Not being able to focus

By Mark Loewen

I work with people who are emotionally overwhelmed. Counseling is for many a last resort. By the time a client steps in my office, they have struggled for a while, only to see things become worse. This makes total sense to me. If you are used to dealing with difficulties, you tackle them on your own first. Many stressful situations are successfully resolved this way.

So how do you know if your stress is in the normal range? In my previous post I discussed one of the signs: lack of sleep. Here I’ll address the second: difficulty to focus on regular tasks.

We all struggle with concentration and focus during times of extra stress. Or, rather than experiencing a lack of focus, you feel that your mind is focusing very strongly on what it deems most important. Maybe you struggled to focus on work tasks during a big change in your personal life. Your mind saw the personal event as more important than your daily tasks. But with some extra effort, you were able to responsibly fulfill your job duties that day. Once the event passed, everything went back to normal.

So, when is lack of concentration a sign of something more than regular life-stress? When it’s overwhelming and you aren’t able to complete daily tasks successfully. Or, when you are simultaneously overwhelmed with emotions. You may feel anxious, worried, sad or helpless. On the other hand, you may feel the opposite - a total lack of emotion that feels numb. Another sign is that it lasts longer than you feel you can tolerate.

Not being able to concentrate or having a foggy memory could be signs of depression or anxiety. Depression often shows up as a lack of energy or motivation that makes efforts to focus very hard. Anxiety can show up as a heightened state of alertness that focuses on your worries. Much so, that it’s actually hard not to focus on what makes you anxious. You struggle to control your anxious thoughts.

During this time, you try even harder to concentrate, therefore putting even more stress on yourself. The extra stress heightens your anxiety and your lack of success fuels your feelings of helplessness. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The more helpful solution sounds counterintuitive. It is more helpful to give your mind rest, instead of added pressure. Activities such as taking several breaths with long exhalations can give you some relief. More focused activities such as yoga or exercise can also make a big difference. These strategies reduce stress by targeting your physiology directly, reducing your heart rate, and relaxing your muscles. They are, however, most effective when combined with deeper reflection about the source of your stress. The unbiased feedback from a counselor can shed light on areas of your life that are hard to figure out. A non-judgmental relationship with someone that has “heard it all” allows you to safely express thoughts that you wouldn’t share with an acquaintance. And, counseling creates a domino effect that allows you to apply new coping strategies and insight to other scenarios - making it easier for you to deal with stress in the future.

If a consistent difficulty with concentration or focus is coming in the way reaching personal or professional goals, don’t ignore it. It may be time to reach out for help.

Mark Loewen helps overwhelmed adults find their way when life becomes too much to handle. He specializes in parenting, relationships, and LGBTQ issues.