Why Distracting Yourself Is Better Than ‘Positive Thinking’

Toxic positivity has earned a lot of backlash recently. Of course, we shouldn’t berate ourselves with negative self-talk, and there’s value in encouraging ourselves when fearful (I routinely utter, “I have all the skills I need” like a dime-store Stuart Smalley before doing anything nerve-wracking), but there’s also value in actually experiencing our negative emotions rather than glossing over them with trite cliches like “good vibes only,” “everything happens for a reason,” and the comically empty, “you got this.”

Research shows distraction to be more effective at keeping anxiety at bay

When we’re worried, common wisdom instructs us to pummel ourselves with positive thoughts. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, this study found distraction to be a better tool for reducing anxiety than “positive anticipatory thoughts.” In it, adolescent participants were told they’d be doing a basketball jump shot—while being rated on their performance by a gym teacher they’d never met—in front of their whole class. (Anyone who had to climb the rope up to the ceiling in 8th grade gym class during the now-disbanded Presidential Fitness Test will instantly recognize the anxiety. For many of us, it’s the adult equivalent of being asked to stand up and share “one thing people may not know about you” in a meeting.)

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