I work with some very impressive young women – bright and courageous warriors – who are doing this very difficult work to improve their lives. Therapy for eating disorders is a multifaceted approach that often includes individual therapy and group therapy, as well as work with a registered dietitian and a medical doctor. If you are doing this work now, you know how time consuming and emotionally draining it can be.
There are some common things I hear from clients - and the most common is the notion that using distraction when overwhelmed by intense feeling is the same as avoiding these feelings altogether. Often clients are instructed to “lean into" feelings, or to learn to sit with them. The suggestion worries me because there are times when leaning into feeling can reinforce the belief that you do not have control over your body. If that happens, healing cannot occur.
Some discomfort when experiencing difficult emotions is important - even necessary - for growth. Becoming overwhelmed is unwise, even dangerous. If your feelings are too overwhelming it is okay to back out of them and then go back in gradually. In fact, it’s smart.
But how do I distinguish between strong uncomfortable feelings and overwhelming feelings? Here’s what I tell my clients.
Leaning into your feelings is appropriate for the discomfort associated with stress and some levels of anxiety. But it’s not a great choice when an emotion like anxiety floods your system to the point where you are fuzzy or confused or dissociated. At that moment you do not have the ability to sit with feeling in a way that is helpful to you in the long term. At that moment you need tools to help you temporarily reduce the intensity of your experience and harness the ability to tolerate feeling in a growth-oriented way.
Learning to live with really intense feeling is a process in which we titrate – or expose ourselves gradually – to overwhelming emotion so that we do not become destabilized. Distraction is an important distress tolerance skill in this process.
That is, it is appropriate to use distraction in a skillful and mindful way when you are experiencing an overwhelmingly intense emotional experience so that you can reduce the force of the emotion temporarily.
What are some examples of skillful distraction? The answer is different for everyone – but could include skills like meditation, reading, taking a walk, watching TV, making music, visualization, art, dance, and reaching out to a trusted friend. The key is to use it intentionally to take a break and focus on something else for a while.
I'd be glad to speak with you if you have additional questions! Please contact me for a no-cost consultation.