We all strive for close, loving, lasting relationships – but for many people, fear gets in the way. Depending on what you’ve experienced in the past, you may fear that the person you love will leave, or cheat, or treat you badly. And these fears can cause you to react in ways that push your partner away, rather than drawing him closer.
Do you feel like you have to be perfect or you will be rejected? Do you become clingy or demanding when you feel someone pulling away? Do you panic when you don’t receive an immediate response to a text, email, or voicemail? Do you try to avoid your fears by numbing out with food or a few cocktails?
When deeply rooted fears surface, you may be so overwhelmed with anxiety, panic, and sadness that you react quickly in an effort to avoid the pain, or prevent the loss of connection. This is a natural and hardwired reaction. Unfortunately, these attempts to avoid painful feelings and experiences likely make your situation worse in the long term, despite feeling somewhat successful in the short term.
The truth is that, while the pain will never go away, you can learn to avoid the suffering that comes with it. The key is becoming aware of how you’re reacting when you experience painful emotions and negative thoughts, and finding new ways to manage the pain using healthy behaviors that will distract you from engaging in unhelpful reactions to the triggering event.
So what qualifies as a distracting activity? Any healthy pursuit that will divert you from acting on the difficult emotions that you are experiencing.
Doing something else—instead of resorting to the destructive strategies you’ve turned to in the past—provides a window of time during which the intensity of the emotion is allowed to decrease. It will be easier to make helpful choices when your negative feelings are more manageable and you have some distance from them.
Distracting activities are not about trying to avoid or escape your emotions; they are about giving you some space so you can see more clearly. Here are some suggestions for activities that you can use to distract yourself from engaging in unhealthy and unhelpful coping behaviors when you are flooded with negative emotions.
Exercising: Any form of exercise is going to be helpful. Exercise releases endorphins—a natural pain reliever and antidepressant that elevates mood and contributes to your overall well-being— which decreases levels of cortisol (the hormone related to stress) and increases and maintains feelings of self-esteem. Additionally, exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain and increases chemicals (dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and serotonin) that help with cognition. In other words, you’re not only distracting yourself from unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors, you’re engaging in a behavior that has positive psychological and physical benefits. Exercise options are as diverse as jumping rope, Pilates, rollerblading, weight lifting, hiking, running and biking.
Hobbies and Special Interests: If there is something you have always wanted to do, or do more of, identify that activity now. This could be drawing, knitting, photography, walking your dog, watching movies – the list is endless.
Volunteering: When your fears get triggered and you are flooded with negative emotions it becomes all about you and your experiences. In fact, the feeling of “it’s all about me” is part of the problem, which is why focusing on someone else is an especially effective distraction. There are few activities that are as rewarding and make you step outside of yourself as much as doing something for someone else. This might involve going to a soup kitchen and serving meals to homeless people, or it could be as simple as offering to walk your elderly neighbor’s dog.
To-Do Tasks: Another great way to distract yourself is to tackle some of the projects on your to-do list. Your list may include everyday housekeeping chores, organizational tasks, or personal projects.
Relaxation and Self-Care: You can also distract yourself by engaging in relaxing activities, such as getting a mani/pedi, listening to music, or taking a bath.
Now it’s time to create your personal distraction plan. Think about what kinds of events or interactions trigger your fears and anxieties. Use a 3×5 card, sticky note, or your smartphone and list some distracting activities for the situations you identified. Keep in mind that your favorite activity may not always be appropriate when you need it (e.g., although you may love running, you probably go for a run if you’re in the middle of your workday when you need a distracting activity), so include activities that are suitable for different situations and circumstances. Also list some distractions you can rely on no matter where you are or what the situation. Keep the card or sticky note in your wallet or on your smartphone.
Now you are armed with a distraction plan that will stop you from reverting to the unhelpful behaviors you have relied on in the past – and help you on your road to happier, healthier, lasting relationships!
Michelle Skeen, PsyD is a therapist and the author of LOVE ME, DON’T LEAVE ME: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment & Building Lasting, Loving Relationships (New Harbinger, 2014).
Adapted with permission of the publisher, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., from LOVE ME, DON’T LEAVE ME: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment & Building Lasting, Loving Relationships by Michelle Skeen, PsyD. Copyright (c) 2014 by Michelle Skeen. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.