By Paula McCall, PhD

It is late and I’m stressed out and tired. I’ve had a hard day and I am worried about so much about my life and the people I care about. I am not sure how to calm down for the night, so I turn on Netflix, or I go on YouTube or TikTok. I am just looking for something else to occupy my mind, is that so bad?

The answer is no. Distraction is a very healthy coping strategy especially when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It gives us the chance to connect with other parts of the world, it reminds us that there is more than what we are dealing with. However, we must make sure that distraction is not our only coping strategy. Because the problem with distraction is that it, well, distracts. And if I am distracted I am not dealing with the problems or the stress directly, which means that they are still there and waiting…

Distraction is a great short-term coping strategy. It gives us a moment to pause, but it is meant only as a pause. We then need to go back to the problem or the stressor with a fresh mind so that we can now directly confront and deal with it. If we don’t do that, the problem stays there and it seems to get larger and more daunting with every day. So the key to effective coping is to find a balance, and here is how we do it:

  • If the problem doesn’t need an immediate solution, it’s okay to take an intentional distraction break. Choose to do something completely different for a specific period of time. Set an alarm to tell when that time is over.
  • Return to the problem with a clear mind. Identify the specific problem and possible solutions. The problem may be something specific or it may be more general. Sometimes our problem is just that we feel stressed! If that is the case, then think about what is creating that stress and come up with a plan to address it, one step at a time.
  • Move forward with action! Select one of the solutions or steps and try it. It may not always work and we may need to start over again, but that is okay! The success is that we are not getting stuck in the worry or stress and instead we are moving forward with a plan!

So, yes, distraction is a way to help cope but it cannot be the only way. It needs to be balanced with direct problem solving and planning. By the way, distraction is also a great way to provide a reward to ourselves for thinking about the problem and figuring out a plan, for setting a goal and accomplishing it. In fact, I think I am going to go watch some Netflix right now…


Dr. Paula McCall is an Arizona Licensed Psychologist and Nationally Certified School Psychologist. She owns her practice, Next Step Psychology, which provides counseling and evaluations for children and adolescents. Dr. McCall is also passionate about providing free community outreach in suicide awareness and other topics of mental health.