CUH Logo

Mobile menu open

Techniques to distract yourself from unhelpful thoughts

Patient information A-Z

The techniques described below can be useful when you notice that worrying, unhelpful or upsetting thoughts are interfering with sleep, relaxation, daily life, or pleasurable activities.

When to do it

This technique can be useful when:

  • Trying to get to sleep, but thoughts or physical discomfort keep on intruding.
  • In situations where unhelpful thoughts keep demanding attention.
  • To calm the mind while undergoing treatments or investigations you find uncomfortable and/or difficult.

How to do it

If we try to avoid thinking about something, it can sometimes become the only thing that we can think about. Instead of telling yourself what not to think about, here are some ideas of other things to focus your mind on. Try, for example, to focus on a pleasant or neutral mental activity.

Examples of such mental activities include:

  • Choosing a colour and imagining as many things as possible that are the colour you have chosen.
  • Sorting items into categories. For example, putting animals, or fruit, or car names, or sports team players into alphabetical order, or thinking about animals that you would find in different places, such as on a farm or on safari.
  • Teaching yourself the alphabet backwards.
  • Remembering a song, particularly with a catchy chorus.
  • Counting or doing mental arithmetic. For example A1, B2, C3 or practicing times tables.
  • Mentally putting parts of something together, such as a bicycle or a recipe.
  • Visualising a garden (your own or one you have visited) and take an imaginary walk around looking at the plants.
  • Imagining how you would spend or share a lottery win.
  • Focussing on all your senses and naming three things that you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell at this moment.

Each time the unhelpful thoughts come into your mind, just notice that this has happened and bring your attention back to the activity you have decided upon. Try not to flit from one activity to another; just try to focus on the one you have chosen.

Initially, you might find that each time you try to engage in the mental activity, the unhelpful thoughts or physical discomfort will try to dominate your thoughts. However, with practice many people find they can begin to control what they focus upon, such as the thinking activity they have selected. You may find it helpful to practice the activities at times when you are already feeling quite calm and comfortable so that it becomes easier to do when you are worried, distressed or are experiencing discomfort.

Contacts/ Further information

If you require further information please speak to the person who gave you this leaflet, or contact the Palliative Care Department on 01223 274404 during office hours [Monday to Friday 09:00 (9am) to 17:00 (5pm)], or write to:

Box 63, Elsworth House, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 2QQ

We are smoke-free

Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the hospital campus. For advice and support in quitting, contact your GP or the free NHS stop smoking helpline on 0800 169 0 169.

Other formats

Help accessing this information in other formats is available. To find out more about the services we provide, please visit our patient information help page (see link below) or telephone 01223 256998.

Contact us

Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151