Mental-Cognitive Symptoms

How to Overcome Anxiety's Inability to Concentrate

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated November 25th, 2020

How to Overcome Anxiety's Inability to Concentrate

Concentration problems are a common when you live with anxiety. Severe anxiety makes it almost impossible to pay attention to the tasks at hand, and while an inability to concentrate is not always someone's priority when addressing anxiety symptoms, it is an issue that can play a significant role in reducing your quality of life.

So what can you do about problems concentrating? We'll explore that in this article.

Causes of Concentration Problems

Focus requires a great deal of mental energy. There are distractions everywhere in the world, making it harder and harder to pay attention to the tasks at hand. 

What's interesting is that calling them concentration problems may be misleading. Often you ARE concentrating - you're simply focusing on the wrong things (like your anxiety and the way it makes you feel). It's very hard to focus on work when you're worried about the day or feeling incredibly anxious.

In some cases, you may also be suffering from rapid thoughts. Rapid thoughts are another type of anxiety symptom and are caused by your body becoming overly activated to the point where it starts processing all thoughts as rapidly as possible, only to end up focusing on nothing at all. Both of these may be considered trouble concentrating, though they vary in many ways.

Finally, another problem is that many people use distractions to cope. For example, you may find yourself browsing the web more at work because browsing the web relaxes you. However, by doing this you are distracting yourself from your work as well making it difficult to be focused on your work. 

Concentration and Anxiety

Anxiety doesn't necessarily cause concentration problems as its own symptom. In fact, it could be argued that anxiety actually improves concentration. Anxiety is the activation of your fight or flight system, which is meant to keep you safe from harm by ensuring you're running away or fighting without distraction.

So in a way, your mind and body are ready to concentrate. The problem is that:

  • It has nothing to concentrate on.
  • What it does concentrate on is not what you want to concentrate on.

It's clear why a problem arises. As long as you have anxiety, it's unfortunately very likely that you are going to continue to experience these types of concentration issues, which is why your next step is to ensure that you're effectively looking for help reeling in your concentration towards what you would like to concentrate on.

How to Improve Concentration With Anxiety

Improving concentration is about trying to figure out what's causing the distractions (besides anxiety) and refocusing your mind on what you're doing. Depending on the severity of your anxiety it can be a bit difficult, but you may find that trying the following suggestions provides some relief:

  • Sensory Stimulation Interestingly, adding slight distractions may help some people reduce their distractions. This strategy doesn't work for everyone, but what many people need is something that drowns out their thoughts, like putting on the TV or a podcast or radio. The sensory stimulation that these provide make it harder to over-focus on anxiety thoughts, which in turn helps to improve your ability to focus on what you need to. However, you'll need to make sure that you're not distracted by that technology. I recommend facing away from the TV and putting the volume low enough that you can't hear every word, but you can listen to just enough that it distracts you from your negative thoughts.
  • Writing Out the Thoughts You Do Have Another strategy that can be very effective is to write out recurring thoughts that are distracting your focus. Many people find that they have a lot of things on their mind and that they cannot seem to stop thinking about those thoughts no matter how hard they try. It may be that your mind is trying to remember the thought(s). If you write them out, your mind will know that your thoughts are in a safe place, and so it won't focus as much on trying to remember them.
  • Prevent Distractions There is a difference between trying to avoid distractions and making it impossible to be distracted. For example, let's say you're a writer and you have a distracted focus that causes you to constantly browse the web. Rather than simply try hard to browse the web, do your best to make web browsing impossible by turning off your Internet or installing software that prevents web browsing. You can do this with other areas of your life that are causing distractions, like taking the batteries out of your remote control. Since many people find that they're using these tools to cope with their anxiety, preventing access to them can keep you on the task at hand.
  • Timers Another interesting tool is to give yourself a timer that you use for your "distraction time" and your "work" or focus time. People that work under a set timeframe have an easier time focusing, even if their mind is actively thinking about other things. If you have a timer, set it to something like 1 hour, and then work as hard as you can in that hour. Once the hour is over, give yourself 15 minutes to be distracted, then set the timer again for 1 hour of non-stop work.
  • Create Sub Tasks Figure out what it is you need to do specifically, and then create numerous smaller tasks in list form that you check off one by one. This way even if you get distracted, you know exactly what you're focusing on at any given time, and you can work until you finish it and then motivate yourself to the next task.
  • Breathe Better Some people find that they have the most difficulty concentrating during an anxiety attack. This type of concentration issue is very different from the others because it tends to last for less time but also makes it nearly impossible to pay attention to what's around you. This type of concentration problem is often due to hyperventilation. During anxiety attacks, you tend to breathe in a way that causes less blood flow to reach your brain, causing you to lose some of your concentration ability. It's not dangerous, but it can be distressing. Breathe better by slowing down your breathing dramatically and fighting the urge to gasp for more air. Make sure you take at least 5 seconds to breathe in, hold for two seconds, and take at least 7 seconds to breathe out.

Unfortunately, none of these strategies are a replacement for simply managing your anxiety overall. You need to make sure that your anxiety is under control if you also want to ensure that your concentration isn't too affected.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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