Staring at the wall instead of emailing your boss? Analysing your lockdown house plant purchases more than usual? You’re not alone.
Distraction has defined our days during the pandemic, as our sorry brains seek to make sense of all the ways our lives have changed. Working from home, going out less (or not at all), and living in a state of perpetual present without no future plans has become reality for most of us.
And it’s stress inducing. In April, the Office of National Statistics said nearly half of Britons surveyed reported ‘high level’ anxiety, and by October, one in four adults surveyed by the Campaign to End Loneliness charity feared they would spend Christmas alone – both signifiers of a national mental health nosedive.
“Feeling low, feeling depressed, feeling down and not knowing what to do about it is the main reason why people do not carefully select distraction – but do anything that will take them away from having to face this uncontrolled thing in front of them,” says occupational psychologist Professor Chris Lewis,
Slice of banana bread, anyone?
Baking was one way we kept ourselves busy in the early stretches of the pandemic. Jigsaws, Couch to 5k and Yoga with Adriene were some others.
“We felt we were in control,” reflects Prof Lewis of that period where we all seemed to be playing the same game of distraction bingo. “Part of that control was a perception that the end was in sight. That turned out not to be the case.”
A dawning realisation that coronavirus wouldn’t be over for months “seriously damaged our expectations,” he explains. “Then lack of control crept in, producing anxiety and possible depression. This resulted in: ‘why bother?’”
And as winter lockdown loomed and we lost sense of when it all might end, distraction (as measured by its Instagram potential) became a thing of the past.
“You’re basically pissed off with everything and you just want to get through it, you just want to survive it. And that’s why baking banana bread or doing something else which people might see as noble is not worth anything,” says Lewis, of our growing lethargy. The motivational juggernaut has moved on.
Distraction can be healthy in certain doses, of course, providing our brains with light relief from a seemingly never-ending experience. “Anything’s better than sitting there suffering from the pressure that doing that work is causing you,” says Lewis, of the distraction that plagues those working from home. Staring into the middle distance for an hour or bingeing a boxset is harmless enough.
But there’s a tipping point where it’s doing us more harm than good – too much or too little food, say, drinking or drugs, or simply hours lost to a social media feed that leaves you feeling worse off than when you started. Distraction isn’t always a good way of handling our emotions, say the experts.
While appearing to offer an escape, we should be aware that any sense of control gained can be an “illusion,” psychologist and EDMR therapist Dr Caroline Schuster tells HuffPost. In fact, distraction is sometimes the canary in the coal mine – warning of, rather than relieving, mental health issues.
“It may be a sign that something more serious is at play,” she says – acute stress, depression or addiction, for example. “The time to seek help is when we can’t deal with what we perceive to be a problem, ourselves, any more.”
“Self-help books can be useful, but of course they were not written for you personally, so may only have a limited effect,” says Dr Schuster, who suggests meditation and mindfulness as more productive ways to spend your time.
“I often send people to look at free YouTube videos such as those of Eckhard Tolle, the author of The Power of Now. He is a wise soul, who helps people to recognise that their thoughts will often hijack them.”
At this point, you might be expecting some familiar tips and tricks: try a new hobby, pick up an old hobby, start exercising with Joe Wicks, take a bath. But this is not that article.
Another theory for why many of us feel so distracted while also actively seeking it out is that we’ve reached the limit of what’s known as our ‘surge capacity’ – a phrase coined by Ann Masten, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, to describe the collection of adaptive systems that humans draw on for survival in stressful situations, such as natural disasters.
“In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using ‘surge capacity’ to operate,” wrote science journalist Tara Haelle on Medium. “But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different – the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”
For the time being, while we weather the storm, we might just be best to embrace distraction for all that it is. As Prof Lewis puts it: “It can be useful to seek in stressful times – going for a walk or stopping for a fag... What some might deem as ‘unhealthy distraction’ might well be necessary right now.”