The pandemic is still with us. In parts of the country infection rates are going up. It is also flu season, which threatens to overtax doctor’s offices and hospitals that are already dealing with a COVID surge. Additionally, there is a highly contested supreme court nomination hearing going on and, of course, a contentious presidential election to worry about. Under these circumstances it is perfectly normal to struggle with a negative mood now and then. So, what can we do to get out over it? 

There is an often-overlooked tool that is always at our disposal when we are faced with strong negative emotions. That tool is distraction. To distract yourself, engage in an activity that redirects your mind off your current emotions and resets your attention to something else. Distraction gives your strong emotions time to dissipate and buys you time to process them when you are calmer and more rational. 

After surveying the internet and professional articles on this topic, I have compiled a list of the top 5 (evidence-based) distractions that can make you happier right now. Give these suggestions a try. They hardly require any special equipment or preparation (maybe walking shoes or iTunes) and they might just provide the boost you need.

1. Listen to Upbeat Music. According to a 2013 study by Yuna Ferguson published by the University of Missouri, listening to upbeat music can actually improve your mood.  The author stresses that it is important to immerse yourself in the experience and not get distracted by monitoring your mood (“Am I feeling better yet”??). Just turn up some sick jams and let yourself get into them. 

2. Get out into the natural world, even if only to run an errand or take a walk in the park. It will raise a low mood; research supports this. Gregory Bratman’s work on the brain and immersion in nature shows that “nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation” or, in layman’s terms, bright daylight, fresh air, and the sights, sounds, and smells of nature improve your mood. Try to include 30 minutes of movement–walking or running through beautiful neighborhoods or green areas.

3. Read a few pages of an exciting or inspiring book to feed your mind. Don’t have anything on hand? Consult Goodreads and buy a Kindle version for instant gratification.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in England discovered that after only six minutes of reading, test subjects’ stress was reduced by up to 68 per cent. A 2013 survey by the Book Trust found that “People who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel the things they do in life are worthwhile.’ There are perks for being a bookworm.

4. Have a short dance break to get you out of your head and back in your body. According to the study Effects of dance on anxiety by Researchers Leste and Rust, “dance is both a physical and emotional release, it’s ideal for people experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety. Studies show that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets.” You can dance alone but having a family or roommate dance party can improve mood too. Research shows that dancing collectively creates a stress busting, uplifting sense of community.

5. Watch cute or funny animal videos.  Think this is a waste of time?  experts say it helps.  According to Elizabeth Heath’s recent wellness article in the Washington Post, watching cute content online is “easy and accessible, a quick in and out that gives us a little lift”.  A study conducted by the University of Leeds in England went further, showing that ‘blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety went down in participants, 30 minutes after watching a cute animal video. Average blood pressure dropped from 136/88 to 115/71 — within ideal blood pressure range. Average heart rates were lowered to 67.4 bpm, a reduction of 6.5%”.

We should all be carefully curating what we let into our minds and bodies during these unprecedented times, not watching too much news, avoiding junk food, getting exercise and connecting with friends and family in a safe way. But still, we all will have our negative moments. If the destabilizing circumstances of 2020 start weighing on you and your mood sinks, don’t forget that distraction is there for you: it works!

Contributed by Lucia Smith, MA, LPC, CCATP, who is the owner of Clear Mind Counseling, located in the Straube Center in Pennington. She can be reached at clearmindcounseling@hushmail.com or 609-902-3271

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