Attention and focus are big problems for a lot of us. I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve seen that at some point say “I swear I think I’m ADHD.” Most of the time, they’re only sort of kidding. ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that presents in childhood. Sometimes people aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, but they will usually be able to look back and see that the condition was always there. So what about people who notice a significant decline in focus as an adult? Poor concentration is a common symptom. It can occur as part of a mood or anxiety disorder, or a physical condition like sleep apnea. With any major change in concentration or memory, it’s important to rule out these types of serious causes. Most of the time, however, it’s a symptom of a stressful lifestyle. Yes, good old stress, showing us yet another reason why we need to learn to manage its effects on our lives!
Stress affects focus and concentration in a number of ways. Physically, it can affect our sleep, causing daytime fatigue. We can’t focus on writing a detailed report at work if our mind is spending all its energy trying to stay awake. Stress also causes the release of hormones that trigger the fight or flight response. Physiologically, we are being primed to run or turn and fight our attacker. Our brains are scanning for threats and escape routes, and literally can’t stay focused on one task when that is going on. Obviously, we will need to relax in order to improve our concentration!
Distraction is another reason for poor focus. We lead busy lives, and are often trying to multi-task in order to accomplish everything. This can increase stress, but it also ensures that we aren’t fully attended to any one thing at a time. Multi-tasking can also create an over-stimulating environment, as we watch TV while trying to read an article and wonder why we can’t remember anything we’ve read. I also see a common problem with procrastination. If you’ve ever put off an important assignment, then worried about it in the back of your mind all day long, you know how distracting it can be!
So, based on the reasons for lack of focus listed above, here are some ways to improve concentration:
1. Reduce stress. Since stress is the most common reason we can’t concentrate, this goes without saying!
2. Get enough sleep. And if you’re tired and losing focus, try taking a short break. Take a walk, call a friend, or just have a cold drink. Your alertness may improve, and your focus along with it.
3. Single-task. Do one thing at a time, and don’t put things off. You are much more likely to stay on task and accomplish everything on schedule.
4. Meditate. I know, this is my answer for everything, but hear me out. iRest, Mindfulness Meditation, and Transcendental Meditation have all been shown to have profound relaxation effects on the body (see number 1). They have also been found to improve concentration, separate from their impact on stress. Meditation actually trains your brain to stay focused on one thing. So, we meditate to relax the body while we strengthen our attention at the same time. Beautiful!
Lack of focus is common, and there are often many reasons for it. Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture of the stress and demands on our lives to truly discover why we can’t concentrate. The treatment should fit the cause, and therefore my prescriptions most often include the lifestyle changes listed above. It may take some work to accomplish, but the benefits will extend into your whole life.