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Here’s how your anxiety might be affecting your concentration

September 14, 2022 - 16 min read

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The connection between anxiety and stress

How does anxiety affect concentration?

How to cope with concentration problems due to anxiety

Is lack of concentration a sign of anxiety?

Is lack of concentration a symptom of depression?

It’s okay to ask for help

The bottom line

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans struggled with their mental health. And, for some of them, it was their very first time.

52.9 million people experienced mental health issues in 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Anxiety was far and above the most common type of mental disorder, affecting 48 million people.

Anxiety comes in varying degrees of intensity:

  • Mild anxiety symptoms include social anxiety and shyness
  • People with moderate anxiety may feel on edge, unable to relax or control their worrying for multiple days at a time
  • Severe anxiety is debilitating, regularly causing panic and social withdrawal, which often accompanies the major depressive disorder

No matter the severity, the symptoms of anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate on everyday tasks.

If you’re worried about the role of anxiety in your daily life, the best thing you can do is reach out to a mental health professional. They’ll assess your symptoms and provide some kind of intervention, such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.

In the meantime, here’s some general information to help you cope with your lack of concentration and anxiety.

 

The connection between anxiety and stress

Anxiety is defined by a constant feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease. Thought patterns swirl around your mind, focusing your attention on possible negative outcomes and creating helplessness about addressing it.

When this happens, your body responds similarly to when you’re stressed. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline rush through your veins, causing physiological changes like:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Constricted blood vessels 
  • Raised blood sugar 

These changes are meant to help you respond to stressors (i.e., a real or perceived threat you encounter in your life). A stressor can be anything from a wild bear confrontation to preparing for an important meeting.

Stress hormones, at their best, give you energy and a heightened sense of focus until the threat disappears. But chronic stress can lead to medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or cognitive impairment.

But anxiety can cause these changes without stressors present. That means your body and mind are fixated on threats that either doesn’t exist or aren’t a priority.

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How does anxiety affect concentration?

Difficulty concentrating is a common symptom of anxiety. But this description is a bit misleading.

It’s not so much that you can’t concentrate; it’s that you concentrate on the wrong things. Your mind is so preoccupied with worry that when you want to pay attention to a task, you can’t bring yourself to focus.

So then, what does lack of concentration feel like? 

Let’s say you’re studying for a test. Your anxious brain might fixate on the possibility of failure to the point where you can’t focus on anything else. So it’s not that you can’t concentrate on studying; you’re just too busy concentrating on your fears.

How to cope with concentration problems due to anxiety

In addition to getting professional help, here are some things that can help you reduce your trouble concentrating despite feeling anxious.

1. Try sensory stimulation

When you’re anxious, distracting thoughts monopolize your attention. To pull yourself out, try adding distractions to your physical space. 

This technique might sound counterintuitive. But the sensory stimulation from a TV show, podcast, or radio can shift your attention away from anxious thoughts and free you to focus on what you need. Music can help you concentrate

Just make sure your chosen media doesn’t become too distracting. Try facing away from the TV or putting the radio volume on “low” so it doesn’t dominate your attention.

2. Write down your thoughts

Writing down your thoughts is a good way to pull them out of your head. You can store your thoughts in a journal and read them later. This can help you detach from your fears and focus on other things, notice patterns in your thoughts, and expel your anxiety.

man-writing-down-his-thoughts-lack-of-concentration-and-anxiety

3. Use your “do not disturb” function

Social media can offer a nice reprieve from your anxious thoughts. But it can just as easily work against you. What starts as a quick message from a friend quickly turns into a deep dive on Reddit. Before you know it, you just spent 30 minutes scrolling.

Take advantage of your phone’s “do not disturb” function and block distracting websites in your browser. This can help you stay on task.

4. Manage your time with alarms

Set a timer for 15 minutes while you’re working. You’ll focus more knowing you have a break coming up. And, with any luck, you’ll be in a flow, and you’ll continue beyond your alarm. Using alarms when you practice the Pomodoro Technique might also improve your performance and productivity.

