Distraction and chronic pain

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Distraction is when you focus your attention so intently on one task that you are no longer focusing on your pain. Distraction is a technique you can use to change the way your body interprets pain signals.

When to use distraction

Distraction is a good technique to use when you are experiencing pain but want to be able to do an activity. Here are some examples of situations when it would be good to use distraction.

  • You need to study for an exam when your pain starts to get worse.
  • You are sitting on a bus with your friends coming back from a trip. You want to be sociable, but your joints feel painful from sitting still for so long.

There are different methods of distraction. Some are very simple and others need more practice. You can use each of these distraction techniques to help you carry on with activities and other things that are important to you.

There are three main types of distraction, which you can read about on the following pages:



Imagery is using your imagination in a focused way, directing your mind somewhere that you feel comfortable and relaxed. Imagery is what people are talking about when you hear ‘going to your happy place’. It really can work well!

There are two main ways to use imagery to help with pain.

  • You can change your thoughts to something more enjoyable. Imagine being in a pleasant place, maybe on a beach or in a park with your family and friends. This is much more interesting to think about than pain.
  • You can change the sensation of pain. Picture your pain as having a certain shape, size or colour, and then change it. For example, if your pain feels like the size of a baseball, change it in your mind to the size of a golf ball, a marble or something even smaller. Or change it from hot red to pale pink, maybe even to blue.

Imagery can also help you with the stress and tension that builds in your body from worrying. By thinking about something pleasant, your body can become more relaxed.

How do I practise using imagery?

Imagery is like daydreaming except that you are doing it on purpose. Some people find it easy to use their imagination to distract themselves. Others need more practice.

When you practise using imagery, you need to become involved in the scene as much as you can. The more involved you are, the less attention you will have to spend on other thoughts. This will help you become more relaxed.

To help with this, when you think about your scene, involve as many of your five senses as you can. For example, if you are thinking about the beach, think about the sound of the water you would hear, all the things you will see, such as the clear sky or the water on the shore, the smell of the ocean or the lake, the feeling of the sand and the taste of the ice cream you’re eating.​

You don’t have to use a beach scene; you can use any experience that you find pleasant to help you relax. For instance, try remembering a trip you have taken or a favourite story. For imagery to work well, however, the scene should be easy to picture and pleasant or calming for you.

Practice exercise

To help get you started, why not listen to this recording, called Your Comfort Zone? It will help you practise using imagery as a distraction technique.


Brain games

Brain games are a way of controlling stress or pain by turning your attention away from stressful feelings. They work by keeping your mind busy with another activity so that it isn’t available to think about the pain or stress you might be feeling.

Here are some examples of brain games. You might have already played these games to help pass the time during a long road trip.

Alphabet games

Think of any category of interest, such as sports, cars, teams, animals or countries. Let’s say your category is countries. Think of a country that starts with the letter A, then with B, C and so on all the way through the alphabet to the letter Z.

Lyrics games

Try to remember all of the words to your favourite song.


Count the number of tiles on the floor or dots on an area of the ceiling or count backwards from 100 by any number you choose. For example, count backwards from 100 by fives: 100, 95, 90, 85 and so on, until you get to 0. You can try counting back by other numbers, such as 3 or 7, to make the game more challenging and distracting.


Doing an enjoyable activity can help take your mind off your pain. If you are in pain, try to keep yourself busy to distract your mind even for a little while.

Distracting activities can include:

  • talking to a friend, relative or partner in person, on the phone or on Skype
  • playing or listening to music
  • going for a walk outside
  • playing with a pet
  • playing a game on your computer or phone
  • reading a magazine or book
  • watching a movie
  • baking or cooking a meal for someone
  • working on a project that you enjoy
  • volunteering in the community.
Last updated: May 2nd 2016