Not being able to focus can become a major issue in life. It can stop you from moving forward in your career, cause you to forget things in ways that negatively affect your relationships, and lead you to make mistakes in important areas like your finances.
This can all add up to a lot of added stress and anxiety and perhaps many sleepless nights. So what is behind your problem with focus? Is it just something small, or do you actually have a psychological health condition?
And when is a lack of focus enough of a problem you should see a doctor or mental health professional?
Mental Health Conditions that Cause Lack of Focus
Adult ADHD is a condition where you have such a problem concentrating your quality of life is affected, and it is a growing modern problem.
You do not need to have had ADHD as a child to have it as an adult, and the signs can actually be different when you are older. Whereas in children hyperactivity is often involved, Adult ADHD can manifest more as difficulty with your focus, in that you struggle with concentration and attentiveness.
Adult ADHD can also lead to hyperfocus, where you over focus on one thing. This might sound a good thing, but can mean you neglect other things that need your attention. And for those with ADHD, the thing chosen as a focus is often not the thing that needs to be prioritised.
But don’t jump to conclusions and assume that just because you are unfocussed you have ADHD. Only 4% of adults are actually thought to have ADHD.
Of course if you are convinced you have it, and match the symptoms of Adult ADHD, do seek the advice of a professional. It’s not a great idea to self diagnose Adult ADHD, because it can leave you ignoring other causes for your inability to focus that might be easier to solve. (Read more about ADHD counselling here).
Depression and Anxiety Disorders
Depression is a mood disorder that involves feeling sad and numb for several weeks, months, or more.
One of the main symptoms reported for depression is ‘fuzzy thinking’, the inability to think clearly. It can feel as if your brain is set on low, or your head is filled with wet sand. This obviously leads to feeling you can’t focus. Depression also causes fatigue, again affecting clear thinking.
Anxiety is when we feel ill at ease and often involves being in a state of worry and fear. There are different kinds of anxiety disorders that generally involve not being able to turn off anxiety but instead having it take over your life.
Anxiety tends to leave your mind racing on repeat, going over the same stressful thoughts, worries, and scenarios and leaving very little headspace to focus clearly.
Anxiety and depression can often come hand in hand – nearly a half those who have depression also have an anxiety disorder. Both are difficult to handle alone and can worsen if left untreated, but the good news is that if you do decide to deal with anxiety and depression there is great help available nowadays that can produce real results.
If you feel the signs of depression are a fit for you (read our Guide to Depression for more), or that you match the signs of an anxiety disorder, it is a good idea to talk to your GP, who can refer you on to mental health support. Cognitive behavioural therapy, with its focus on gaining control over your thought patterns, is often recommended. Otherwise, consider private therapy, which is often covered by workplace insurance. Self-help books can also be a good starting point.
Emotional Shock and PTSD
Emotional shock, also known as Acute stress reaction and psychological shock, is a medically recognised condition that can happen due to an extreme life change or situation that is very upsetting. The brain cannot process all that is happening and this throws a sufferer into a constant fight or flight mode.
One of the main symptoms of Emotional shock is not being able to think straight, of feeling all over the place – in other words, you can’t focus.
Emotional shock eventually slows down. But if you learn the signs of emotional shock and feel that it is you and it is not getting better, and if you are having flashbacks, using addictive behaviour to avoid pain, pushing away friends and family, and otherwise having trouble being yourself and getting on with your life, then do consider speaking to a trauma counsellor or psychotherapist who can help.
And if you read the signs of emotional shock and feel like you have always had the symptoms, a therapist can help you look at whether there is a traumatic experience in your childhood that is behind it. If you know what has caused your ongoing signs of emotional shock, it might be that you have PTSD, which is a longer lasting reaction to trauma which can lead to addictions, severe depression, and social withdrawal without treatment.
Addiction can be behind a lack of focus, and in many cases it’s an addiction that you might not even be acknowledging. This can include shopaholism, internet addiction, social media addiction, or love addiction.
Addiction causes the mind to be over focussed on one thing, leaving less of your mind available to take care of everything else. It’s hard to be focussed when you are always thinking of something else.
Because of the very nature of addiction, it’s hard to change it alone, and it’s recommended to seek the help of a support group or counsellor.
Mindfulness is also recommended, a practice now integrated into sessions by many therapists that helps you be more in the present moment where you can notice your addictive thoughts, triggers, and feelings that cause the triggers.
Other Reasons for Lack of Focus
Before you jump to conclusions about why you can’t focus and assume it’s related to a mental health condition, it’s also important to look at other lifestyle choices that might be behind your lack of focus instead. These can include:
If you are in a situation you don’t like, such as studying a program at school you hate or working a job you can’t stand or feels too easy, boredom can actually cause you daydream, seek distracting thoughts or activities, or otherwise be unfocussed.
Try journaling about what it is about your situation you do and don’t like and what actions you could take to improve it. You might discover there are things you do like you can focus on, or ways to make change in the situation or indeed ways to find a better placement entirely. A life coach or career coach can also be helpful.
Poor self care.
An unhealthy lifestyle can behind your distraction. Drinking too much can lead to fatigue and a foggy mind, as can under or overeating or maintaining a poor diet and not exercising. How could you take better care of yourself?
The brain needs sleep to function well. Educate yourself about sleep and learn the simple changes you can make to have a better slumber. If you have not slept well in a long time and suspect you have a sleep disorder, speak to your GP.
A stressful lifestyle.
Stress can at first offer an adrenaline high that gives you clear thinking but this can quickly lead to a crash where you lose your perspective entirely, or leave you on a cycle of highs and lows where you over focus then under focus. And at the end of the day, we can all only manage to do so many things in our lives before it’s too much and we suffer anxiety and depression, which both cause a lack of focus.
(For more reasons for why you can’t focus, read our article, “Why Am I So Distracted All the Time?”)
While it is possible that your lack of focus is caused by a mental health condition, don’t jump to conclusions that leave you blinded to trying other possibilities. Seek help if you match the symptoms of one of the conditions before, but at the same time look at ways you can take better care of yourself and your health.
Do you have another tip for increasing your focus in life? Or have you had therapy for one of the conditions above and found your focus improved? Start the conversation below.
photos by Bart Everson, Michael Dorokhov, Sean MacEntee, Ruby Goes