Mental Health

Why is it hard for me to focus?

Sitting in my room, trying to concentrate, I hear a phone buzzing on one side and my thoughts, on the other. It’s almost Christmas, did I buy everything, what about that supplement that I was going to search for the other night, how does high cholesterol influence sleep (yes, I do wonder about these things), oh, and… Wait, why am I here for?...

Recently I found myself incredibly overwhelmed. I noticed that it is very difficult for me to focus on one activity and simply be present. I have trouble sleeping and struggle with anxiety. On top of this I started to develop memory problems, which concerned me more than anything. 

I have never been super focused, but I didn’t struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) either. Although I had been trying to ignore the issue for quite some time, I finally decided, that brain health is my main priority, and I am going to work on feeling better. 

Anxiety and brain health

First I started to analyze my daily habits and came to conclusion, that my constant online presence and attempts to multitask may be at the root of an issue. Of course, the damage didn’t happen overnight. I have been using Internet on a regular basis for more than a decade now, and, of course, it all started from a simple chat. 

Anxiety disorder, that I have been dealing with for years now, doesn’t help brain clarity either. If you are constantly uneased about something, it’s no wonder your brain function suffers. Anxiety makes our brain release “mean” stress hormone cortisol, that is responsible for blood sugar regulation, inflammation reduction, metabolism regulation and memory formulation. 

According to research, published by John Wiley & Sons, anxiety is "inter-related and inseparable with loss of memory"[1]

I had a suspicion though, that there was something more than anxiety, that has been affecting my memory and ability to focus. And I wanted to know what it was in order to fix it. 

I have learnt, that in the majority of cases our bodies do work properly if we take a good care of it. It doesn't mean, that there are no external factors, but it's important to know what is the right thing to do, that is in our control. In fact, dealing with mental illness for so many years, I discovered, that I was lacking sense of control over my body. It's like my body was responding to my emotions without my consious ability to guide them. 

But in order to know what is right and what is wrong, you not only need to consult a doctor and make your own research, but also to be open to try new way of approaching your problems.

Research

Quite recently JAMA network published a study, that found a connection between teens using multiple social media platforms and the appearance of ADHD symptoms[2]. It didn’t surprise me, but what about multitasking? Isn't it the next step in the human’s evolution? 

Not necessarily. 

In 2009 Stanford conducted a study with about 100 participants. The goal was to find out, what multitaskers do best. The result is kind of ironic: nothing. According to communication professor Clifford Nass, “everything distracts them”[3]. It does sound like me! 

Of course, multitasking online is quite a new thing, so there’s not enough research that would prove there is 100% correlation. However, we know by now that our brains can’t really multitask. 

Let’s see, in 2011 people in the US in 2 seconds consumed as much information every day as they did in 1986 (equivalent of 174 newspapers)[4]. It’s heck of a lot, considering that evolution of species is quite a long process. Human’s brain just didn’t have enough time to reach that level, it seems. 

The processing capacity of a conscious mind is estimated at 120 bits per second. In order to process the person speaking to us we need to process 60 bits per second. So, it turns out that we can’t really understand 3 people talking once at a time. Multitasking is at times doing 5 things at a time (at least attempting to do so), what do we expect?

According to another study, only 2,5% of people are able to multitask effectively[5]. That means we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not being “productive” or “good enough”. It’s important to be realistic about our capabilities and respectful to the body and mind. 

Not only multitasking is not effective, it is bad for our attention and our ability to learn. Undivided attention is very important for learning. Many of us lost this “skill” due to constant destructions and inability to understand and memorize things. 

Recommendations for improving attention and focus

So, when I started my little research I wanted to come up with some recommendations for myself, that would help me improve my brain health. Here they are (they might be also useful for you):

  • switch off phone notifications, that are not important (I am only notified when I receive messages from family and close friends)[6];
  • check your phone at the established time and certain (limited) amount of times a day;
  • consciously choose to do one task at a time;
  • keep your desk (workspace) neat and organized;
  • read more (preferably real books);
  • make notes about what you read;
  • learn to meditate focusing on breathing (#newyearresolution). 

I have already made some of these changes and started to see results. If you try these things or have your own advice, please share below. I am always interested to learn something new.


References

[1] John Wiley & Sons, Anxiety disorder and accompanying subjective memory loss in the elderly as a predictor of future cognitive decline, research article, 25 September 2003, <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/gps.1004>

[2] JAMA, Association of Digital Media Use With Subsequent Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among Adolescents, original investigation, 17 July 2018, <https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2687861#nav>

[3] Adam Gorlick, Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows, Stanford report, 24 August 2009, <https://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html>

[4] Daniel J. Levitin, Why It’s So Hard To Pay Attention, Explained By Science, Stanford report, 23 September 2015, <https://www.fastcompany.com/3051417/why-its-so-hard-to-pay-attention-explained-by-science>

[5] Cynthia Kubu and Andre Machado, Why Multitasking Is Bad for You, article, 20 April 2017, <https://time.com/4737286/multitasking-mental-health-stress-texting-depression>

[6] Kelly Mcsweeney. This is Your Brain on Instagram: Effects of Social Media on the Brain, 17 March 2019, <https://now.northropgrumman.com/this-is-your-brain-on-instagram-effects-of-social-media-on-the-brain>