By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 69 and this week I’m talking about distractions. I’ll be discussing what distractions are, why it’s important to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy distractions, and how to effectively manage distractions so you can look after yourself. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
Watch Episode 7 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I look at why we really need to talk about mental health a lot more (especially now more than ever) and I’m sharing three of the biggest things you can do to improve your overall mental health and wellbeing. Watch it here:
This podcast episode was originally released on 7 March, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 69, and thanks so much for joining me! I’m continuing to focus on The Year of Wellbeing throughout 2021 here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, so each week I’ll be exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your own life.
This week is all about distractions. We can often find ourselves using external stuff to distract us from our challenges — like alcohol, social media, etc. — and while some distractions from our troubles can be good for us, some actually leave us feeling worse than before. So why does that matter? And how do you know the difference? Well, that’s what I’m going to be talking about this week.
Before I get into that, Episode 7 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is out now on YouTube where I’m talking about why we really need to talk about mental health a lot more (especially now more than ever) and I’m sharing three of the biggest things you can do to improve your overall mental health and wellbeing. The content I post over on YouTube is completely different to the episode you hear on the podcast, so if you’d like some more Let’s Talk About Mental Health goodness each week then head to YouTube or watch it now at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube — and while you’re there, if you like what you see please subscribe to the channel.
So, now, on with this week’s episode about distractions…
We all need a distraction or two every now and then, especially if we’re having a challenging day. A few minutes or more spent on an unrelated activity or reading something light and inspiring can be a perfect way to reset our focus and give us a boost of mental and emotional energy. However, some distractions can do more harm than good.
Have you ever found yourself having a rough day at work and then coming home to have a glass of wine or two? And then have you ever found that the rough day/wine combination becomes more and more frequent, until it’s a coping mechanism after work most days? I know that’s not going to be an example that everyone can relate to directly, but I’m sure many of us have examples of behaviours that we’ve used to distract ourselves from feeling stressed, overwhelmed or generally shitty, and which have then gotten a bit out of hand — mine, as I’ve shared quite a few times, is emotional eating, and it’s at the point now where I’m actually finding a counsellor to work with so I can get it under control.
Whatever your distractions might be, there is a big difference between healthy distractions and unhealthy distractions. Now, I try really hard not sound too preachy when I talk about the unhealthy stuff (and I am certainly no saint, and I don’t pretend to have all my shit together because I definitely do not), but I think it’s important to have some open discussions about the things we use to distract ourselves and what impact they’re having on us… I just had a great chat with someone recently about that point I covered a few episodes back where I mentioned how we often use our phones as a means of filling those spare few minutes we might have while we’re waiting in a queue or whatever, and the thing is that as well as taking us away from the moment (and therefore making us less mindful), that’s an example of a distraction that can become addictive and even unhealthy — later in this episode I’ll be sharing some of the ways that healthy distractions can benefit your overall wellbeing, so that you have some healthy alternatives to consider.
I was inspired to cover this topic by a post on Instagram a few weeks ago, made by the British writer Matt Haig. I’ve mentioned his stuff before and I like how he writes both fiction and non-fiction, and he’s really open about his own challenges with mental health throughout the years. Anyway, the quote that made me feel inspired was this:
“Weird how things that compulsively distract a mind from feeling shit — alcohol, drugs, gambling… eternal online scrolling etc. — make a mind feel more shit. In order to feel less shit, you eventually have to face your shit rather than hide it with more shit.”Matt Haig
And I’ll include the link to Matt’s instagram in the transcript (www.instagram.com/mattzhaig).
So with that in mind, let’s talk about some definitions…
What are distractions?
A distraction is “a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else,” and it can also be defined in partnership with recreational activities and pursuits. It’s something that diverts your attention or interrupts your train of thought — which can be particularly helpful if you are overthinking (for example, ruminating over past events or worrying about the future).
The line between healthy versus unhealthy distractions can be a bit blurred, because it needs to take in a variety of factors such as your lifestyle, overall wellbeing, frequency of the distraction etc. For example, for many people having a few drinks here and there is entirely fine, and they’re able to have a big night on a weekend sometimes without it becoming a problem; for others, like me, ‘moderation’ is a struggle, especially if alcohol is being used as a coping mechanism for deeper issues, and so even one drink can snowball into many more drinks and before you know it, it’s out of control (which is precisely the reason why I cannot drink at all now, because that ability to control it just stopped working for me). The key is to know the difference between healthy versus unhealthy distractions…
Why is it important to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy distractions?
