How to Use Cognitive Distraction to Reduce Mental Anxiety

Developing your cognitive distraction skills isn’t about avoiding what’s causing you mental anxiety—it’s a way of allowing your emotions to naturally defuse and your thoughts to quieten down, giving you the chance to make a more mindful decision about what you do next.

Cognitive distraction is central to dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) as a method for developing your distress tolerance skills.

It’s important to note the distinction between healthy distraction and unhealthy avoidance.

Cognitive distraction is best suited for times of high-intensity mental anxiety and severe distress.

Using it in times of mild-moderate mental anxiety may mean you're verging towards unhealthy avoidance, preventing you from taking more proactive action to effectively reduce mental anxiety in the long-run.

Next time you find yourself very distressed and spiraling down a negative thought loop, try using cognitive distraction to nip it in the bud.

7 Ideas for Cognitive Distraction

  1. Watching something
  2. Counting backwards from 200 in 5s
  3. Mindful colouring
  4. Doing a puzzle or playing a game
  5. Using the free anti-stress relaxation toys app (iTunes link, Google Play link)
  6. Playing a musical instrument
  7. Practising self-soothing
 
 
See our list of 100+ Ideas for Nourishing Activities to Test for more cognitive distraction ideas.
 

Creating a Distraction Plan for Severe Distress

Do you tend to cope with challenging emotions in a self-destructive way?

If so, listen to Kati Morton's suggestions for creating a distraction plan with tips from the book Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.

 
mental wellbeing toolkit planner

Add Cognitive Distraction to Your Toolkit for Mental Anxiety

Increase your mental resilience with The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit Planner

  • Discover plenty of guidance, techniques and practical exercises to help you take control of your mind
  • Compile your mental wellbeing toolkits and know exactly how to help yourself feel better in times of distress
  • Learn how developing mental wellbeing skills helps you rewire your brain and body
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