Can You Distract Yourself from Fear?
Is it possible to distract yourself from fear? Fear is a basic human reaction, an instinct even, to something we perceive as a threat to our safety or general wellbeing. It sounds an alarm in the brain and kicks the fight-or-flight response into gear. When we are afraid, we want to run from what it is that's making us feel scared, or we want to confront it and do battle. Our instinct typically isn't to ignore fear by distracting ourselves with something else. Can you distract yourself from fear? Do you want to?
Why Distract Yourself from Fear?
In dangerous situations fear is something we don't want to ignore. We want to listen to it and take action for our own safety. Many times, however, we feel fear in situations that aren't truly life-threatening. In such situations, fear revs us up physically and emotionally and causes effects like:
- Increased anxiety, lasting even after the fear itself has passed (What Is Anxiety? Anxiety Definition)
- Elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Heightened startle response
- Difficulties with emotional regulation
- Feeling keyed-up, on edge, and/or irritable
- Thoughts that focus on the negative and on the fear
When fear is unnecessary, these effects take a toll on our physical and emotional health. When we feel fear in the absence of a true threat, that sense of fear doesn't have a purpose. And when that happens, distracting yourself from fear is both necessary and possible.
You Can Distract Yourself from Fear
Fear keeps our focus on thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations related to what's making us afraid. With our attention placed on the fear object, we think of little else. We remain in a heightened state of anxiety, which in turns fuels a greater sense of fear.
The way out of this miserable cycle of fear, anxiety, the effects of anxiety, and fear, and more fear is to stop paying attention to the fear itself. That, though, is much easier said than done. When we simply try to stop doing something, like stop being afraid, it doesn't work. The key is to replace the fear. In other words, distract yourself.
How To Distract Yourself from Your Fears
- Determine if your situation is actually dangerous, and if it isn't, keep reminding yourself of that fact as you distract yourself.
- Choose something that you have on hand to use as a distraction. Use your phone. Read a book or magazine. Look at something in the distance. The most powerful distractions are things that you can touch, smell, listen to, look at, taste, and/or manipulate (in other words, objects that engage your senses).
- Focus your full attention on your distraction. Talk about it (even if just to yourself). Think about it. Describe it. Engage with it deeply enough to keep your mind on it rather than on your fear. When your brain once again tunes in to feeling fear, return your focus and attention to your distraction.
The other day, my son had a routine check-up with his doctor. The nurse casually announced that he needed two shots, and his fear response kicked in. When he followed the above steps by reading a sports news article out loud during the process, he was able to endure his shots without fear and move on when the experience was over.
When you distract yourself from your fear, you're telling your brain and your body that there's no real threat. When your body and brain listen, they'll calm down and so will you.
NCC, T. (2016, August 4). Can You Distract Yourself from Fear?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/08/can-you-distract-yourself-from-fear
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
So very true! Anxiety does exactly what you describe, and action/activity is an important way to thwart it. Engaging our mind and body in something we enjoy (or used to enjoy before anxiety took over) definitely gives us a new focus and sense of pleasure. Action actually impacts the brain, so it's not just engaging the mind but changing the brain as well. Thank you for this insight.