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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.

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, repetitive, or non-threatening mental activity.

Examples of such mental activities include:

  • Putting things into categories - ideas people have used include putting animals, or fruit, or car names, or sports team players into alphabetical order.
  • Teaching yourself the alphabet backwards.
  • Remembering a song, particularly with a catchy chorus.
  • Counting for example A1, B2, C3 …
  • Mentally putting parts of something together, such as a bicycle or a recipe.
  • Visualising a garden (your own or one you have visited) and what plants are in it in what order.
  • Imagining how you would spend or share a lottery win.
  • Focus on all your senses and name three things that you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell at this moment.
  • Going through each part of the body from the tips of the toes to the top of the head, spending a few moments concentrating on how each part feels – and relaxing the area if necessary.

Each time the unhelpful thoughts come into your mind, just notice that this has happened and bring your attention back to the activity you were engaged in.

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.

Each time you become aware of an unhelpful thought or feeling physically uncomfortable, concentrate on whatever mental activity you have decided upon.

  • Try not to flit from one mental activity to another.
  • Keep focused 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 leave a message for:

Dr Lynda Teape
HCPC Registered and Chartered Clinical Psychologist in Palliative Care
Box 63, Elsworth House, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 2QQ

Tel: 01223 274404 (internal: 274404)

Office hours: Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:00

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Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151