What is distraction therapy (for pain)?

Fool your brain, replace your pain

What is Distraction?

Diverting attention away (i.e., distraction) from feelings and thoughts of pain is a common and well researched pain-coping strategy. Its effects are variable across individuals, however, those who report high levels of pain catastrophising are known to benefit best from distraction.

Distraction means shifting or moving your attention away something – in this case pain. It does not mean that the pain is no longer there, and it also does not (or should not) mean that you are ignoring, avoiding or “hiding” from your pain. It just means that you use your brain to focus your attention onto something else. You can put your pain in the background and focus instead on anything that takes your fancy, for example, playing board or card games, counting, or using breathing techniques.

Distraction and your Brain

Mental distractions actually block pain signals from the body before they ever reach the brain. Your brain has a limited capacity for attention – there is only so many things it can concentrate on. Pain sensations compete for attention with all of the other things going on around you, and they often win! Just how much attention your brain gives each thing depends on a number of factors, including how long you have been dealing with your pain, your current mood, and your propensity to anxiety, rumination, and catastrophizing. However, much like if you bump your “funny bone” and start rubbing it to make it feel better, if you have a demanding enough task, you’ll have less attention to give to your pain.

Acceptance can help

While the pain is real and it hurts, it is the “struggle” with pain that can cause suffering. Acceptance is intended to disrupt the link between thoughts and behaviours so you are willing to tolerate pain. This isn’t easy to do. And it may even feel like you are “giving into” your pain. However, acknowledging and accepting that “today is a bad day” can actually increase your pain tolerance, and used together with distraction, can lead to increased pain tolerance and a lower pain intensity.

Please check out the Pain Management Network site. Here you will find wonderful resources and tools to help you find/try different types of distraction methods, and also how to structure or plan them throughout your day. Please be aware that while this particular module of information from the Pain Management Network is labelled under “youth”, it is most certainly application to all ages – I’m definitely going to give it a try!

Author: Kat Keane, Health Education ANSW
Date: 18/8/2021

References: https://www.aci.health.nsw.gov.au/chronic-pain/chronic-pain Kristin L. Schreiber, Claudia Campbell, Marc O. Martel, Seth Greenbaum, Ajay D. Wasan, David Borsook, Robert N. Jamison, Robert R. Edwards; Distraction Analgesia in Chronic Pain Patients: The Impact of Catastrophizing. Anesthesiology 2014; 121:1292–1301 doi