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Why can’t I focus? How anxiety can hinder concentration

Got the attention span of a goldfish? Here's why you can't focus and 5 tips to help improve concentration

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 Dan Murray-Serter
Dan Murray-Serter
May 26, 2022
5 min read

We've all been there. Stuck at Procrastination Station and asking ourselves 'why can't I focus?!'. If your attention span has entered goldfish territory, don't worry, you're not alone. Lockdown has led to increased stress levels and wreaked havoc on our ability to focus.

Fortunately, here at Heights we have some tips and tricks up our sleeves, to help you manage underlying stress and focus better.

Article breakdown

Why can't I focus?

One reason why you might have trouble focusing, especially in recent years, is because many of us have developed unconscious anxious minds.

According to this interview with New Zealand clinical psychologist Dr Kimberly Falconer, our ability to stay focused is suffering because of the increase of stress. Thanks, 2020. The sudden plunge into uncertainty and the intensive juggling act of work, home, finance, political, and health concerns can take a toll on our stress response, even if it doesn’t feel like an ‘active’ worry. Because our situations continue to be a far cry from normality, and we’re still without access to our usual coping mechanisms and support systems, the anxiety of that is a constant factor.

Even if it’s not obviously there, as soon as we stop and try to stay focused on a book (as BBC Journalist describes in this viral tweet!) the anxiety-induced lack of attention-span becomes searingly obvious. Why question 'why can't I concentrate' and concern for our lack of focus can cause additional worry, making the problem worse.

What causes lack of focusing?

It's what happens in our brains when we're anxious, then, that causes this lack of focus.

In simple terms; when we are subject to uncontrollable stress, high levels of arousal chemicals are released into the brain, which causes the prefrontal cortex to shut down, and our “top-down” control to be impacted. This can make us forgetful, emotional, reactive, and crucially, distracted.

The major functions of the prefrontal cortex include decision making, planning, patience, impulse control, working memory, and our ability to stay focused.

FOR THE NERDY: The impact of anxiety on brain function (NCBI)

To sum up...

  • our ability to concentrate is struggling because of an increase in stress

  • Stress factors include: uncertainty, juggling work, home, finance, political, and health concerns

  • Even when they're not 'active' worries, they can still take a toll on our ability to focus

  • Stress can cause the prefrontal cortex to shut down, and make us forgetful, emotional, reactive, and crucially, distracted.

What to do if you can't focus?

If you find yourself caught up in distractions and screaming 'why can't I concentrate!' then it might be helpful to take a look at your anxiety response.

The key factor in all of this is control. Feeling out of control of the situation is what is making us anxious, flooding our brains with arousal chemicals, and making us feel so scattered. But, there are ways to still feel everything, and avoid the flood effect.

When you manage your stress response so that you feel alert, safe, and interested—the amount of chemicals is moderated. This means that the prefrontal cortex can do its job properly, and we can make better decisions, control our impulses (no more bizarre stress purchases), and vitally, regain some focus.

5 tips for improving focus

These simple techniques will help you to get some perspective, a sense of control, and strengthen the prefrontal cortex, all aiding your ability to concentrate:

  1. Learn how to cope with stress Whether it's 'why can't I focus on homework?' or 'why can't I pay attention in this VERY important meeting?', it's often when we need to concentrate the most our mind wanders. This is likely due to the pressure we feel. In this podcast, Dr Rangan Chatterjee shares tips for managing stress.

  2. Use meditation to your advantage The essence of meditation is training the brain to pay attention. You can use this practice to your advantage to help you stay focused for longer. Learn more about how it works with teacher Natalia Bojanic.

  3. Try journalling If you can't stop questioning 'why can't I focus on anything?' a journal is a good place to unpack this experience and frustration. It can be used as a way to strategically process your feelings and refocus your attention.

  4. Tackle Procrastination Of course, lack of focus goes hand in hand with procrastination. If you want to be more productive, try some strategies for tackling procrastination. One we love is the Pomodoro Method (focusing in small chunks).

  5. Take the Smart Supplement Our top-rated formula of 20 key vitamins and minerals targets everything from poor sleep to brain fog and stress. Taking care of your brain health might be exactly what you need to focus for longer.

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Heights Smart Supplement with blueberries and a snap pea
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Final thoughts

In this article, we discussed how the underlying anxiety and stress of the pandemic might be why many of us are finding it hard to concentrate at the moment. We delved into how prolonged stress affects the brain causing us to become distracted.

So, what are going to do about it? Take back control and find ways to beat stress and boost our focus!

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