So that you can limit the unhealthy ones and instead focus on healthy distractions when you need it. According to an article in Talkspace, unhealthy distractions can:
- lower productivity
- train your brain to create dopamine (the feel-good chemical)
- damage your physical health
- impact on your brain health
- (and) avoid the real problem
And the link to that article is in the transcript (find it here: https://www.talkspace.com/blog/binge-distractions-unhealthy/).
It’s that final point about avoiding the real problem that I want to spend a few moments on. When you are struggling, whether that’s wrestling with a specific issue or having challenges in general, it can be really tempting to find ways to stop having to think about whatever it is so that you don’t have to face it. Do you know what happens when you do that? Nothing. Actually that’s not entirely true; it’s either nothing, or it’s that things get worse because the longer you leave them, the bigger they get. If you avoid leaving your job or a relationship because you’re unhappy, things have a tendency to build and build and then, before you know it, the situation is far worse than it might have been if you had tackled it head-on. It’s something I used to fight with my mother about a lot — she would have health issues and downplay them so that she could avoid going to see someone, because she hated going to the doctor, but then inevitably whatever it was wouldn’t just magically cure itself and she’d wind up in the hospital (I’m using past tense here because her dementia has advanced and now she’s in aged care, so it means that now she’s getting looked after whether she likes it or not).
There’s a paragraph from that same article I mentioned before that I want to share to explain what I mean:
“There’s no harm in distracting yourself occasionally. Holing up for one weekend [playing games or binge-watching TV] — but if you’re wasting every weekend and every evening on distractions, you might find yourself floundering physically, emotionally and socially. Distractions can be damaging, whether it’s scrolling, emotional eating, Netflix-ing until dawn, or playing too-many video games.”Source: Talkspace (find it here: https://www.talkspace.com/blog/binge-distractions-unhealthy/)
In general, distraction isn’t a bad thing if it involves healthy and non-harmful distractions. In fact, there are actually quite a few distraction techniques that you can use to help you when you’re dealing with issues like anxiety, but again it’s about finding the right type of distractions so that you don’t wind up doing more harm than good to yourself.
So how do you effectively manage distractions in a healthy way? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to effectively manage distractions
Self-awareness and understanding — I know I talk about self-awareness about a thousand times an episode (and I covered it in more detail back in Episode 62), but there is a good reason why I bang on about it so much: all things start with knowing yourself. It’s really important to take the time to consider what you may be using as distractions in your life (for me, it’s food), and then stepping back to consider why you’re using those distractions so that you can understand the root cause. If you don’t spend your time digging into the why and trying to understand what’s going on, you will very likely never get anywhere. And a big part of that, which is my next point, is to…
Be completely honest with yourself — if you are indulging in unhealthy distractions, consider what the behaviour is doing to you. This is where I feel like it’s important to be really blunt: people that feel good about themselves don’t do things to hurt themselves. Let me repeat that: people that feel good about themselves don’t do things to hurt themselves. Whether that’s excessive drinking, using drugs, eating too much or too little, over-exercising or under-exercising, ignoring responsibilities, indulging excessively in things like shopping, sex, etc. — these are all examples of things that indicate that you are avoiding some deeper issue. And when you distract yourself from your issues, often they wind up becoming much more of an issue than they were in the first place. When it comes to most of the unpleasant stuff in life, you can run but you cannot hide… so rather than distracting yourself and eventually having to deal with the issue once it becomes completely unavoidable, get in and do the work now. That means…
If you need help, get help — for unhealthy habits, simply quitting the behaviour is not necessarily going to address the bigger picture in terms of what you’re trying to distract yourself from. And then of course some of us can’t just stop whenever we want to — that’s why I’m working with a professional around the food thing, because I know I need to deal with things properly if I have any hope of not going round and round in circles. Admitting that you need help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.
