This Unexpected Technique Can Help Control Anxiety
Here’s how occupying your mind can set you free from anxious thoughts.
The most logical way to quiet anxiety may seem to be to think through whatever’s on your mind. If you can hack away at the problem and work out what’s bothering you, the anxiety will disappear, right? As anyone who suffers from it (in Canada, that’s 1 in 4 people) will tell you, that’s not always the case.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, “Anxiety happens in your mind and your body so trying to think your way out of it won’t help.” Instead, you should use your senses to distract yourself.
I checked in with Dr. Christine Korol, a registered psychologist in Vancouver and adjunct professor, Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, to learn when and how distraction can be used to cope with anxiety.
(Related: How to Know If Your Anxiety Is “Normal”)
Distraction can be used for short-term issues
“For generalized anxiety disorder, we often ask people if they worry when they’re busy at work. They’ll often say ‘no, it’s when I come home, or when everything is quiet and I’m trying to fall asleep,’” says Korol. So, busying the mind can definitely keep anxious thoughts at bay.
This tends to work best for short-term issues. For example, if you’re having a medical procedure done, have a job interview, or awaiting results from a test—in other words, anxious about something that has an end date—distraction can be effective at helping you shift your attention so you can sleep and carry on with your day, says Korol. “You can use distraction to give yourself a little vacation from thinking about it,” she says.
Choose the right type of distraction
The best type of distraction is something you can do with your hands. “Visual, spatial activities use sort of nonverbal areas of the brain and keep you a little bit more occupied [than reading or watching TV],” says Korol. Think drawing, painting, organizing, baking, and one of the most relaxing hobbies you can take up, knitting. If you choose TV or a podcast, Korol warns: “It should be something that calms the nervous system and not be too exciting.” Think The Queen’s Gambit over The Undoing.
Alternatively, you could try playing a game. A recent study looked at people who experienced a traumatic event and, instead of retelling the story afterwards, were encouraged to play Tetris. The game was effective at preventing the images of the event from replaying in their minds and was able to ward off post-traumatic stress disorder. “Tetris is kind of interesting because it’s a puzzle game that you do under the pressure of time,” says Korol, “so your brain can’t do very much else when you’re engaged in it.”
(Related: Can You Use Melatonin for Anxiety?)
Distraction can be harmful when using it to cope with long-term issues
For longer-term anxieties distraction isn’t the best way to cope, because it doesn’t get at the core issue. “[Therapists] tend to teach other strategies,” says Korol. She helps her clients learn how not to believe their thoughts, and plays the worst-case-scenario game, in which they both brainstorm a coping plan for how to manage such scenarios. “When you start avoiding things [like flying, for example] that aren’t really dangerous, then your world becomes very small.” So, with recurring anxieties, you want to address them head-on.
Anxiety around loneliness is a different issue altogether
“I’ve been working with more people who are single right now and trying to come up with creative ways for them to find connections with people,” says Korol. She doesn’t recommend coping with loneliness by flooding the mind with TV shows, music, and podcasts. “You have to find some ways to have some social contact,” says Korol. Listen to podcasts in between social occasions when getting lost in anxious thoughts, she says, but make it a priority to develop social connections.
Ask for help if the problem persists
For persistent anxieties, a therapist can help. “Anxiety disorders are really treatable and there’s a lot we can do to help people feel better,” says Korol. But therapy isn’t the only option. There are videos on dealing with worry and rumination that can help (like Korol’s own), as can courses (for example, the University of Regina has an online therapy unit available for everyone in the province), and self-help resources (such as one from Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions, which offers free workbooks on panic, worry, rumination, and anxiety). For more resources visit CMHA.ca.