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Why Can’t I Focus?

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 23, 2021

Each time you buckle down to work, your mind wanders or you start scrolling through your phone. Sound familiar? Most people have trouble focusing from time to time. But if it happens often, you may wonder why you can’t stay on task.

Lots of things, like everyday habits, can affect your ability to concentrate. In some cases, a health issue may be the cause. Here’s what you need to know.

Medical Conditions That Can Affect Focus

A short attention span may signal one of the following health issues:

ADHD. It isn’t just a kid thing. In adults, the main symptoms of this mental health condition can include:

  • Trouble focusing
  • Impulsiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Poor time management.

Anxiety. Worrying takes brainpower, which can get in the way of focusing. Signs of a generalized anxiety disorder can include:

  • Constant anxiety
  • Fear
  • Indecisiveness

Depression. This mood disorder is more than just feeling sad. It also affects the parts of your brain in charge of:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Decision making

Continued

Medication. Certain drugs can change the way brain chemicals work. They may mess with your memory and focus. These include drugs for:

Thyroid problems. The hormones this gland makes are important to several body functions, including thinking. If your thyroid gland doesn’t make enough or too much, you may have trouble concentrating.

When You Should Seek Help

Talk to your doctor if you can’t focus, so much so that it’s affecting your life. For example, you may notice that you’re falling behind in school or at work.

You should also make an appointment if you also have any of these symptoms:

  • Ongoing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Changes in your sleep habits, such as not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Worry and anxiety that’s lasted for months or affects your daily life
  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Dry skin, constipation, a puffy face, and/or hoarse voice
  • Unintentional weight loss, insomnia, and heat intolerance

Other Things That Can Affect Focus

These can also take a toll on your attention span:

Stress. Experts think the part of your brain in charge of survival takes over when you’re stressed out. The other parts of your brain, such as those that control attention and thinking, don’t get as much energy.

Hunger. Your brain needs fuel to work. When your blood sugar dips, it’s harder to focus.

Multitasking. Working on a report while answering emails and listening to a conference call might seem like a timesaver. But juggling too much at once can backfire. Our brains are wired to handle one thing at a time. Research shows constantly switching gears makes you less efficient and more likely to make mistakes.

Lack of sleep. It’s tough to pay attention when you’re tired. That’s because your brain cells recharge and recover when you’re asleep. They don’t work as well when you don’t get enough rest. Research shows that skipping even one night of sleep makes it harder to focus and block out distractions.

Eating lots of sugary or fatty foods. Sugar causes a quick rise in blood sugar, followed by an energy crash. Meanwhile, foods high in unhealthy saturated fat may trigger inflammation that affects your brain. One study found that women did worse on a test of their attention after eating a meal high in unsaturated fat.

How to Improve Focus

Make these changes to strengthen your concentration:

Time block. Have a lot on your plate? Schedule specific times for each task, such as a half hour each morning and afternoon to check email or answer calls. This keeps you from switching back and forth between duties.

Exercise regularly. It can help you blow off steam, sleep better, and ease stress. It also lowers inflammation and encourages the growth of new brain cells. That may sharpen your thinking in the long run.

Eat well. Eat foods high in fiber, unsaturated fat, and lean protein to stave off hunger and keep your blood sugar level steady. Fill your plate with different fruits and vegetables. They serve up nutrients your brain needs to function, such as vitamins B, C, E, and magnesium.

Cut down on distractions. Try to find a quiet area when you need to focus. Remove things that often compete for your attention. You may want to turn off the television or radio, and switch off your phone notifications for a period of time.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work.”

Harvard Health: “Exercise Can Boost Your Memory and Thinking Skills,” “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” “Is Your Medication Affecting Your Thinking Skills?” “More Than Sad: Depression Tips to Improve Concentration,” “Protect Your Brain From Stress,” “The Lowdown on Thyroid Slowdown.”

Mayo Clinic: “Adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),” “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” “Hypothyroidism (Underactive Thyroid).”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

National Sleep Foundation: “How Lack of Sleep Impacts Cognitive Performance and Focus,” “Side Effects of Sleep Medication.”

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: “Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance.”

Neuroscience Letters: “24-Hour Sleep Deprivation Impairs Early Attentional Modulation of Neural Processing: An Event-Related Brain Potential Study.”

Patricia Celan, MD, psychiatry resident, Nova Scotia Health Authority.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Afternoon Distraction: A High Saturated-Fat Meal and Endotoxemia Impact Postmeal Attention in Randomized Crossover Trial.”

Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist.

Translational Psychiatry: “Paying Attention to Attention in Depression.”

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