Distraction & OCD

The problem with distraction isn’t that we are not paying attention to our obsessions. That as you are only to aware is actually often a huge relief, I mean of course if we are no longer caught up in the bs narrative that our obsessions create then we are going to start feeling better. 

Good & bad distraction

But unfortunately distraction is not just about not paying attention to the obsessions, it has an ugly under belly to it and that is that we try to distract ourselves from our emotions. The problem with this is that the more we try to ignore our challenging emotions, the more challenging they become. 

Until overtime, an emotion that could have been potentially manageable if we gave it the time of day that it needed, begins to snowball into something that’s viewed as unbearable (of course it is bearable when payed attention to in the right way, but again the narrative tries to trick us into thinking it’s not).

If we are not careful, distraction can lead to extreme busyness.

Whack a mole

If we are not careful this can quickly turn into a kind of game of whack a mole. Each time we think that we have distracted ourselves from the OCD, a new obsessions pops up from nowhere and we have to busy ourselves with something in order to not think about it. 

Bring to mind if you will an exuberant and proud man trying to show off his prowess at whack a mole to his beautiful date. He may start off well dealing with each of those pesky little moles as they bring their heads up, but at some point they start coming to fast, one after another, or even two or three at the same time. 

The unsuspecting date looks on in alarm as her potential new partner in a frenzy of mole whacking determination, tries to rain down a final reckoning on the cheeky fur balls. It seems though that his efforts are in vain, no matter how hard he tries, there is always another mole waiting to take the place of the previous and at some point he becomes tired and gives up. 

Try not to get sucked into a game of whack a mole with your thoughts.


I think the analogy is a fairly good description of how i used to try and deal with OCD. Distraction was my main weapon and I used it to the point of exhaustion. Is this something you recognise in yourself? Do you keep incessantly busy? Is there always something that you have to do in order to keep your mind quiet? 

Now as the title of today’s blog suggests, not all distraction is bad, in fact sometimes it can be a helpful tool, but we need to make sure that we aren’t coming at it from a place of avoidance and that we are actually also being mindful and allowing ourselves to feel our emotions. 

Mindfully Redirecting

There is a big difference between mindfully redirecting your attention onto a valued activity than distracting yourself with with unhealthy activities. To be honest, if done in the wrong way, even distracting yourself with valued activities can become compulsive and lead to the OCD getting worse overtime. 

So how can we use distraction is a positive way, so as not to aggravate the OCD in the longterm, but rather to give us a helpful tool in letting go of unwanted obsessions. 

The approach is to gently refocus on to more helpful things.

The answer lies in the quality of consciousness that we bring to the task. Are we simply going to try and escape from our emotions when they show up?  Or are we going to try something else? 

Tuning into emotions

What works for me and also for a lot of my clients is to practise actually tuning into what you’re feeling before redirecting your attention onto other things. Being a Wim Hof instructor, for me one of the best tools I have found for this is to actually use breathwork to create space for the sensations in the body. 

If you’d like to experiment with this then you can. The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by an obsession, rather than distracting yourself right away, see if you can tune into that feeling a little, where are you most aware of the feeling in the body. Some typical places are the stomach and chest, the shoulders and neck, the head or even the jaw. 

If you can’t identify a particular place, see if you can just become more aware of that general feeling of anxiety, can you notice the level of intensity, perhaps even score it out of 10. The next step then is to take two or three deep and slow breaths down into the abdomen and then checking back in with the anxiety. You can repeat this as many times as you want. 

Be curious

As you are doing so, try to be curious about your body and what you’re feeling, by breathing in like this we are trying to create more space for the uncomfortable sensations, giving them some air time and the message that they are allowed. 

Our emotional states are a curious thing, can you practice bringing more curiosity to them?

Having done this, you have now practiced allowing yourself to feel your emotions, in my experience, after doing this i’m in a much better place to redirect my attention mindfully rather than forcefully. There is a subtle, but huge difference here. By giving your emotions the time of day and then practicing mindfully redirecting your focus onto a present orientated activity you are reducing resistance to both your emotions and your thoughts. 

You are allowed to feel

You are being self-compassionate by giving yourself the message that i’m allowed to feel, and i’m allowed to just be for a while. I can sit and just breathe, allowing myself to check in without having to fill every spare minute endless busyness. But when it does come to getting busy, I can do so with the knowledge that i’m giving myself what I need and i’m helping myself to move towards healing, rather than perpetuating the cycle of OCD. 

This will help give you an added peace of mind and a sense that you are moving in the right direction. Like with all things OCD, it takes practice. OCD is a habit of mind and undoing these patterns of thinking and doing take time and patience, but if you keep practising you will surely get there in the end.

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