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Why Can’t I Focus? Anxiety, Your Brain & Help If You Need It


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I’m having trouble concentrating. I’ve taken an informal poll of friends and they’re having problems too. I can focus on what’s in front of me, but otherwise I have trouble being present and centered. I’m attributing this to my reaction to the stress caused by COVID19. The point of a stress response is to kick the body into gear (via the serotoninergic system) to deal with a perceived or real threat. The problem when the perception of threat is ongoing is that there can be a stress response that’s also ongoing – a pathological stress response – which impacts us emotionally, cognitively and physiologically. Our negative emotions can be obvious: anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration.

Thinking and decision making are among the cognitive processes affected by stress. The hippocampus and amygdala (to simplify this) kick the pre-frontal cortex off line, so to speak, depending on how activated we are. Putting it simply, when our bodies (and minds) are scanning for threat, we’re not using the thinking part of our brains as effectively, and we’re not necessarily in the present – we may be in what just happened or what might happen, the past and the future. We’re not grounded in right now when perhaps nothing is actually going on.

Not everyone is feeling stressed to the same degree, since stress involves the perception of threat that is beyond the capacity of our coping skills. There is a very wide range of reactions and most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Some autistics welcome working from home without the social and sensory demands of the office environment. They are comfortable being alone. These aspects of the “new normal” don’t cause them anxiety, and they feel the threat of illness is manageable. I know both neurodiverse and neurotypical friends have found this to be a time when they can garden, read, work and do things they never had time for.  They may be focusing on enjoyable things that take them away from more anxious responses, and their activities are bringing them into the present moment. Many feel this way AND still have that background trouble with thinking when not engaged in specific positive activities.

There are also both neurodiverse people and neurotypicals who are vulnerable to intense anxiety or depression. For those overwhelmed by the sheer number of simultaneous demands in their lives, by fear of illness or of being alone, their stress is over the top; they are suffering badly. Ideally, they can reach out  to others who can be of support. My suggestions below might help. For those who need it,  teletherapy services are available. Insurers are now covering codes for telemedicine.

Myself, I’m getting some work done, but I struggle keeping up my meditation practice and my ability to focus and initiate tasks. I seem to flit from task to task, usually involved with what my emotional mind thinks is survival – finding an available delivery date for shopping, finding cleaner in one store, paper towels maybe somewhere else. I’m trying to exercise at home but get distracted by cleaning when I bring in the mail or have someone come to the door. Wash, wash, wash.

I can offer this self-help advice that seems to work for many:

  1. Create a structure to your day. Get up at a time you decide. Have actually scheduled time for different tasks so you’ll feel more organized and in control. I have to set alerts for what I schedule, especially involving meetings, since time seems to blend together.
  2. Practice good self-care. This is an important time to take care of yourself. Eat well and get sleep. Try to maintain a consistent sleeping schedule. Exercise. Walk, and there are plenty of online exercise classes; some like Daily Om let you pay what you can.
  3. Meditate and practice mindfulness. If you haven’t had a mediation practice before, this is a great time to start with an online app such as Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer. Do mindfulness exercises where you focus on your sensory experience of breathing, holding an object and noticing all its details, letting a mint melt in your mouth noticing every detail of each moment. Even washing dishes can be done mindfully.
  4. Reach out. People are getting creative about using Zoom, FaceTime, Hangouts, Google Duplo and other apps to see friends and family and spend time together, whether with friends, groups like book groups or whomever you know.
  5. Take advantage of what’s online. I have a friend taking her cello lessons on line. There are short and long courses, podcasts, virtual tours of museums. Try a yoga class or anything that might interest you.
  6. Do some things simply for pleasure. Binge on a TV show or find other opportunities to enjoy yourself. This is the time to indulge – mystery novels? Sci-fi movies? Whatever you will enjoy, without feeling guilty that you’re not doing something “worthwhile.”
  7. Limit exposure to media.  Keep up with developments in what we’re directed to do, but monitor how much time you spend upsetting yourself.

To handle my anxiety, I’m trying to follow my own advice with variable success. I’ve structured my day to start with meditation and exercise, using Insight Timer and Daily Om. I schedule time for tasks like blogging, having meetings, responding to emails and walking dogs. My danger zone is during the day, becoming caught up in distracting tasks or getting into Facebook and social media. For me, late afternoon or after dinner is a good time to reach out to friends. Scheduling a call or a zoom visit gives me something I can look forward to. Last is TV. I can’t say I manage to be this organized every day, but it’s a goal and it helps.

For those really struggling and in need of help, there are teletherapy resources and multiple hotlines you can use.

Teletherapy:

Psychology Today:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/online-counseling

https://www.cnet.com/how-to/how-to-find-a-therapist-online/

Hotlines

Talk or text

24 Hour Helpline to talk  1.800. 537.6066.

Crisis Text Line | Text HOME To 741741

Suicide

National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255.

Suicide prevention live chat  https://www.contact-usa.org/chat.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Can’t I Focus? Anxiety, Your Brain & Help If You Need It


Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

Psychologist since 1985, serving on CT ASD Advisory Council, Professional Board SmartkidswithLD


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APA Reference
Eckerd, M. (2020). Why Can’t I Focus? Anxiety, Your Brain & Help If You Need It. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/aspergers-nld/2020/04/why-cant-i-focus-anxiety-your-brain-help-if-you-need-it/

 

Last updated: 27 Apr 2020
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