Both mindfulness and distraction are methods of coping through the use of attention. However, they both help in different ways.
When we distract ourselves, we transport our minds to another setting, away from the thoughts and experiences that cause us distress. Our minds are quite extraordinary and can create a different experience for us. Guided imagery (a form of relaxation) relies on this by moving us to a different place purely through imagination. You don’t have to fly to the Maldives to experience its beautiful sandy beaches and warm sea, just close your eyes and picture the scene. When this form of relaxation is done well, it can elicit real physical sensations. Imagining walking in the sun can give you a sensation of warmth. In this relaxation we distract ourselves by doing and thinking about something different other than what is creating our distress. You don’t just need to use your imagination though. You can distract yourself by doing something different. For example, if you are occupied by playing football, gardening or shopping with your friends, your attention is on these activities and not on the presentation you have to give at work on Monday.
So how and why does this work? Well our minds are closely linked to our physical experiences. When we are faced with a threat, our bodies go into overdrive and elicit a range of physical responses. These are intended to give us the energy to get away from the threat or to face it (otherwise known as the flight and fight response). This is great if we are under an actual threat of being attacked, but less so when anticipating the difficult work presentation. Even though we may want to run away from what we think are threatening stares of our audience, it is highly unlikely that we will need to, to keep ourselves safe. Unfortunately, our mind doesn’t know this and the response it elicits often leaves us with uncomfortable physical experiences (stomach pain, sweaty hands, etc.), which only add to our distress.
But as our mind can elicit this survival response it can also create an opposite reaction, one that is calming. We just need to let our mind travel to a different, less threatening place. This can be an actual place (like the garden, shopping center or the football field) or imagined. If we do this, our bodies will inevitably relax and our distress will lessen.
Unlike distraction which shifts our attention away from our current experience to something different and less distressing, mindfulness aims to bring our focus back to the present moment. Why would we want to do this you ask? Well the thought behind mindfulness is that our distress is often caused by thoughts about the past or the future. If you pay close attention to what is going through your mind you will probably notice that you are thinking about what you have already done, or what you will do, what could happen, what has happened, and what it will all lead to. These thoughts can often lead to a very real sense of threat as described above.
Just imagine the presentation scenario. What makes us actually anxious in this case are thoughts like “if I mess up my colleagues will laugh… I will make a fool of myself… this happened to me before… I will lose my job… I will not find another one….” and so it continues. At that moment, we are not thinking about what we are doing, but what we have done in the past and what may happen in the future. And these thoughts can be very frightening. Mindfulness helps us bring our attention back to the present moment and learn that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. Just because I think I will make a fool of myself doesn’t mean I will.
When we practice mindfulness we first focus on our breath. This is very grounding and can help shift our attention to the present moment. We may have different thoughts pop into our heads and that is alright. Trying to ignore them will only make them stronger. So instead we notice them, acknowledge their presence and then we let them go. People have used various metaphors to help them do this. For example, you can picture placing the thought on a leaf that is flowing down a stream and letting it float away, or see the thought get on a bus and drive away. Whatever image works for you, the aim is to always come back to your breath and connect with the present moment, which is often less threatening than our thoughts make us believe.
Watch out for my next post on how to choose which strategy to use.