When Shakespeare wrote of “distraction” in his plays and sonnets, however, he was not speaking of something that diverts our attention. Back then, the word was used to describe a state of mental disturbance or insanity. Even today, one definition of the word “distraction” can imply some degree of emotional upset.
So was Shakespeare onto something?
Certainly we can be distracted and not experience mental illness. A loud noise, unruly children or a sudden rainstorm are all events that can distract us from what we’re doing at the moment.
But can repetitive distraction — nonstop ringing phones, incessant email and text message interruptions, meetings and co-workers who need immediate attention — contribute to mental distress or even mental illness?
Whether distraction helps or hinders us depends on how and when it enters our lives. When we are in the midst of a crisis where no immediate action is needed — for example, the death of a loved one — distracting oneself from the emotional pain by taking a walk, reading a book or watching a movie can help us get through a painful situation. Distraction is a helpful technique used for the treatment of depression, substance use and some compulsive behaviors.
However, when we’re regularly required to switch our attention from one task or thought to another, the effects can be problematic for our mental health. A growing body of research has begun to reveal what happens when we switch our attention between multiple tasks.
Our brains enable us to switch between tasks without awareness. This can be helpful, but it also comes at a cost. We have to get up to speed and become immersed in each new task. So each time we switch between tasks, we lose time and efficiency.
But many of us may have become so used to persistent distraction that we have lost — or failed to develop in the first place — the ability control our own attention. Our ability to direct attention is essential for goal-directed behavior. Not only is deliberate attention necessary for action, it also has a major effect on our emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help us learn how to focus on and label internal experiences so that changes in them can be made.
As already seen, distraction can slow us down, interfere with our productivity and hinder our ability to make positive changes that improve our well-being. But can it actually cause a mental illness?
Neuroscientists have determined that experience shapes not just our thoughts, emotions and behavior, but the very circuitry within our brains. Stress effects certain areas of the brain, including the amygdala, that are involved in goal-directed behavior and our ability to regulate emotions (Davidson and McEwen, 2012). And continual distraction can certainly contribute to stress. But the link from external distractions to stress to emotional disturbance has not been clearly researched.
Although there is not yet a well-defined connection between high levels of external distractions and mental illness, there has been research to indicate that techniques, such as meditation, that improve our ability to focus have a positive impact on brain circuitry and overall mental well-being.
According to Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and leader in the study of the affects of meditation as director of UW-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, through meditation techniques we can learn how to experience positive emotions, such as compassion. Davidson suggests that when it comes to emotional processing, we can change our emotional experience with techniques that enhance our ability to focus.
As our understanding of neuroplasticity and the impact of our experience on the functioning of certain parts of our brain increases, we may begin to learn just how much we are able to affect emotional disturbances by creating certain experiences. According to Davidson and McEwen, “we can also take more responsibility for our minds and brains by engaging in certain mental exercises that can induce plastic changes in the brain and that may have enduring beneficial consequences for social and emotional behavior.”