Distraction has gotten a bad reputation among people who want to live more fully in the present moment. By definition, a distraction is anything that takes us away from the moment; it’s seemingly the antithesis of mindfulness. 

But distractions are useful and necessary for those times when what’s happening in the moment is too overwhelming. Psychologist John Briere (www.johnbriere.com) tells us that distraction and other avoidance strategies are part of our natural, inborn system for processing traumatic memories. We have to be able to step away from painful memories and overwhelming emotional experiences in order to keep them workable, and distraction works very well in this regard.

The problem with distraction isn’t distraction per se. Rather, it’s the way we go about it. Our need for distraction can be so strong that often we do it automatically and unconsciously. Think about the last time you found yourself distracted. Chances are, you were spaced out and unaware of what you were doing; perhaps you suddenly found yourself in the mall handing your credit card to a cashier, or in front of the TV watching something you’ve seen a dozen times before, or diving into a big bowl of ice cream, or doing something else that you knew you’d later regret.

So what to do? Is there a way to mindfully engage in distraction? I believe there is, that we can train ourselves to engage in distraction deliberately and with intention. The next time you catch yourself engaging in distraction, just notice what you’re doing. See it as a sign that you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and name this to yourself. Allow yourself to go ahead and eat the ice cream or watch the rerun, but be honest with yourself about what you’re doing, staying as aware as possible while you do it. As much as you can, be kind and understanding, rather than judging yourself. Over time, you can begin to be more conscious of your need for distraction and you can choose to engage in it consciously, rather than on auto-pilot.

Obviously, there are things some of us use to distract ourselves that can be harmful, such as abuse of alcohol and drugs. Becoming conscious of the times we need to be distracted and the things we choose to distract ourselves with puts us in a position where we can make better, healthier choices about the ways we take a break from painful experience.

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