Distraction VS Regulation ?| Is Your Journaling Actually Helping You?

In an attempt to better understand and manage her emotions, Kabir begins journaling. Kabir vents in his journal about his day's events, which helps him feel better. Kabir, therefore, thinks he is handling his emotions well. But as he continues to journal, he starts to realize that he is only using journaling as a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with his deeper feelings rather than actually addressing and labelling his emotions. He sees that he has been avoiding sitting with the emotions because they might feel uncomfortable sometimes, going back to the journal to consider what caused the feeling, and considering what his perspective on the situation was. Instead of serving as a vehicle for sincere introspection and emotional processing, Kabir’s notebook turns into a record of fleeting observations. 

There is a line between regulation and distraction when it comes to mental health. In my work as a mental health professional, I frequently see clients struggle to distinguish between these two ideas. Both regulating and distracting processes can be found in activities like journaling, drawing, dancing, or physical activity. People frequently confuse distractions for regulation. They think that by using these seemingly beneficial coping mechanisms, they are successfully addressing their emotions. However, in actuality, they may be leaning more towards avoidance.

Despite its often negative connotations, distraction is an important tool for emotional regulation. Distraction might provide some respite during periods of high emotions, when everything seems overpowering and out of control. It aids in managing the height of feelings so that people can regain calmness. Distraction is not a good long-term coping strategy, though. It isn't sustained or deep enough to provide significant emotional well-being. 

Regulation, rooted in mindfulness and self-awareness, involves using tools like journaling, doodling, and physical activity not to escape from emotions but to delve deeper into them. By drawing attention to their emotions, sensations, and origins, individuals can navigate their inner landscape with clarity and purpose.

Recent research has shed light on the nuanced relationship between distraction and regulation. A study by Wolgast and Lundh emphasizes how crucial it is to combine distraction with an acceptance and acknowledging attitude toward painful emotion for the best possible emotional regulation and wellbeing, instead of an avoiding attitude toward experiencing the painful emotion. Through the cultivation of an accepting mindset in conjunction with distraction, people can leverage the advantages of both tactics, creating a more stable and well-balanced emotional environment. 

Remember that genuine emotional health originates from a state of awareness and intent, where distractions are not escapes but tools for deeper understanding and growth.



Wolgast, M., Lundh, LG. Is Distraction an Adaptive or Maladaptive Strategy for Emotion Regulation? A Person-Oriented Approach. J Psychopathol Behav Assess 39, 117–127 (2017).

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Zahra Diwan

Zahra has over 4 years of experience working with clients within the therapeutic framework. She works extensively with young adults, and maintains a diary on Things That Help Us which is collation of insights she gains in therapy.

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