4 steps to regaining your focus when you’re totally stressed out

By Gwen Moran

 You sit down at your desk, ready to dive into whatever is on your plate. Then the white noise of every worry you have right now starts to make itself heard in your brain. Pandemic. Economy. Unemployment. Politics. Current events. Holiday shopping.

If you’re having trouble focusing, you’re not alone. Total Brain’s recent Mental Health Index found that workers’ ability to focus and complete tasks was down 31% in August, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Humans generally aren’t well-suited to living in a highly prolonged state of unpredictability, and it’s showing.

But the “we’re in a pandemic and I can’t focus” excuse isn’t going to cut it when you have a big deadline or your team is counting on you. So, if you’re short on focus these days, this four-point approach can help you get it back.

Take control

When you’re consumed with worry, your body’s physiological response can get in the way of focus. Our bodies typically react to stress by pumping out the stress hormone cortisol. According to Louis Gagnon, CEO of Total Brain, “Under chronic stress, high levels of cortisol for long periods of time derail key brain, heart, and digestive system functions. Stress contracts our mind and reduces the cognitive flexibility that is necessary to put things in perspective, create, and collaborate.”

So, you’ve got to get a handle on what’s got you so stressed out and deal with it. First, start with the things you can control, says life coach and former psychology researcher Brooke Smith. If you’re upset about what’s going on in the world, limit your information intake and stop “doomscrolling.” If you’re worried, hurt, or angry, try reframing the situation to see if you can find a lesson or opportunity in the mix. If there are external factors that you can’t control, Smith suggests trying to tune them out, at least temporarily, to calm your body and make some space in your brain.

Manage your load

Next, take stock of what you really have to get done. Sometimes we’re victims of our own inability to say no, or our own enthusiasm about what we take on, says psychiatrist Edward “Ned” Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Center and author of Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder. He advises practicing CDE, or curtail, delegate, eliminate. Go through your task list, ruthlessly eliminate what doesn’t need to be done, and delegate what you can. Of the rest, define the scope of what you can and will do. “A lot of toxic stress has to do with feeling overloaded,” Hallowell says.

Organizing your environment and tasks can also give you a sense of control and help you start to get in the focus zone, says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, author of Find Your Focus Zone. Once you narrow down the tasks and begin to dive in, pick a few easy “wins,” she advises—something you can get done in 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll get a little shot of dopamine when you begin to get things done. “Every time you accomplish something, you get a little teeny-tiny boost, too, that makes you want to do it some more,” she says.

Care for yourself

Basic care and maintenance of your body is going to help you sustain better focus, Hallowell says, noting that you can’t deplete and deprive your body of the things it needs and then expect it to focus on demand. So make sure you’re drinking water, eating regularly, and going to bed at a reasonable hour.

That care also extends to your environment and the people around you. Hallowell advises “pruning leeches and cultivating lilies.” Leeches are the people or projects that take up time and energy that you could be devoting to more fruitful endeavors. Lilies are those relationships and endeavors that bring you joy and sustain you. “Spend your time with people or projects that are worth it, even if they’re very difficult,” he says. “That also will reduce ‘bad’ stress and promote ‘good’ stress.”

Cultivating lilies will also give you the relationships you can count on when you need support during times of stress or worry. “Never worry alone,” Hallowell advises, acknowledging that it’s common to hunker down during stressful times and soldier on. “That’s really dumb.” Asking for help not only can make you feel better almost immediately, reinforcing that you’re not alone, but depending on whom you ask, you may also find solutions to your problems more quickly. So, reach out.

Know yourself

It’s important to learn and protect those times of day when your energy—and ability to focus—is highest. “For many people, it’s their morning. I call it the morning burst,” Hallowell says. “Don’t read email until you’ve had your morning burst—before you’ve had an hour of really working at your absolute best. If your best is in the evening, then protect that.”

For some people, meditation is the key to regaining focus. For others, getting outside and going for a brisk run does the trick. Some prefer a hot cup of coffee. (Caffeine can be a great short-term solution to regain focus until it wears off, Hallowell says.)

The bottom line, life coach Smith says, is that you know yourself and the actions and tips that work for you better than anyone. When you’re having trouble focusing, do a quick body scan to figure out where you’re feeling your stress. Just take a few minutes to breathe and create a sense of calm, which can also help you determine what you need most in the moment.


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