Someone asked me what I do when I’m overwhelmed with life. I told them that I play Candy Crush. Sweet, sweet Candy Crush. Even better, finding a place to hide in my house where I play and leave the world for a little while. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a very simple game available on your phone or tablet where each level is a couple minutes long.
Doesn’t that seem like the WRONG thing to do when you’ve got issues to deal with? Yes and No. Playing Candy Crush when I am feeling an intense emotion, such as stress or overwhelm, is a great way to take some space and find my center. Even better if I’m in a space by myself. I can play a few rounds and check-in with myself to see if my mood has shifted. I will often feel the temptation to spend 16 hours playing this game instead of 10 minutes – like an ostrich covering her head in the sand. But if my mood has shifted enough, then I can find the will to go and problem-solve and carry on with my day.
ACCEPTS – Healthy Distraction Skills
One of the most important skills that we teach teens with mental health issues is how to use distraction in a healthy way. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy there is a distraction skill called ACCEPTS.
A is for Activities: Playing a game on your phone, going for a walk or drive, doing a chore, exercise, take a few deep breaths
C is for Contributions: Doing something for someone else to take your mind off your problems; make a card for someone, give someone a compliment or a cup of tea
C is for Comparisons: Compare yourself to either people who have been through something similar and who are an inspiration to you, or do things like read the news or gossip magazines
E is for opposite Emotions: Do something that evokes a different emotion than what you are feeling such as watch a funny or adorable funny YouTube video, watch a scary movie, or talk to someone who uplifts your mood
P is for Pushing Away: Imagine putting the current stress in a box, wrapping the box with chains and then throwing it in the ocean. Repeat
T is for Thoughts: I call this the waiting room strategy – what do you do in a waiting room when you are really bored? Count the ceiling tiles, do a crossword, read a book, count backwards, check your phone
S is for Sensations: Hold ice in your hand, run very fast, have a hot or cold shower, put white glue on your arm and let it dry and then peel it off
Choose Items that Shift Your Mood in a Positive Way
The key in choosing the best ones are to find the things that shift your mood. If you find that you feel worse after using one of the suggestions – pick something else. You can always try it again another time if you feel inclined.
Parents are often worried that distraction is a poor skill that will not solve their children’s problems. They are absolutely right, distraction will not solve anyone’s problems and teens know this very well too. Distraction skills are a strategic tool to help us get towards the space for problem-solving.
Anyone of any age is a poor problem solver when emotions are very high or very low. The goal of distraction is to shift your mood enough to get to the point of problem-solving.
If your teen is in a very angry mood, it is best in that situation not venture towards problem-solving until their mood has become less angry. It can be good to let teens go to their bedroom and take some space. The same is for parents, I don’t know about you, but I can think of times where I said something mean because it gave me pleasure to do so and didn’t help the problem. The art is to notice when these thoughts creep up and then take some space to cool down. Problem-solving comes after when things are less intense.
If your teen is depressed, then it can be helpful to invite them to do something with you. If a teen is very depressed they will be unable to choose distraction on their own. What is the least invasive way to engage them? Say, “Let’s go for a drive and get a coffee”, and drive in silence if needed. Watch a movie with them if that’s more their style. Share a funny YouTube video with them that meets their sense of humour. Even if they see you laugh at something they think is stupid, this can be therapeutic for some teens. You know your teen best – what is a good distraction for them?
If you want an even broader perspective about distraction, the ultimate goal is self-awareness. If we can be aware of our moods and our triggers, we will be less likely to react according to them and more to the situation at hand. Sometimes distraction can last a few breaths and sometimes it needs days, but as you practice, the amount of time you need will lessen. A mindful use of distraction requires creativity and practice to be effective. Create a list of possible distractions when you are in a frame of mind to do so. Take a picture of this list and keep it on your phone. Then when the need for a healthy distraction arises, you can thank yourself for making this list earlier.
What do you do when you need a break from life but you can’t disappear to a beach on Hawaii?