And so beyond those three main points, I want to share a few general points about distractions, starting with:
All things in moderation — I don’t think you need to go and lock yourself away from the world and avoid everything in order to be healthy, because that’s a form of extremism that can have negative long-term consequences, but if you take the ‘all things in moderation’ approach to life you’ll generally find you’re good for 99% of things. The most important part of this is to be completely honest with yourself about what ‘moderation’ really means to you in practice. If you know that you can have one glass of wine and stop at that, then that’s your threshold and the question becomes about how often that behaviour is appropriate (for example, every day might seem moderate but what happens on a day where you don’t have that glass of wine or cannot have it? Are you completely fine? Because if you’re not, then moderation has turned into habit, which is where unhealthy distractions tend to evolve into). On the other hand, if you’re someone who knows that you cannot physically stop at one glass and that you have to have two, or even finish off the whole bottle, then again ‘moderation’ has turned into habit. It’s about avoiding excess or extremes, and I tend to look at it that if you can easily stop the behaviour and have no negative impact then you’re kind-of hitting the moderation mark; but if you stop the behaviour and you become tense or stressed or whatever, you have a habit. And habits need to be dealt with if they’re unhealthy, because they can very rapidly turn into addictions (which I looked at back in Episode 34).
Set limits for yourself and stick to them — again, it’s about being honest with yourself. If you know that you can get sucked down a rabbit hole of endless scrolling on Instagram and lose three hours at a time, then something needs to change in terms of your limits. I do Instagram for half an hour in the morning, just scrolling my feed, then I often do another 5-10 minutes in the evening… but that’s it. Why? Because it takes me away from getting my work done during the day (and since I’m self-employed, if I don’t do the work then nobody will!) and in the evening it takes me away from spending quality time with my partner. I talk a lot about knowing what your priorities are and making them the foundation of everything that you do and say, and for me I just don’t really like social media all that much because it’s painful. I enjoy getting visual inspiration on Instagram for topics I enjoy such as travel, history, home and living, etc. (oh, and of course Drag Race), but that’s about it. For my social media for Let’s Talk About Mental Health (@ltamentalhealth on Instagram, Facebook & Pinterest, although I mainly only interact with people on Instagram) I use a posting service where I can pre-load the posts and have them published automatically, because that saves me from getting distracted… then I just go in once a day and respond to comments from followers and that’s it. I know I could very easily get distracted on social media and a few years back I used to spend way too long on Facebook, and found myself oversharing everything and anything (especially when I was drinking). I think that we have to be really honest with ourselves about what impact our distractions are having on us, even if that impact is that it just makes us feel a bit shitty about ourselves (because, over time, those feelings add up and can really do damage to your self-esteem and self-worth in the long run). I talked about boundaries in Episode 53 and habits in Episode 29, and this is an extension of those two topics in that it’s about the boundaries that you set and maintain with yourself.
Examine your distracting behaviours and ask yourself “what is this doing for me?” — if the outcome of that behaviour is positive then great! But if the outcome is negative (especially in the long-term) then something’s got to give. Unhealthy behaviours repeated over time become unhealthy habits, and unhealthy habits have long-term effects on your wellbeing — physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, emotionally and financially. Plus they make life shittier.
If you need an ‘in the moment’ distraction then choose something that’s going to make you feel good about yourself afterwards — instead of bingeing on Netflix or mindlessly eating anything and everything in sight, choose healthy distractions. Call someone you care about (like a relative or friend), do a bit of housework (even if it’s just unstacking the dishwasher), reorganise something for a few minutes (even just one drawer can be invigorating), create (draw, write, colouring-in, whatever), sing, get outdoors, mindfulness, read a book, watch something funny and light, do a puzzle, cuddle a pet or play with them (sure, less easy to do if your pet is a goldfish, but not entirely impossible…!), do some exercise, try out a new recipe (preferably a simple one!), listen to uplifting music (I often find that if I’m in dire need of a distraction, putting on a few music videos by the UK band Steps does the trick for me as their stuff is pure fun — you do what works for you, and kindly don’t judge my musical taste!). The point is to find what works for you, and incorporate as many different things as you can. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do any of the less-healthy stuff, but it means that you limit it and ensure that it doesn’t become a habit.
