Get a Grip on Negative Thoughts With Distraction Skills

February 6, 2013 Emily Roberts MA, LPC

Distraction from your negative thoughts can keep you from destroying your self-esteem. Learn how to use distraction skills to conquer negative thoughts.

When you have negative thoughts and beliefs, have you tried distracting yourself in order to feel better rather than examining them? Research and experience suggest that disengaging from your negative thoughts gives the ego's negative self-talk less power. It allows us to chill out and gain control over these intrusive thoughts and belief systems, not letting them lower your self-esteem.

Negative Thoughts and Losing Perspective

A friend of mine often goes to this place of negative overwhelm when something unexpected happens, as do most of us. Recently, she received an email from her boss saying he’d like to schedule some time to chat this week. Moments later, her mind was flooded with negativity. “I must have messed up. What if he fires me? What if I can’t find a new job? What if I have to move in with my parents? I am such an idiot.” You get the picture. By the time she actually meets with him, she has already future-tripped herself into low-level thinking and it’s taken a huge toll on her self-esteem. Rather than letting these thoughts control you, why not try controlling them with some distraction skills? Remember, we can't control the future, no matter how much we try.

Gaining Control Over Negative Thoughts

When we are mindful (the opposite of distracted) of our thoughts, we are happier and have more control over them. This can be so hard to do when you are freaking out about past experiences and what the future holds. Often, being in the moment sounds impossible. However, deliberately distracting from your thoughts, temporarily, can be a huge mindful act that pays off rather quickly. The more often you practice, the higher your confidence becomes in similar situations.

Deliberately Distracting from Negative Thoughts

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a much different concept than avoiding. Avoiding is pushing something away and trying to forget it happened. Avoidance can be the cause for much future distress and suffocates your ability to work through problems. Distracting is temporary; it gets you to a place where you can think in a more skillful, logical manner. Getting out of your head is a great way to move forward.

For my friend, reading the email and noticing how she feels, identifying the emotion is the first step. Likely she would say she is extremely anxious, worried, and fearful of the future. Now doing something to stop the process of tripping out on these thoughts will give her more control in the long run. Perhaps, getting up from her desk and talking to a co-worker about his or her day, going to make a cup of coffee and focusing on the task, making a list of what she needs from the store, anything to push her mind to a more focused and controlled space. This settles your nervous system or, at least, keeps it from going to the pit of self-deprecation.

It’s not easy and you may have to really turn your mind over and over again, but distractions can really help. I have a client who works herself up on her way to class every day. In the subway or car, she constantly thinks of everything that can or could go wrong. Her mind goes to the things in the past that have been stressful. By the time she gets to school, she is a mess and can’t even focus on socializing with her friends. We started to give her distraction skills for her commute. She plays a game on her phone, reads the morning paper, knits, does crossword puzzles, or mindfully listens to songs. When she deliberately does one or two of these, her stress level is down and the thoughts are not as strong.

Negative Thoughts? Try These Distractions

  1. Look at a magazine and get lost in the pictures or an interesting article.
  2. Research something you are interested in, future vacation, places you’d like to visit in town, your favorite topic of interest, or even a new movie.
  3. Make a to-do list or items you need from the store.
  4. Take a shower or bath. Research shows that just splashing cold water on your face can reduce your emotional vulnerability; it can actually take you down in anxiety quickly. Notice the changes in temperature, use your senses, and focus on the smells and textures of the soap.
  5. Get active and move, running, walking fast, even jumping jacks in your living room, when your body is in motion you become mindful of how it feels physiologically, taking you away from how you are thinking emotionally.
  6. Make something, whether you are crafty and want to try a new DIY project, make a new playlist for your commute, or try out a new recipe, get involved in an activity outside of your thoughts.
  7. Surf the web. Making sure you are not focused on self-deprecating sites that can cause more emotions to rise (Facebook or Tumblr) looking up things that actually make you more self-conscious or anxious. Read a news article, look up inspirational quotes, or find a new blog that you dig.
  8. Reorganize; get focused on a task that makes your life a little more manageable, pick an area of your room or desk that needs a clean-up.
  9. Games play a game on your phone; grab a Sudoku, video game or a deck of cards and get focused on the present moment.
  10. Talk to someone else, be careful not to discharge your anxiety on them, rather ask about how they are doing and get involved in helping them out with a problem or challenge. It shifts your mind.

My friend’s meeting with her boss went better than expected. Although she walked in ready for a pink slip, she actually got major praise and was asked to be a part of a huge project. By distracting from her negative mind and focusing on her distractions, she was able to pull it together and feel at ease. What can you do to distract your way to a positive, more productive mindset? Share your thoughts below.

Take Good Care.

Emily is the author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are.You can visit Emily’s Guidance Girl website. You can also find her on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

APA Reference
Roberts, E. (2013, February 6). Get a Grip on Negative Thoughts With Distraction Skills, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Emily Roberts MA, LPC

Emily is a psychotherapist, she is intensively trained in DBT, she the author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are. You can visit Emily’s Guidance Girl website. You can also find her on FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter.

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March, 24 2017 at 9:44 am

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Judy H.
January, 27 2015 at 7:44 pm

Be honest about is not impossible, but MUCH easier said than done!

July, 14 2014 at 5:32 am

But constantly feeling like my mind is out of control and fighting to redirect it all the time is exhausting and causes anxiety and mania for me. I get to where it scares me so bad, feeling so out of control of my own thoughts, that it makes me feel worse. Add to this the idea that I have to constantly monitor my thoughts and change them, when I'm crazy and incapable of thinking clearly already, it makes me feel 10000% out of control and horrible.
When I'm in a place where my mind is like this, I'm not capable of rational thought or thought control.

May, 9 2014 at 9:15 am


March, 9 2013 at 4:45 am

I have Bipolar and Anxiety so this 4-5 days a week, I think my husband will die, friends, my service dog and a meriod of other thoughts plague me very frequently. I turn on the radio and ASL sign to it or turn on the TV as diversional activity keeping myself busy lwith other things. It helps but sometimes I need to call my husband, or walk with my Service Dog. It works temporarily until the next time.

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