Positive distraction is an activity you do to intentionally shift your focus, placing it somewhere other than the pain or negativity you’re feeling. When actively practiced, it can be a great tool for chronic illness and pain management. 

Not to be confused with repression (unconsciously putting your attention elsewhere), positive distraction is a form of mindful suppression. While constant suppression isn’t healthy, positive distraction can be.

Some days the pain and weariness of living with chronic illness/pain can be too much. On those days, we can do our best to implement positive distraction and intentionally choose to focus on something besides our pain

As a woman with VATER Syndrome, chronic pain, a botched esophagus, chronic dry eye, a missing kidney, paralyzed vocal chords and COPD, I know how helpful positive distraction can be. 

The trick to positive distraction is to admit you’re doing it and then fully immerse yourself in it for a limited amount of time.

On difficult days, you need to allow yourself grace to admit the difficulties while also coping with them as best you can. Enter positive distraction. 


Some examples of positive distraction include:

-Conscious deep breathing

-Listening to favorite music 

-Talking with a friend (preferably about silly stuff that will get you laughing) 

-Cuddling with a family member

-Being creative such as writing, drawing, coloring, knitting or cooking 

-Playing a video game 

-Reading a book 


-Watching a movie or TV show 

-Taking a walk (a slow one around the coffee table counts!)

-Organizing one cabinet or one drawer 

-Writing a letter or card to someone you love 

-Making a list of what you want to get done when you’re feeling better

-Snuggling your pet 


One key to positive distraction is the use of timers. Don’t set yourself up to fail by thinking you’re going to distract yourself for the whole day. That isn’t realistic. 

Simply pick one activity, set a timer, and do it for that allotted time. That’s it. If you need to go in one-minute increments, that’s okay, too but I like to start with five minutes. 

Practice positive distraction for five minutes and see how you feel afterwards. 

For example, on bad back pain days, I make myself take a walk to my mailbox. I tell myself I can go as slow as necessary and only for five minutes. I usually make it to the mailbox and then am motivated to do something else positive. If I’m not, I allow myself to lay back down after the five minutes are up and try again later. 

It’s often hard to breathe when you’re in a lot of pain and that in turn causes more shallow breathing. That’s why deep breathing is a particularly helpful positive distraction.

Simply inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth can help ease pain and anxiety.

Deep breathing to the count of four is a good place to start. Set a timer (or have somoene set it for you) to practice deep breathing and then allow your normal breathing to resume once the timer goes off. 

Laughter has also been scientifically proven to help pain (and anxiety/depression) so watching something you know will make you laugh is one of the best forms of positive distraction. 

On my really bad pain days you’ll find me on my couch watching endless reruns of Friends. 

Writing a text, email, or old-fashioned letter to someone you appreciate can shift your focus in a more positive direction because it makes you think kindly about them. 

You don’t have to be good at expressing yourself.  Just say what you admire or appreciate about them. Whether it’s a talent they have, some advice that’s helped you, or a quality you aspire to.

Everyone loves to know they matter and reminding someone of this is a great way to get your mind off yourself. 

Positive distraction is an effective tool that helps us manage chronic illness and pain. 

It isn’t about needlessly pushing yourself to do things you know you can’t but compassionately nudging yourself to focus elsewhere. 

What is your favorite kind of positive distraction and how will you incorporate it the next time you’re having a difficult day?


Photo credit: Photo by Yuri Efremovon Unsplash

Sarah Doan Peace is a Nevada Native and survivor of 35 surgeries. She has VATER Syndrome and paralyzed vocal cords yet manages to get up every day with a zest and passion for life and serving others. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and insists on being real and finding joy in everyday life. Sarah is living proof that miracles occur. She currently resides in Las Vegas where she is an Assistant, Writer, Health Advocate, Cooking Coach and friend to many. Sarah has appeared on several podcasts including Sick Biz Buzz and The Anxious Truth and written for blogs and online magazines including The Mighty. Sarah loves to cook, speak, write, hike, and spend time with her beloved family especially her cherished fur baby, Ziggy–a miniature Schnauzer Poodle. You can connect with her on Instagram or on her Facebook page at Sarah Doan Peace Speaks.