How Self-Distraction Can Impact You

How Self-Distraction Can Impact You

Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

  Written by: Sabrina Sourjah
Date Updated: 6/9/2021
Reviewed by: Patrick D. Randolph, Ph.D.

Have you ever fought the urge to watch one more YouTube video before going to bed? Or have you told yourself that you’ll scroll through Facebook one more time before starting on your work for the day?

We have all been there. We know how best to keep ourselves distracted from things we don’t want to deal with.

Some people consciously use learned self-distraction methods when they are stressed or triggered by a distressing event. But distracting yourself in the long term can cause you more damage than the temporary relief that you get.

What Is Self-Distraction?

As the name implies, self-distraction keeps you distracted from challenging situations or emotional spirals that you believe are hard to face. Research suggests that it can be adaptive or maladaptive, “depending on whether it’s combined with an attitude of acceptance or avoidance.”

Is Distraction a Coping Mechanism?

Yes, distraction can be an effective coping mechanism in the short term. We naturally come up with our own distraction mechanisms in response to events that evoke intense emotions. But the best long-term coping mechanism is to work on underlying causes.

Self-Distraction Techniques

The action you take to distract yourself has to be fairly pleasurable and calming, and it also has to give rise to neutral or positive feelings.

  • Reading a book, watching TV, or watching online videos
  • Coloring, painting, or doodling
  • Listening to music or making music
  • Counting objects in your environment
  • Focusing on your breathing or meditating
  • Counting backward from 100
  • Doing some chores or cleaning your home
  • Exercising, doing yoga, or running
  • Shopping, including window shopping
  • Engaging in creative pursuits
  • Working on a crossword puzzle or sudoku
  • Working long hours or taking challenging projects at work
  • Browsing through your social media and engaging with your community

How Self-Distraction Can Help You

1. Overall Health

When you are self-distracting, you’re soothing yourself in the best way you know. You’re trying to control your negative emotions. This slows down the activity of your amygdala’s fight-or-flight reaction temporarily when you’re scared or triggered by something.

However, in the long term, your amygdala will constantly be active due to the buildup of stress arising from unresolved emotions. This can affect all your body functions and increase the risk of digestive issues, headaches, sleep problems, heart disease, weight gain, and memory impairment.

2. Surgery Outcomes

Self-distracting during the surgery recovery stage through a chosen hobby or activity can help you focus less on the pain you’re feeling from surgical wounds and incisions. But in the long term, you can develop chronic stress due to self-distraction, and chronic stress can decrease your immunity and slow down surgery recovery.

3. Mental Health

Self-distraction can help with mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and acute pain in the short term. This is because when you’re distracting yourself, you are giving yourself something else to focus on — something that’s generally going to make you feel better. But negative emotions can fester when you continuously distract yourself, and suppressed feelings are bound to come up eventually, causing serious mental illnesses.

4. Longevity

Researchers have confirmed that people with mental disorders have lower lifespans when compared with the general population. On average, men and women with mental disorders die 10 and 7 years sooner, respectively. Since self-distraction increases the risk for mental illness in the long term, it is plausible that those distracting themselves will also experience a decrease in their life expectancy.

5. Life Satisfaction

The negative long-term impact of self-distraction on physical health, mental health, surgery outcomes, and longevity can result in lower satisfaction with your life. For instance, studies have found that “people with poor self-rated mental health have low life satisfaction.”


Overusing self-distraction, especially from a young age, can result in a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD patients employ learned distractions that are called compulsions. These compulsions keep them safe and give them a sense of control.

Although self-distraction has a few temporary benefits, if you are continually distracting yourself from events and emotions that need to be addressed because you don’t know what else to do, please reach out to your physician or therapist for help.