Focus on Distraction


Sometimes we need to be distracted from the things that cause stress in our lives—it could be a person, heavy workload, or maybe an upcoming surgery. While it’s easy to let day-to-day stressors consume us, there are several coping methods worth considering. One in particular is distraction—a simple technique where you engage in other activities to divert your attention away from emotional and physical pain. This approach can be used at home to manage mild pain or with medicine to help cope with more severe discomfort—one being pain related procedures.  

So, let’s chat and chew about different distraction techniques and their impact on the health care industry.

The Method Behind the Madness

When faced with an uncomfortable situation, a nagging feeling, or a sudden setback, more than likely your stress levels with jump. Granted most days do not include overwhelmingly stressful moments, the ones that do are harder to forget. When you have a bad day or you are simply at capacity, it’s easy to feel like your life will never return to normal—and while trying to get your mind off the stressor isn’t always easy, it is necessary. Rather than attack a lingering problem when your emotions are high, try distracting yourself instead—clearing your head is always a foolproof plan.

Below are different activities, for a range of emotions, to help you refocus your attention when times are tough. 

  • Listen to music—it might get you dancing!
  • Tidy up: clean, do laundry, wash dishes
  • Exercise
  • Squeeze ice
  • Write your feelings down, or make a list of things that make you happy
  • Call and friend or family member just to catch up
  • Make your favorite meal or dessert
  • Watch TV or read
  • Visit a friend; get out of the house
  • Take a hot bath or shower
  • Count backwards from a large number
  • Do something creative—draw, paint, or build a model

These activities might seem too easy to have any real effect, but you might surprise yourself by how relaxed your mind and body feel afterwards. If one method doesn’t work, try another—it’s natural that different solutions work better for different circumstances.

Modern Practice: Distraction Through Texting

Recently, a team of researchers at RTI International, Cornell University and LaSalle Hospital (Montreal, QC), published a study in Pain Medicine that showed the influence mobile phones have in the medical setting. A total of 98 participants undergoing minor surgery were assigned one of four tasks: playing the mobile phone game Angry Birds, texting with a loved one, texting with a stranger (research assistant), or nothing at all. The amounts of pain medication were then recorded for each patient. 

Surprisingly, researchers found that while texting loved ones and playing the game both decreased a person’s need for medication, they didn’t have the greatest effect—texting a stranger produced the best results.

“These findings suggest that the simple act of communicating with a companion or stranger reduces the need for supplemental anesthesia in a way that surpasses usual preoperative care during surgery. This is significant as the physical presence of a social support companion is often not feasible during many minor surgery procedures.

– Jamie Guillory Ph.D., digital media health research scientist RTI who conducted the study while at Cornell

Outcomes of the study suggested that participants who spoke with friends or family were more likely to talk about the upcoming procedure or how they were feeling—all of which added to their anxiety. On the flip side, when talking to a stranger, people were less likely to disclose personal feelings, which led to a friendlier conversation. Ultimately, this group needed one-sixth the pain medication as those asked to perform no pre-surgery task.

While I’ve never undergone a major surgery, I have had my fair share of doctor visits—I’ve always enjoyed an active lifestyle, but broken bones and illness have followed me throughout. Whether it was a broken pinky finger or a simple head cold, the road to recovery always made me anxious. Finding alternative ways to keep myself preoccupied was necessary at times. 

So, regardless of whatever pain or stress you’re experiencing—whether it’s medically related or not—rather than give in, find a way to cope. We all have a secret or two for pulling ourselves out of a rut, but if they aren’t doing the trick, shift techniques. Unlike most situations, avoiding the issue can sometimes benefit you in the end!


Guillory, J. E., Hancock, J. T., Woodruff, C. and Keilman, J. (2015), Text Messaging Reduces Analgesic Requirements During Surgery. Pain Medicine, 16: 667–672. doi: 10.1111/pme.12610

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