Symptom of the Day: Difficulty ConcentratingOne of the main symptoms of bipolar depression is difficulty in concentrating. Everyone experiences this problem from time to time, but during depressive episodes, people with bipolar disorder experience it almost every day. It can also be more severe than in the general population. Having difficulty concentrating and making decisions is a constant struggle for anyone with bipolar disorder, even between episodes.

Bipolar disorder can cause problems with what mental health professionals refer to as “cognitive” or “executive functioning.” Cognitive function is how the brain processes higher thinking and information. It involves memory, critical thinking, social functioning, attention and concentration. Somewhere between 15% and 60% of people with bipolar disorder experience issues with cognitive function at some point, even between episodes. It’s more common in people with bipolar I than bipolar II and tends to be worse in people who have more frequent episodes, but it can happen to anyone with bipolar in any phase of their illness.

Distractibility in Mania
In mania, difficulty concentrating typically manifests as an inability to focus. This distractibility can mimic ADHD symptoms. It comes with racing thoughts and difficulty maintaining focus on the task or conversation at hand. External stimuli draw the person’s attention until their brain finds something to fixate on.

Impulsive behavior is another symptom of mania and can go hand-in-hand with distractibility. During a manic phase, someone with bipolar disorder may not have the self-regulation to concentrate on one activity for an extended period. Instead, attention may be drawn to several stimuli at once, making concentration extremely difficult.

In Depression, an Inability to Think
Many people report that during depressive episodes they experience an inability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions easily. Feeling hazy or unable to complete a thought is not unusual; neither is feeling lost or confused. Depression zaps energy and consumes mental resources. Clear thinking and concentration require energy.

The depressed mind can also be preoccupied by depressive symptoms. This, combined with the lack of ability to think clearly, leaves people with bipolar disorder few resources to even complete daily tasks. Working, studying and being active either fall to the wayside or are left incomplete. Even deciding to act at all can be challenging to the point where the easiest solution seems to be to do nothing.

How to Improve Concentration
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, improving concentration may not be possible at the time. However, there are a few ways to help keep focus intact.

  • Keep a routine. Not having to decide when to eat or when to sleep and not having to remember whether medication was missed will free up mental resources for other tasks.
  • Get enough sleep. The brain cannot function well without sleep. Fatigue is common in depression, so adequate sleep (seven to nine hours) is necessary in order to prevent exacerbating symptoms.
  • Stay organized. Spending less time looking for keys or socks gives extra time for self-care and saves energy for other thoughts and activities.
  • Take one step at a time. Focusing on too much at a time can be overwhelming and lead to inaction. Take on tasks in small, manageable increments.
  • Take a break. Sometimes environments are overstimulating and too much to handle. Taking some time to step back and regroup can make a big difference.
  • Speak to a doctor. If symptoms persist, medical help may be necessary. This could come in the form of medication, therapy or recommendations for lifestyle changes. A doctor can also provide personalized care not only for difficulty concentrating, but for managing bipolar disorder in general.




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Image credit: jseliger2