5. Break down your tasks

If a large task makes you anxious, break it down into baby steps on your to-do list. Smaller tasks will feel much more manageable. And, every time you strike one off the list, you’ll feel a sense of progression. This can motivate you to keep going.

6. Relax and breathe

Mindful breathing and other relaxation techniques are great ways to calm your mind. When you’re anxious and stressed, deep breathing tells your brain that you’re not in danger. Here’s the basic technique:

  • Sit comfortably in a quiet area
  • Close your eyes
  • Breathe in slowly, feeling your stomach expand
  • Breathe out at the same speed

As you do this, try to think of nothing but your breath. Focus on the sensations. Even a handful of deep breaths can make a difference.

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7. Switch tasks

If you’re losing focus on your current task, try working on something different. The novelty can relieve boredom and temporarily stimulate your attention. 

More than two tasks at a time will be more difficult. It can take up to 23-minutes to re-focus after switching tasks, so it’s best to do this sparingly. Don’t switch repeatedly; just give yourself ab reak from one and make some progress on the other. 

8. Exercise and eat well

Regular exercise can help relieve your symptoms of anxiety so you can focus. It can:

  • Divert your attention away from anxious thoughts
  • Relax your body
  • Trigger positive chemicals in your brain
  • Help you control your response to perceived threats
  • Protect you against mood swings and strong emotions

Keeping a healthy, balanced diet can also provide your brain with the nutrients that you need to be at your best.

9. Plan your time strategically

Pay attention to when your focus is strongest, and plan your day accordingly. If you work better in the morning, tackle your big tasks first. Then, when you’re tired, you can do smaller things like answer emails. Time-blocking is a great way to devote enough time to a task and soothe your worries that you won’t get everything done. 

10. Reframe your thoughts

Watch out for thought patterns that contribute to your anxiety. Binary thinking, negativity, jumping to conclusions, and decisions based on emotions can harm your mental health and pull your focus.

For more concentration tips, ask BetterUp. Our coaches can help you experiment and find techniques that work for you. 

Is lack of concentration a sign of anxiety?

Lack of concentration isn’t exclusive to anxiety, but it is a common symptom. You should watch out for additional indicators, like:

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Irritability
  • Headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches, or other kinds of unexplained pain
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive worry

confused-frustrated-young-man-reading-letter-lack-of-concentration-and-anxiety

Lack of concentration, if accompanied by these other symptoms, could indicate a generalized anxiety disorder. For a formal diagnosis, consult a mental health physician.

Is lack of concentration a symptom of depression?

Lack of focus is a common symptom among people with depressive mood disorders. But, as is the case with anxiety, we can’t draw conclusions based on a single indicator.

It’s worth also keeping an eye out for other symptoms, such as:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Angry outburst
  • Irritability over small matters
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy
  • Lethargy
  • Too much or lack of sleep
  • Lower cognitive functioning
  • Forgetfulness, memory loss, and other memory problems
  • Suicidal ideation

People often experience depression and anxiety at the same time. If you struggle with one already, it’s worth seeking medical advice from your healthcare provider to see if both are at play.

It’s okay to ask for help

professional-psychologist-conducting-consultation-lack-of-concentration-and-anxiety

Remember, it’s okay to need help sometimes. You deserve support, whether you have anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, or other mental health conditions.

Your work might offer support through a disabilities and benefits package, don’t be afraid to use it to access psychiatry services. You’re entitled to unpaid stress leave if your workload is overwhelming. Your organization might also offer mental health days as part of its compensation package.

And, if you have a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to the crisis text line at 741741. They have people on staff who can talk to you in times of crisis.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, you’re more than your mental health. You have goals, dreams, and aspirations — and anxiety can easily pull your focus from that. 

But you don’t have to let it. There exists a future where your worries are just worries, and poor concentration and anxiety are only small parts of your life. With the right coping mechanisms and some professional help, you can build a better quality of life for yourself.

BetterUp is here to support you on your journey. We can help you make time for your mental health, prepare for stress leave, and help you track your professional goals. Together, we can organize your life to maximize your happiness and potential.

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Published September 14, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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