Why Can’t I Focus?

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

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 COVID-19. The point of a stress response is to kick the body into gear 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. Simply put, 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.

The Stress Gamut

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 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 have friends who welcome this time to 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 others who are vulnerable to intense anxiety or depression. For those who are overwhelmed by the onslaught 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. 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 to keep 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, locating 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.

Managing Your Stress

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

  1. Structure your day. Get up at a time you decide. Schedule actual time for different tasks. That will help you feel more organized and in control. I 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/or take advantage 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 meditation 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, hobby groups, book groups, or whomever you know.
  5. Take advantage of what’s online. I have a friend taking her cello lessons online. There are short and long courses, podcasts, virtual tours of museums. Try a yoga class, a cooking class, or anything that interests 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, 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 to 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.

If you’re really struggling and in need of help, consider accessing the following teletherapy resources and hotlines.


 Hotlines: Talk or text:

  • 24 Hour Helpline to talk  1.800. 537.6066.
  • Crisis Text Line | Text HOME To 741741

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.

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