Avoidance vs Distraction

Avoidance vs. Distraction

Avoidance versus Distraction: Understanding Effective Ways of Coping with Distress

Distress can be a normal reaction to a situation or a response to an unpleasant feeling.  It is not uncommon to feel distressed or overwhelmed at times and to want to alleviate such discomfort.  Often the desire to ameliorate the discomfort and distress may come with a sense of urgency. 

Both avoidance and distraction can be effective in the short-term, but it is important to understand the difference between the two so that you can use the appropriate coping mechanism for your needs.  And while some people may instinctively rely on avoidance strategies, distraction can be a more effective way of coping.

The Difference between Avoidance and Distraction


Avoidance involves consciously abandoning thoughts, feelings, or situations that are associated with distress. This might manifest as refusing to think about a problem or denying that a problem exists, numbing oneself (for example: through substance use), or avoiding people or places that are reminders of stressful experiences.  Avoidance is a common response to stress and distress and can be used as a short-term coping strategy.

Avoidance is effective in the short term because it temporarily reduces the distressing thoughts or feelings by actively shifting attention to a different feeling and thought altogether.  In the long term, however, avoidance can lead to more problems and difficulties since the foundational components of the problem were never resolved.


Distraction involves consciously focusing on something else to divert attention from distressing thoughts and feelings.  Distraction can be used as a way of coping with loss, trauma, fear, and panic. When we engage in distraction, this could involve watching TV, listening to music, going for a walk, or engaging in some other activity that provides temporary relief. 

Distraction can be effective in the short-term, but it can also be a form of avoidance if a problem is consistently pushed to the side or left unresolved once the emotional intensity has been reduced.  In the long-term, it is important that distraction be used as a preliminary coping skill to manage one’s distress and then be followed up with additional problem solving and communication skills to achieve an effective resolution.  

Effective Coping Strategies

Here are some effective distraction coping strategies to consider in managing your distress:

– Engage in Self-Care

– Practice Mindfulness- Be Present and Aware in the Moment, On Purpose

– Make an Action Plan 

– Ask for Help

– Consider Your Options in Solving the Problem

– Connect with Others

– Listen to Music 

– Enjoy the Moment and Accept the Ups and Downs

– Make a List and Rate Each Item on the List as ‘High’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Low’ Priority for the Day

– Schedule a Break and Take It

– Practice Self-Compassion- Know You are Doing the Best You Can

– Take Deep Breaths

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