: “You don’t stop OCD by distracting.” Even today I found this on the International OCD Foundation website: “The most common false fear blockers are physical and mental compulsions, distraction, avoidance, and reassurance seeking.”
Yet, studies show that focusing attention away from an unpleasant feeling/thought reduces the intensity of the suffering. Likewise, the innovative people at treatmyocd.com have created an app called nOCD, a free mobilized personal treatment app. One of its features is an “SOS” button to assist with distraction.
I downloaded the app and found it to be an excellent resource for people with OCD, especially for those self-directing their Exposure & Response Prevention(ERP) therapy. It’s hard enough to try ERP with a therapist but think about the people who have no access to an OCD therapist.
However, I was concerned about the “SOS” button. Afterall, OCD therapists are discouraged from teaching distraction.
Consider these possible disadvantages of intentional distraction:
- You’re only learning how to avoid or delay the anxiety. New pathways won’t be created. Confidence levels will decrease.
- Eventually, you’ll find yourself face to face with whatever drove you to distraction in the first place. At some point, you’ll run out of the ability to distract. What will you do when there’s no way to distract? You’re only good at what you practice.
- Focusing away from the anxiety means less attention on the opportunity to grow and more attention on living just above the surface.
- Distracting may slow down the healing process and for some people, they can’t afford to waste any more time. OCD has already taken too much.
So…Is it OK to Use Distraction to Resist a Compulsion?
I emailed the people behind the app, who by the way have all personally lived with OCD and know exactly what it feels like to live with it each and every day. Their opinion matters a lot to me.
I want to support the app but I explained I was concerned about the “SOS” feature which is used for distraction. This was the response they gave for me to include in this blog post:
- I understand your approach and agree that distraction isn’t the answer, but it obviously depends on the person.
- The SOS feature has really helped people in times of intense suffering and continues to help people get through severe OCD episodes.
- I really like what you said about teaching the brain that anxiety at all levels is not only tolerable but wanted. In my personal experiences, really encouraging the anxiety and wanting to feel the intense anxiety can actually make the episodes less intense.
- The app saves/tracks data. Makes it so easy to share evidence-based info with your therapist or others who want to learn more.
- It’s also important to highlight that each of our team members has personal experience with the current treatment system: it’s very difficult to find a qualified OCD specialist, it’s extremely expensive, insurance doesn’t usually help much for mental health issues, etc.
I think we’re all on the same page.
There are people who haven’t <<yet>> learned to just go ahead and experience the anxiety. Thankfully, nOCD can help people get through intense anxiety with it’s SOS feature. There’s nothing wrong with getting a reprieve from something you don’t know how to manage.
When you push the SOS button it asks if you’re struggling with an anxiety-producing thought or a strong urge to do a compulsion. The app helps you to face your fear or resist a compulsion. But, if the anxiety gets too overwhelming, hit the SOS button and the app will try to help distract you.
nOCD does far more than help with distraction by the way. The app not only teaches you how to use ERP but also takes you through each step. A video lesson is included and step-by-step guidance is given. nOCD collects and saves all your effort and provides a visual of your progress. This app is a great in-between session tool for people in therapy. For people who don’t have a therapist this app can take you through the same steps a therapist would.
So…Is it OK to Use a Distraction to Resist a Compulsion?
Avoiding anxiety isn’t a drill that develops a skill.
In order to beat OCD, you’ll need to develop the skill of allowing weird thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. You don’t beat OCD by distracting.
But, not all distraction is bad.
Life itself is a distraction. There are people to see, things to do and places to go. Living your life to the fullest may very well distract you from your thoughts and anxiety. Here’s a Mom who explains this concept very well: Proactive vs. Reactive Distractions
I’ve created a Puzzle Book that is in Beta testing. I designed it to be a mild exposure exercise so that people with the doubting disease can confront their dislike for uncertainty. Some of the people testing it for me have already commented that time flies when they work on the puzzles.
The puzzlers expected an exposure exercise with a bit of anxiety. Although this puzzle book is by far the least anxiety-provoking of the 10, I didn’t anticipate it would be such a pleasant distraction!
The point is there was no intention to be distracted. Sometimes an exposure exercise ends up being easier than thought. It makes it easier to go on to the next exposure. Always build momentum.
Today’s Best Advice On How to Resist Compulsions:
Deliberately hitting the “distraction” button when you feel overwhelmed needs to be seen as a stepping stone, not a crutch. If you intentionally distract to avoid and continue this strategy…well, read the disadvantages above again.
If you hit the “distraction” button, learn from it. Maybe you tried something too hard. Find an exposure exercise that challenges you–but doesn’t cause panic.
Be self-reflective about your motive for distracting. If you choose to distract, be mindful of what you’re doing.
If life distracts you…if there are moments you forget you even have OCD…that sounds wonderful to me.
Please feel free to add your thoughts about distraction in the comments. As always, I’ll keep your name anonymous.
Are you addicted to compulsions?
If you have questions about how to resist compulsions add them to the comment section on this post. I’ll be sure to address your questions and give you…The Best Advice On How to Resist Compulsions