Sort out your inbox — I don’t know about you, but I find email to be one of the biggest unhealthy distractions ever. At work and at home we get bombarded with hundreds of messages a day, and most of it is crap. Email is a pain in the backside, especially when everything seems to require us to sign up these days and then we inevitably get bombarded with mail (oh, and can we just talk for a moment about that annoying thing when you visit a website for the first time and you immediately get the pop-up asking you to sign up — ummm, hi, can I look around first and decide if I like your content before you try to get me on your mailing list so you can spam me?! It’s like when you watch a YouTube video and right at the beginning they ask you to like the video and subscribe to their channel — um, how does ‘no’ sound? I don’t do that on my channel until the end of the video because I only want people to subscribe who actually like my content!)… anyway, it seems I’ve gone off on a tangent, which almost never happens on this podcast (if there were a narrator for this show, at this point they would say ‘in fact, it happens several times each episode’!). So as I was saying, sort your inbox and how you let it distract you. A few things I do to manage this more carefully and minimise the distractions include turning off the new mail notifications entirely and then blocking out set periods to manage my email two or three times a day — don’t let new emails distract you from your work, because you’ll end up jumping to respond every time you hear that ding. Also, unsubscribe from mailing lists or use a free service like unroll.me (this is not sponsored; I just use this all the time) where you can go through your inbox and have emails you select (like sales alerts and things like that) rolled up into a single email (plus you can unsubscribe via the app); it makes it so much easier to just have one daily email with all those types of emails condensed. Oh and if you’re self-employed like I am, make sure you keep your work inbox totally separate to your personal. I used to have them all combined (you know how the mail app on iPhone let’s you add multiple accounts in together) and it meant I was seeing work stuff early in the morning and before my working day had begun, which is not good when there are challenging things to be dealt with. Protect your work/life balance at all times and don’t read or answer work emails in your personal time. It might sound like I’m on a rant about emails here, but you need to bear in mind what the biggest potential unhealthy distractions are and email is definitely a big one. Speaking of…
Curate your social media — go through your socials, especially Instagram, at least once a month and unfollow accounts that no longer align with your mindset. Do so with kindness (you don’t need to tell them you’re unfollowing), but it’s about being mindful of what you’re consuming which can make for healthier distractions when you do use these platforms. Find what works you, but I do highly recommend unfollowing like your mental health depends on it. And then taking a step back from that, my next point is to…
So now I want to focus specifically on how distractions can actually be a useful tool.
If you’re feeling highly anxious, you can try a simple distraction technique — there are lots of quick ones like square breathing (inhale for four counts hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts). You could also try counting to ten or 50, or even better try counting backward from 1000 by sevens (because you have to think about that a lot more, it engages the brain and distracts you from whatever you need distracting from). Or you could try identifying and then counting all the blue things you can see around you. These types of techniques give your brain something else to focus on and often, if you keep distracting yourself for just a few minutes, it can be just what you need to help yourself settle a bit and then be able to feel a bit calmer and less panicked or distressed.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to distractions and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Sometimes we need a distraction from the things that are going on in our life or in the world around us; I mean let’s be honest, we’ve all had plenty going on over these past 12 months and we’ve had to find ways to fill our time while dealing with higher-than-normal stress levels, and for some of us that has meant distracting ourselves with things that might not be in our best interest in the long-term. Being mindful and avoiding unhealthy distractions doesn’t mean you cannot have any fun, but it does mean that you know your mental health and wellbeing needs to be treated as a priority, and so if that means cutting back on unhealthy distractions or abandoning them entirely, then so be it. You owe it to yourself to make choices that are going to help you be the very best version of yourself possible, and that requires you to prioritise healthy choices over unhealthy distractions.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and it is:
“A distracted existence leads us to no goal.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Next week I’ll be talking about doubt. Doubt can be a healthy mechanism for helping us to assess how suitable something is or is not, however it can also have a negative effect, especially when we are dealing with self-doubt on a regular basis or are unable to move forward because of excessive doubt and worrying about external events or relationships. So next time I’ll be talking about what doubt is, why understanding it is important for good mental health, and how to overcome doubt (including self-doubt).
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 14th March. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list receive the full transcript for each episode every week and you also find out about new stuff related to the show and my work at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content throughout the week, and if you follow me on Instagram then you’ll notice that I make a point of interacting with as many people as possible there so it’s a great way to continue the conversation!
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.