Distraction is very poorly understood in the context of OCD or other anxiety disorders. Most books or literature on anxiety disorders tout distraction as a way of getting past intrusive thoughts. You get an intrusive thought? Distract yourself by thinking of something else. To my mind however, distraction (if improperly used) in a bid to escape the anxiety that an intrusive thought brings along, is at best unhelpful. At worst, it can actually be harmful.
So you get a thought that you haven’t washed your hands adequately enough. Or, that you haven’t checked if the gas is turned off properly enough. Or, that you haven’t shut the closet door enough number of times. If at that time, you start singing a song or praying to God, or even meditating, or talking to someone, hoping to distract yourself into getting rid of that intrusive thought, what you’re doing is similar to reciting the Hanuman Chalisa (an Indian scripture, believed to ward off evil spirits, if recited). This, in fact, reinforces the belief you have been holding that the situation is dangerous. What you’re doing, is not allowing your brain to adjust to the situation and become ok with the intrusive thought. The message you’re sending to your brain is, yes it is something to be scared of. Let me think of something else that doesn’t make me think such scary thoughts. Like, shutting your eyes in the presence of danger, hoping that the danger will go away. So when distraction is used to try and kill an intrusive thought, which we find scary or anxiety inducing, we are performing a compulsion. This means if we find the thought ‘real’, we shouldn’t use distraction as a technique.
So when is distraction not a compulsion? When can it be used as a technique to deal with the intrusive thoughts?
When you know that the thought is not real, but you are unable to stop the thought. Let’s say in your mind, the intrusive thought has been dealt with as being an OCD thought, and you have a distinct realisation that it is an unhelpful thought. So you aren’t actually scared of it or anxious because of it, but you find it annoying that you are unable to cast it off. At that point, if you use the distraction technique to deal with the thought, it isn’t engaging in a compulsion. Like ignoring a pesky, overactive four year old, while trying to go on with your work. You are letting him do what he wants in the background. While it is annoying, it isn’t something that you cannot learn to adjust to and normalise.
Once you have dealt with a thought using the PIC strategy, and have ascertained for yourself that the thought isn’t going to harm you, but you are still in the grip of the flow of thoughts, you can safely use distraction by using the Thought Stop method, explained in the ‘How to stop overthinking’ blog.