Distraction as a Coping Mechanism in Grief is Natural
In appropriate doses, it is an act of self-compassion that helps you reintegrate traumatic memories at your own pace.
In the aftermath of loss or extreme trauma, your inner intelligence, like an anesthesiologist during a surgical procedure, delivers a titrated dose of anesthesia that might manifest as numbness, disbelief, or dissociation.
It is very precise in your pain management plan, identifying the memories that need to be inaccessible and suppressed in the subconscious as well as how long they need to remain unconscious.
This is an instinctive and natural process — similar to the way the female body knows how to create a baby from an embryo.
Avoidance is our inner nature’s way of protecting us so that we don’t get overwhelmed by insurmountable pain and anguish that might take us so far out of ourselves that we may never find our way home.
In this light, if you have experienced loss and have been distracting yourself with activities like eating or watching tv, it is completely normal and according to science, a sign of self-compassion in a person.
When space is what you need
Three days after my mother died, I flew to Poland from New York for a breathwork training.
I needed to get away from everything: from the country where her body lay in the morgue, from the apartment where she died, from my father who would periodically break out into wails and beat against the hospice bed she had slept in.
I needed space and distance.
The voice of culture will usually invalidate distraction or staying busy as a way of coping with loss, but there are many studies like this one or that one, indicating that distraction in appropriate doses is necessary for integration and healing.
Healing after loss is similar to the process of muscle growth: your body replaces and repairs damaged muscle fiber, while you are resting and not when you are lifting weights.
The importance of distraction
Grief is not only emotional: it also causes injury to your mind, your brain, and your physical body. Your entire being is out of homeostasis – hormonal systems, circadian rhythms, brain centers responsible for sleep, breathing, digestion are all out of balance.
As the first dose of anesthesia wears off, waves of acute pain bring you to your knees. To continue with our surgical analogy, you still need a pain management regime after surgery.
In grief, distraction serves as a worthy “pain control treatment” that helps you not only manage stress but also triggers its positive and healthy benefits of neural pathway restructuring through neuroplasticity.
According to Shulman, MD in her book Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain, you can reach a point of optimal stress and increase the potential for growth and healing by balancing periods of distraction with periods of immersion in the grieving process.
Immersion is where you deliberately dedicate time to dwell on traumatic emotions and memories by either working with a counselor or performing grief work while distraction is anything you do to temporarily take your attention away from strong emotion to rest and rejuvenate.
Both interventions are necessary.
In the beginning, you need a high distraction dosage to cope, but as time goes on and you accumulate inner resources and tools to face the pain with compassion, the dosage and frequency can be reduced.
A Word about Avoidance
Note that I am not advocating for avoidance or numbing which are distinctly different from distraction. Avoidance means that you will never confront the grief, but rather work at numbing the emotional experience continuously.
On the other hand, distraction is a short-term coping strategy that uses behaviors like exercising, and reading to temporarily step away from overwhelming emotions or thoughts until the intensity has reduced or until you have the inner resources and outer tools to re-engage with the stressors in a more effective manner.
How to distract yourself from big emotions and mental ruminations
For distraction to work, the activity you engage in needs to be interesting and targeted towards the root cause of what is causing you distress in the moment.
For example, if you are feeling deeply anxious in your body, you will need an activity that gets you moving, as opposed to an activity that engages your mind and requires mental concentration.
Here are some of my favorite pain management aka distraction activities you can experiment with when you need to take some air from overwhelming emotions, mental ruminations, and physical sensations of anxiety
1. Overwhelming emotions
- Listen to soothing music or tune in to the soundtrack of nature — crashing waves, the wind, thunderstorms, or birds singing
- Call a friend or family member who has your back or schedule dates with people, especially in those early days, so you are not alone
- Self-soothe with different activities like taking a warm shower, or cooking a nourishing meal
- Spend some time volunteering
- Listen to some inspirational videos
- Deep condition your hair or apply a face mask
- Throw yourself into a personal creative project
2. Mental ruminations
- Watch a funny movie, or immerse yourself in a limited series or a show with multiple seasons
- Listen to a favorite comedian’s routine on Netflix
- Spend some time watching YouTube or Tik-Tok videos
- Scroll through Instagram or Facebook
- Listen to podcasts that you find interesting. Some good ones are On Being and Signs of Life with Bob Ginsberg which explores what happens after death
- Spend some time journaling as this can help put all your inner thoughts and emotions on paper and out of your body
- Spend some time coloring an adult coloring book
- Do some scratch art or doodle
- Play some games on your phone
- If you are into video games, they are a great way to distract yourself by playing online games with other people or against the computer
- Throw yourself into work for some hours
- Participate in a challenging game that requires some level of attention like a crossword puzzle or Sudoku
- Connect with others on grief forums and groups
3. Anxiety in the body
- Move your body — go for a walk, the gym, bike, or do some grounding movement activities like yoga
- Do organization and take up projects that have been pending like rearranging your bedroom or your closets
- Do some chores around the house like vacuuming, washing dishes, or laundry
- Go out into nature and sit by a lake, walk through a forest or just in a park
- Walk your dog if you have one or take a quick trip to the pet store for some cuddling
- If you have children, play with them
- If you have plants or a garden, do some yard work or just water and nurture your plants
- Do something creative play like drawing, crafting, collaging, or creating a vision board
- Bring your attention into your environment and name all the blue things you see in the room
- Go out shopping for necessities, thrifting, or just window shopping
- Meet some friends for dinner or a show
- Practice some grounding exercises
You can also take a spin on distraction by turning your distraction activities into mourning rituals or ways of reconnecting with your loved one. This helps give you a sense of purpose.
- Cook your loved one’s favorite meal
- Write them a letter
- Create a playlist with their favorite songs
- Go visit a place they loved
- Watch their favorite movie or show
- Create a picture scrapbook with your favorite memories
- Create some art in memory of your loved one
- Create a remembrance alter for them
- Volunteer at an organization they supported
- Learn a new skill, like how to reconnect with your loved one through visitation dreams
Try coming up with your own list of distraction activities that you can use when you start experiencing strong emotions which are difficult to cope with in the moment. The more you are able to come up with, you will begin to learn the different activities that soothe your grief reactions and in time, you will find that distracting yourself from difficult emotions become almost automatic.
You will eventually have to make time to grief especially after the initial sting of pain wears off. As useful as avoidance and distraction may be, you can’t delay integration, processing, and awareness forever. Finding ways to express feelings, thoughts and memories is the cornerstone of healing.
If you are experiencing symptoms like feelings of dissociation that go on for a long time, it might be helpful to seek support from a therapist.
Grief and trauma work is important after loss, but it is important to honor your readiness and unique pace.
The weight of research suggest that distraction can help you reduce the severity and persistence of grieving and trauma symptoms — just remember not to overdo it.
The next time you feel completely beat down by overwhelming emotions or your thoughts running in circles, it's okay to divert your attention and give yourself some space.
We each have our own dosing regimen with support from our inner natures and body intelligence. In time, you will have the inner resources to, at your own pace, resurface painful thoughts and emotions to conscious memory and integrate them into your life story.