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Dealing with pain? Try distraction.

Distraction is one of the best ways to deal with pain.

Distraction, mind you—not denial.

I once experienced this with a friend who had just lost her father.

It was hard, as you can imagine. And some days were much harder than others. We were in different countries, so going over was not really an option, but I tried to be there all I could—“there” being WhatsApp, often to chat, sometimes for a call.

One night, though, was much harder than usual. She had texted on WhatsApp saying she was feeling especially overwhelmed and unable to process. I asked if she wanted to talk, but she was like, “Not tonight.” It just felt too much, and she didn’t feel like she had the energy to try to cut through the emotional jungle in her head to find any clearing.

So I was like, “Tell you what, let’s put this on the shelf and watch something online together. What do you say?”

She was like “Yes!” 

We took a few minutes to decide what to watch, and finally settled on a short Netflix show. And then, just to be sure we were in sync, I explained that we’d do a countdown.

She typed “3”.

I typed “2”.

She typed “1”.

I typed “Go”, and, over 5,000 km apart, we both hit play.

The ready-countdown-go call and response became an ongoing ritual: one or two nights a week we’d watch one or two episodes. I explained on that first night that the idea wasn’t to ignore the pain like it wasn’t there, but simply to put it on the shelf to pick up later.

We were going to actively use suppression as a defence mechanism to temporarily distract her from the pain.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of repression, the psychological defence mechanism of refusing to deal with emotional pain by pushing it under our mental carpet, until we become quite unconscious there’s even anything to deal with. People sometimes conflate the two but they’re very different. Denial is more about refusing to even admit there’s pain—repression is more about refusing to engage with it. 

Both are examples of defence mechanisms (Wikipedia): mental processes by which we protect ourselves from the pain of unpleasant memories and thoughts. Denial and repression are considered unhealthy defence mechanisms—that is they are helpful in the moment, but prove problematic in the long term, for both the person and their relationships.

The night my friend and I started with the show, her emotions felt overwhelming. That’s the kind of situation where one gets tempted to repress, to refuse to acknowledge the feelings and act like they aren’t valid. And in that kind of moment, simply trying to process them might not be practical, either. 

That’s where a defence mechanism like suppression comes in. Unlike denial and repression, however, suppression is considered a mature defence mechanism (humour is another, by the way). Mature defence mechanisms are different in that the goal isn’t to avoid unpleasant memories or thoughts, but to make them more manageable—which means they’re deliberate, unlike unhealthy defence mechanisms which are typically unconscious.

It was in psychiatry training I learned about defence mechanisms, but I became aware of the value of distraction much earlier, in medical school. One of my roommates had fallen ill and admitted in hospital, and the rest of us had gone to see him. Our hour together with him was fun and full of jokes about him having fallen ill so he could escape having to do tests while getting attention from all the girls. I still remember him laughing fit to split his ribs several times.

And I also remember thinking, if I was ever in hospital like that, I hoped I’d have people like that around me—when you’re already in pain, sometimes the last thing you need is more reminders of that. It helps at such times to recall there’s more to who you are than whatever you’re dealing with.

That’s where mature defence mechanisms come in as a kind of distraction. But it’s more than just taking stuff of our minds. When we deliberately allow ourselves to be distracted, we’re actually giving our minds space to process things subconsciously.

The effect of that is, by the time we come back to whatever was on our minds, we might find it’s a bit more manageable. So whether that’s with suppression like my friend who felt the emotional pain of losing her dad, or humour like my other friend experiencing physical pain in hospital, there’s value to putting stuff on the shelf for later.

Operative phrase being “for later”. Which brings me to the commonest mistake people make with distraction: not actually coming back to the issues. That’s how what was meant to be distraction becomes its own kind of denial. We tell ourselves we’re going to get back to it but then conveniently let “later” become “never”.

That’s why I tell people when I encourage them to try some distraction to let us also agree on when we’re coming back to the issue. Especially because it’s even better when there’s someone who’ll be there to remind you to come back to it, even if the temptation to keep putting it off feels too great.

Sometimes the best way to deal with pain is to not deal with it right away. What matters is you do eventually come back to it. It’s okay to put stuff on the shelf.

Just don’t sweep them under the rug.


My thanks to Adam Tank, Najla Alriefy and Joseph Kuo and Frankie Iturbe for their feedback on early drafts, and to Darren Richardson for the image (via Unsplash).


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