I’m flying back to California after spending three weeks with my 93-year-old parents. Confession: I’m a terrible flier. I hate it. Always have. Probably always will. But I no longer drink or take a benzo for a flight. (12 years sober and 11 years benzo free!) I’ve found that by distracting my thoughts away from my discomfort (let’s be honest, it’s fear) at being forty-thousand feet above the ground, I can manage. Absorbed in a good book, movie, or conversation, and I forget to be hyper-vigilant over every bump or noise. The time passes more quickly, and I deplane in much better shape than I would have if I had focused on my fears.

It’s the same in benzo withdrawal/BIND. Distraction helps us feel better than if we focus on our symptoms. Why does distraction work? Let’s take a look at our nervous system for some answers.

When we feel threatened, either physically or emotionally, our nervous system shifts into what is called the protect state. It is a sympathetic fight or flight reaction or a parasympathetic dorsal vagal freeze reaction. (Fight. flight, freeze.)The protect state is in inward focus—it’s all about self. Buddha wisely pointed out, “Where there is self, there is suffering.”  It’s so true! When we focus on ourselves, we suffer more!

When we are in the protect state, our thoughts and feelings will be negative, and we can get caught in a negative feedback loop. Those negative thoughts and feelings fuel more negative thoughts and feelings. Distraction takes the focus off of self and, in so doing, breaks the negative feedback loop. Distraction encourages our nervous system to shift into a state called the connect state.

What is the connect state? It’s our default state; a parasympathetic ventral vagal response.  It’s where we function, body, mind, and spirit, at our best. (Scientist call it the rest, digest, and renew sate.) What triggers the connect state? Safety! In the connect state we will have positive thoughts and feelings. It’s a challenge to experience the connect state when we are in benzo withdrawal/BIND because we don’t have enough working GABA receptors to keep our mind, body, and spirit calm. But that doesn’t mean we should give up encouraging our nervous system to make the shift out of protect and into connect.

All forms of distraction encourage our nervous system to shift from the protect state and all the negativity that comes with it; however, there is a powerful form of distraction that works like magic. That is being in the presence of someone we feel safe with. But it’s more than just being together. It’s being generous with our time, our ears, our hearts, and our souls. It’s about them, not us.

Bouncing around in a patch of rough air on my flight, I asked the flight attendant if she could help me connect to onboard WIFI so I could communicate with my children; a means to distract. She knelt in the aisle and took my phone. As she worked on the connection, which was being difficult, we started a conversation. We discovered that we are both sober and grateful for every day without a drink. I wanted to know her story, so when she had some time, she came back and shared more with me. I listened to her, deeply moved by her honesty and courage. I forgot about the turbulence. My focus was on her, not on myself and my fears. By being of service to her by listening, I gave her and myself a gift, the gift of  the connect state, the gift of safety,

But there was more going on than distraction by taking the focus off of self. There was the golden rule of social neuroscience at play. The Golden Rule is “a regulated nervous system will co-regular a dysregulated nervous system.” When we feel safe, the pro-social regions of our brains light up, and the threat-detection regions go dark. Safety is the prescription for everything. The flight attendant’s regulated nervous system regulated mine. She wasn’t afraid of the bumps, and her calmness soothed my nervous system.

What are some of the ways we can connect with others to encourage a ventral vagal connect state? The fourth cornerstone of well-being, love well, is the source. (The four cornerstones are: eat right (WFPB), move enough, stress less, and love well.)These are some of the things that make up the fourth cornerstone: kindness, caring, compassion, generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, grace, acceptance, patience, service to others, humility, curiosity, awe, and wonder. These ways of being shift the nervous system away from the protect state and toward the connect state. When we apply them to our relationships with others, they are the best forms of distraction. When we distract by putting our attention onto someone else, we can fly through the turbulence of BWD/BIND much better than if we sit and focus on ourselves, on our symptoms, on our suffering. Even focusing on our pets, plants, and wildlife (gardening is healing!) helps encourage our nervous system to move toward the connect state.

Find ways to practice the fourth cornerstone in your distracting practices. You’ll reap enormous benefits! Hint: listening is a wonderful practice. Remember, life is a flowing circle of giving and receiving. Focus on others (give), and allow their regulated nervous systems to help regulate yours (receive).

Learning something new is another excellent way to distract. Stay tuned for that post, coming soon.

How do you practice distraction? Add your voice to the conversation. Leave a comment. We’d love to hear your story.