Can distraction become a compulsion?
I often get asked the question, is it harmful or helpful to keep yourself busy when you have OCD? The answer lies in the reasons why you are engaging in this behavior: Are you staying busy to distract yourself from something that is uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking in an effort to avoid feeling those emotions? Or are you busy but continuing to engage in activities that are meaningful to you, in spite of what you are feeling and thinking?
These are important questions to ask yourself, as they will determine the difference between distraction being a compulsion versus simply staying busy. If you’re busy but doing the things that move you towards your values and goals, then there isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. However, distracting yourself to avoid unpleasant thoughts or feelings can be harmful in the long run.
That’s because, like avoidance, distraction is another form of running away from an intrusive thought, feeling, urge or image. That means that also like avoidance, distraction can easily become a compulsion for people with OCD. Anxiety may subside when you engage in distraction, but the relief is usually temporary. As with all compulsions, the more you engage in them, the stronger your OCD fears become, and the worse OCD will become. Resisting the urge to engage in compulsions is what allows you to break OCD’s cycle and manage the condition long-term.
The tricky part is that we all engage in distraction from time to time. So, how can you tell whether you’re using distraction as a compulsion?
From a coping mechanism to a compulsion
I think it is safe to say that at one time or another, we all find reprieve in certain pastimes, particularly the things meant to take our mind off of real-world problems. Have you ever indulged in reading a good romance novel or watching a cheesy movie? I know I myself have been guilty of losing hours to coloring. Other people may spend time fantasizing about a different life or replaying their favorite movie scenes over in their heads. Daydreaming is also commonly used as a way of coping with boredom and avoiding dealing with difficult issues one may be experiencing.
These are all standard human experiences designed to help us to escape from the reality of painful moments or current events, as well as difficult memories or feelings. Checking out of life, so to speak, can be a helpful coping mechanism when administered in small doses for shortened periods of time, and when it’s not being done to avoid particular feelings forever. Distracting oneself is meant to be a temporary relief from stress, not a permanent solution for long-term stress management. Finding the balance between these can be challenging, but well worth it.
Staying busy by doing the things that one enjoys and values is not a distraction, it is living the life you want to live. It is being mindful of the moment in front of you. It is choosing to live the life that you envision for yourself, in spite of difficult feelings. This involves allowing the uncomfortable emotions to be present along with intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images and urges, and continuing to do the things that you want to be doing. It is not allowing your feelings to dictate your actions.
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However, when someone has OCD, there is a tendency to not want to confront difficult things or feelings, which can lead to a reliance on distracting oneself. Intrusive thoughts, images, and urges can make feeling hard things even more difficult. There is a greater tendency to want to escape these, especially because they are ego-dystonic, meaning that they often go against the person’s values. It makes sense that beliefs or thoughts that are foreign or go against one’s views would create confusion. The temptation to want to escape and distract as a means of coping is a common one, and yet one that we don’t want to engage in when we have OCD.
Distraction can lead to actively avoiding difficult feelings. It is purposeful and meant to divert your attention away from the anxiety caused by OCD. It is making a deliberate choice to try to not think about the thoughts, images, or urges that bring undesirable feelings to the surface. Think of it as running away from or hiding from feelings. When this happens, you are inadvertently teaching yourself that you cannot handle those particular thoughts or emotions. The more often that this process occurs, the more your brain believes that there is a real danger in allowing these feelings. The end result is that you start to notice these feelings more often, and you become hyper-vigilant towards them. The fearful emotions actually grow bigger instead of shrinking. Distraction may feel good in the short term but it never lasts when you have OCD.
Using ERP and mindfulness in place of compulsive distraction
A more helpful way of combatting the difficult emotions that come along with OCD is taught during exposure and response prevention (ERP)—the gold standard OCD treatment. In ERP, you will learn that the feelings are not dangerous and that you do not need to avoid experiencing them. You will also learn that you do not need to attach meaning to thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness can be effective in helping you along this process. Mindfulness skills are valuable to learn for the ERP work, as they help people accept the presence of thoughts and feelings (like anxiety or discomfort) that arise during exposures without engaging with them compulsively (like through distraction).
Mindfulness involves the practice of passively acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that are present and continuing in activities that bring you fulfillment. You learn the importance of moving towards your values in spite of how you feel. The more you do this, the less the feelings of discomfort and anxiety tend to be present. Your brain relearns that these feelings are not actually dangerous and that you can tolerate them. The more you recognize this, the less the feelings tend to arise. Instead of running from your thoughts and feelings, you learn how to let them be there while you go about living your life. But, this takes a great deal of practice and commitment.
Using mindfulness for OCD along with ERP is most effective when practiced with a therapist who has received specialized training in OCD treatment. They know what to anticipate when you describe your thoughts and behaviors and how to personalize your treatment. Their expertise is in teaching you how to manage your OCD so you don’t feel stuck on disturbing thoughts and feel a need to engage in mental or physical rituals, like compulsive distraction.
If you’re struggling with OCD and practicing distraction compulsively, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. It’s important to see an OCD specialist because they’ll specifically help you prevent distraction and other compulsions. A specialist will teach you how to accept the uncertainty behind the OCD fears and will give you the tools and knowledge needed to learn how to implement acceptance into your daily life.
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Stacy Quick LPC, is a therapist at NOCD, specializing in the treatment of OCD. She has been working in the mental health field for nearly 20 years. Her goal is to help members achieve skills to help them live a more fulfilling life without letting OCD be in control. Ms. Quick uses ERP and her lived experiences to help her members understand it is possible to live a life in recovery. She is a mother of 3 children, 2 of whom are also diagnosed with OCD. Ms. Quick is also a writer and content creator. Learn more about Stacy Quick on Instagram: @stacyquick.undone
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Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapist, MA
I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.