How Distraction is Good for You: Using DBT’s crisis survival skill 

In our San Francisco Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups, we teach people how distraction can actually be good for you.

 Isn’t distraction bad for you?

You’ve probably heard a lot about how distraction is bad for you. About how having your attention pulled in a million different directions leaves you feeling scattered, unfocused and frazzled.

The DBT distract skill is different

It’s not mindlessly checking your phone. It’s not obsessively replaying a fight with your partner in your head while navigating rush hour traffic with your radio blaring.

It’s purposeful. It’s choosing to do something else instead of doing the thing your emotions are telling you to do when you’re upset. Because acting on your emotions when you’re super emotional usually only backfires.

Sometimes not fully experiencing our emotions is a good thing. For example, if you have the overwhelming urge to start sobbing at a work meeting when you feel criticized by your manager, it’s probably wise to not let the feelings out. The DBT distract skill helps you focus your attention elsewhere so you don’t lose it publicly.

The DBT distract skill is great to use when you:

  • Are emotionally overwhelmed
  • Have urges to do things you will later regret
  • Feel an overwhelming urgency to fix a problem right now

When you are in emotion mind, your action urges can be very convincing. If you’re very angry, you feel justified in telling someone off. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed, engaging in a compulsive behavior suddenly seems like the smart thing to do.

The problem is, acting on your emotions or urges in these moments probably works against your long-term goals – stable relationships, maintaining your self-respect, and freedom from addictive behaviors.

Ways to distract:


Do something, anything to get your mind off your emotions. Play video games, straighten your closet, get some exercise.

Just make sure that the activity you choose doesn’t intensify your painful emotion. Don’t play an aggressive video game if you’re already feeling angry. Instead, go to your favorite coffee shop and get a mocha (or whatever hot drink you love).

Do nice things for others:

Help a friend, buy a homeless person a meal or volunteer. Doing nice things for others not only takes your mind off your worries for the moment but can also have the added benefit of creating a sense of meaning or purpose in your life.

Read, watch or listen to something that brings on other emotions:

To do this, figure out what emotion you’re experiencing. Then read a book, watch a movie or listen to music that evokes an emotion that is different than the one you’re feeling. If you’re sad, listen to upbeat music. If you’re angry, watch a comedy. If you’re feeling hopeless, read about people who perserved in difficult times.


This is great to use when you’re in public and need a private way to distract yourself. Count 10 things you see around you that are blue, replay the words in a song in your head, count to 100.

Engage your senses in something intense:

Let an ice cube melt in your hand, take a hot bath or suck on a slice of lemon.

The key to using DBT’s distract skill:

The key to using distraction is not to overuse it.

Distract is a very effective short-term solution to help you avoid doing something you’ll later regret – but it’s not a solution to solving life’s problems. To solve life’s problems, you’ll have to draw on other DBT skills when you’re in your wise mind.

Why distracting works:

Distracting works because it helps create a little space between you and whatever is upsetting you. An added benefit is that sometimes distracting also helps to change your painful emotions.

Curious how the DBT skills can help you when you’re really emotional?

Our San Francisco therapists are here to help you. Call (415) 310-5142 to book your first therapy session.