A man meditates on a calm beach scene to distract himself from a background of chaos

Please Distract Me

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) can feel like a living nightmare. The more still and calm I want my body to be, the more agitated it becomes.

What RLS feels like for me

For me, this manifests as pulling, crawling sensations in my lower back that march all the way down my leg. And, psychologically, it’s like having my leg covered in spiders and cockroaches and snakes and then making a valiant effort not to move.

It is quite simply unbearable, and shaking that leg is essential. It is impossible not to move. It’s like an arrow that’s pulled back so tight in the bow, or a massive pile of Jenga pieces all stacked on top of each other. The tiniest breath causes a tumultuous flow of motion and the inevitable release of tension — and then a few seconds later, it’s back again. There is no reprieve. It is just an incessant, compulsive necessity to move.

The movement causes momentary relief, so the more I move, the closer those moments are together. I become a seated tsunami, constantly irritating anyone who is sitting nearby.

'Tricking' my nerves to find relief

RLS is a neurological condition, and often my nerves can feel like they’re standing on end. But the neurological system is complex, and I have found sometimes – just sometimes — I can trick it.

When my RLS is mild, or even moderate, I find distractions help me. If it’s a moving distraction, that is ideal – walking, exercising, housework, gardening, stretching, dancing, sex... all these things have some level of movement, but also a fair bit of mental focus, which helps me lose sight of the RLS.

It ceases to be a problem for the duration of the activity. I am still moving, but there is no mental distress. Movement is focused and intentional and my thoughts are elsewhere.

Other less strenuous distractions

I can also use distraction with more sedentary activities like reading, watching television, napping, sitting in a car or the theatre, etc. If I can keep my hands busy, that is ideal – like playing a game on my phone or messaging people. My mind seems so occupied that I lose focus on the RLS and the urgency to move lessens or abates for a time.

If I’m watching television or seated in the theatre, I’ll have constant, small, invisible movements like toe-tapping while I focus as much as possible on the television or the show. The more I can distance my thoughts from RLS, the better. Conversely, the more I focus on the symptoms, the worse they become. Distraction is a really useful technique for me when symptoms are mild and early on in the day.

Getting out the 'big guns' for severe symptoms

At work, I rarely notice symptoms because it’s so busy. When I’m writing, I rarely notice symptoms because I’m so focused. Mental distraction definitely helps me. But when my symptoms become severe, no amount of distraction is helpful. Then I need to crack out the big guns like stretching routines, hot and cold showers, brisk walks and massages.

Thankfully for me, these days, my severe symptoms are controlled with medications. With RLS, my life is always busy and rarely dull.

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