Skills of Distraction
Creating New Circuitry
It was over a decade ago when I first became stricken with severe anxiety, to the point that it affected me physically. I had never experienced a panic attack in my life. But suddenly I found myself frequently overcome by dizziness, numbness, tingling, chest pains, and a whole slew of other frightening symptoms. Not knowing what was going on, I legitimately thought there was something physically wrong with me. And naturally, I did what any sane person would do. I went to the doctor and had him run a bunch of tests.
As you can probably guess, all the results came back as normal. I didn’t have some dreaded fatal disease. Quite the contrary, I was in perfect health. Except I wasn’t… Physically I was fine. But mentally I was severely malfunctioning. Or at least that’s my interpretation of what was going on. And for the first time in my life, I realized that what was happening in my mind, could have dire consequences on my body.
For some people this is a difficult leap of faith. Can your mind alone really give you a mock heart attack or make your face go numb? In my experience, yes. And this should strike us as obvious. Your brain, via your nervous system, makes your body do everything. It doesn’t matter what action you are performing. The thing that’s moving your limbs or making sounds come out of your mouth is ultimately, your mind.
So it stands to reason that your brain can also create physical symptoms that aren’t the result of anything other than mental processes. For example, most people understand the concept of “phantom limbs.” Many amputees, despite losing an arm or a leg, still feel it. As if it’s actually there. And we’ve all had the experience of hearing or seeing something purely imaginary. These are simply brain glitches of sorts. It’s the only way you can sense something that doesn’t exist.
Note that these examples also happen without intention. They are not conscious acts. This is another critical feature about your brain that’s important to understand. It loves to offload work to your subconscious. Especially if it’s something you do over and over. Your mind essentially says, “hey I keep doing this process repeatedly. Why don’t I turn it into an automated pattern so I can focus elsewhere.”
The most common example of this is driving. When you first learn to operate a motor vehicle, it takes a tremendous amount of concentration and focus. But soon enough, you can cruise down the road while simultaneously talking on the phone, drinking coffee, and daydreaming. You literally aren’t paying any attention to the act of driving itself. Your brain has changed this pattern from something you have to think about, into something that just happens.
Unfortunately, most people don’t take this line of reasoning to the next logical step. Which is that this can occur with any pattern or habit you develop over time. If you start being anxious or depressed a lot, guess what? Your brain is eventually going to move that behavior to your subconscious. Now you’ve developed a chronic condition. If those patterns are also tied to somatic symptoms, you can find yourself in a truly debilitating situation.
But here’s the real problem. It’s hard to get rid of these bad patterns. In my experience you can’t just relax your way out of them. Things like meditation and breathing exercises are great, and worth doing. But once a habit is built into your subconscious it’s there to stay until you actively overwrite it. You won’t drastically change the way you do anything “naturally” just by focusing on your thoughts or controlling your air intake. You need to make a concerted effort to somehow do things differently, and repeatedly, until you develop a new pattern of behavior. To truly be different.
So how do you do that when it comes to anxiety or depression? One way is by engaging your conscious mind in a manner that doesn’t allow your subconscious any room to operate. By distracting your own brain, so it doesn’t get up to its old tricks. Which means engaging in something that requires focused concentration.
What I’ve found to be the most effective form of such distraction is skill development. Teaching yourself to do something new. This not only turns your old subconscious patterns off, but also develops new neural pathways in conjunction with the skill itself. It cannot be a passive activity liking reading a book or meditating. You must learn an activity that involves your mind and body: bowhunting, woodworking, playing an instrument, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, etc.
Personally, I spent 2020 learning piano (or at least trying to.) And I made it a habit by committing to 20 minutes of practice per day. I wasn’t really concerned with an end state or goal other than the practice itself. Just putting in the work consistently. What I discovered was that while I didn’t feel great everyday while doing this, I slowly felt better as the weeks and months went by. And for those 20 minutes, I usually felt really good. I simply couldn’t think about anything else, either consciously or subconsciously, while I was focused on what my hands were trying to play.
The bottom line here is that it’s never too late to lay down some new neural circuitry. Everyone, regardless of your current state of mind fitness, can benefit from this. The world has received a lesson during COVID as to what happens when people sit idly indoors for months on end. I think it’s safe to say that binge-watching Netflix isn’t the best use of that time, and certainly doesn’t create positive habits.
If you recall from the RARE SENSE Manifesto, one of the three parts under the Develop Module for Mind Fitness was “Skills.” So go pick up an instrument, or enroll in a martial arts class, or learn how to build something. It’s good for your body and your mind. And your subconscious will thank you for it. Once it’s done being distracted.
Note: an earlier version of this article appeared on the GORUCK blog here.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist. None of the opinions expressed here are intended to diagnose or treat any condition or disease. If you are suffering from a mental or physical disorder or illness please seek medical attention from a licensed professional.