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Distraction and Humor in Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Distraction

Cognitive restructuring teaches people to rethink the basic assumptions that cause them to experience more stress than is absolutely necessary. While an excellent and effective technique for stress reduction, it is also a long-term strategy. Several weeks of practice and training must occur before substantial stress reduction can be expected. Even though it is a good idea to invest the time and effort necessary to learn cognitive restructuring, it is an equally good idea to know about effective alternative strategies that can bring about more rapid, if only temporary, forms of stress relief.

One of the simplest psychological techniques for rapid stress relief involves finding ways to distract yourself from whatever it is that is bothering you. From our previous discussion, you'll recall that as we become more stressed out, our attention tends to narrow and focus on what we perceive as threatening. Distraction techniques work by interrupting this process of attentional narrowing so that we stop thinking about what is bothering us for a while and instead think about something else. As the saying goes, "Out of sight, Out of mind."

Different people cope with stress in different ways, and distraction as a stress coping and management technique works better for some of these people than for others. One of the most basic coping style differences people tend to develop is known as Repression-Sensitization. Some people, known as "repressors," find it very natural to cope with stress and threat by ignoring it, or otherwise distracting themselves from thinking about that threat. Other people, known as "sensitizers" naturally cope with threat by seeking out more information, so as to be able to develop a complete picture of the threat that is useful for predictive purposes. Neither threat-coping strategy is inherently more healthy than the other. Different people just tend to polarize in terms of how they handle stress along these lines.

Distraction tends to be more of a useful coping technique for sensitizers than for repressors. Repressors are already in the habit of coping with threatening information by ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. Giving such people permission to distract themselves further is not a good idea, as it may encourage unhealthy levels of escapism and denial.

People with strong sensitization tendencies will often find themselves uncomfortable using distraction as a stress release. This is because sensitizers can feel threatened by the thought of diverting their attention, as they fear that the threat might get worse if they don't continually monitor it. People experiencing such fears can hopefully relax, however, safe in the knowledge that what is being proposed is not irresponsibility, but rather strategic and measured distraction; enough to take the edge of stress off, but not enough to let anything seriously dangerous slip past one's watchful eye. Most threats people worry about are not imminent or acute in nature, and watching a movie, going for a walk or working on a project so as to take a break from worrying will not typically result in negative consequences.

There are many ways people may distract themselves away from stressful thoughts. Popular distractions include doing chores and work, engaging in hobbies and projects, socializing and seeking out sources of entertainment such as movies, games (including video games) and books. It helps if the activities are interesting, absorbing and immersive, as such things are easier for people to focus on for sustained periods of time. Things that are merely time occupiers may not hold attention, and therefore fail to distract people from their stress and worry for very long.

Humor

For many people, humor is a very effective, simple and inexpensive way to decrease stress. Humor is effective as a stress-relieving method for numerous reasons. First, humor functions as a distraction, interrupting the chain of thought that results in stress. Effective humor also results in laughter, which is a physical release of tension. Humor shifts the focus of attention away from oneself and focuses it instead on others. This shift of attention enlarges people's anxiety-narrowed perspective to include the misfortune of others, thereby reducing the perceived need to stress about their own problems. Humorous stories often help people to recognize that however bad their situation might be, there is always someone who is worse off.

The prototypical poster boy for the use of humor as a stress relieving method was journalist and professor Norman Cousins. According to the Wikipedia entry:, "...late in life Cousins was diagnosed with a form of arthritis then called Marie-Strumpell's disease (now called Ankylosing Spondylitis--although this diagnosis is currently in doubt). His struggle with this illness is detailed in the book and movie Anatomy of an Illness."

"Told that he had little chance of surviving, Cousins developed a recovery program incorporating megadoses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he reported. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

"Cousins died of heart failure on November 30, 1990 in Los Angeles, California, having survived years longer than his doctors predicted: he lived 10 years after his first heart attack, 16 years after developing his illness, and 26 years after his doctors first diagnosed his heart disease."

It's relatively easy to add humor to your everyday life and to use it as a means of coping with stressful events. Funny movies, comedy shows and videos are easily available through various forms of media outlets. Entire television channels devoted to humor, including Comedy Central and Cartoon Network, are widely available on cable and satellite television services. The Comedy Central website features streaming video of their television shows, as well as a large collection of jokes and stand-up comedy routines. Live stand-up comedy venues are also readily available in many larger cities. Humorous images are all over the web at sites like the popular I Can Has Cheeseburger?, as are newspaper cartoons on sites like Go Comics.