Why can’t I concentrate? How to deal with lockdown brain fog

Posted by for Life

As we grapple with the details of last night’s announcement and try to imagine what the next few months might look like, many of us are finding ourselves plagued by brain fog, making concentration impossible. But why is this? And what can we do about it?

When I first started working from home all those weeks ago, I had so much hope for my new routine. “Think of all the free time I’ll gain by not having to commute!” I thought. Finally, I’d be able to read that book I’d been meaning to pick up, sign-up for that online course and get started on that creative project I’d shelved six months ago. Sure, lockdown was going to decimate my social life – but with so much to get on with, at least I wouldn’t have the time to get bored. Right?

Reader, I have some bad news. Because despite all these ambitious plans, I’m here to tell you that I have achieved none of my mental “lockdown goals” so far. I’ve got my job keeping me busy during the day, for sure, but when it comes to my evenings and weekends, I’m anything but productive.

Sitting on the sofa and gazing longingly at the pile of unread books cluttering my coffee table has become my new hobby. Sure, I want to read – and have picked up numerous books so far – but when I sit down to read and flick to the first page, my mind has other ideas. However hard I try, I just cannot concentrate at the moment. 

And I’m not the only one feeling this way. In a now viral tweet, BBC journalist Emily Maitlis admitted she was struggling to concentrate, too.

“OK. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels,” she wrote. “Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter?”

In response to the tweet, hundreds of people replied saying they too were struggling to concentrate at the moment – whether that was when reading a book or watching TV.

“I feel very distracted and keep reading the same sentence 3 times over,” read one response. 

“I find I can’t concentrate on anything. I think it’s just the constant low-level dread,” another person replied. 

“Yup. I can barely even concentrate on a Netflix rom-com right now,” added Stylist digital writer Hollie Richardson.    

It’s clear that, whatever is going on with my concentration right now, it’s something we’re all experiencing in some way or another. So why is this?

“As we try to tackle the ‘new normal’ during this unprecedented time, working from home, self-isolating and for many, consuming more media than we’re used to, it can be hard to understand the many new feelings we might be facing. And with that, understanding where to focus our attention – or simply how,” explains Sarah Romotsky, director of healthcare partnerships at Headspace.

A person picking a book
Many of us are struggling to get through a couple pages of a book without losing focus.

With so much information taking up our mental space at the moment, it’s understandable that we’re struggling to focus on seemingly “menial” or “normal” tasks; our minds are too busy worrying about our parents or panicking about the future to be able to shut off and switch focus quickly. 

As everything is changing so fast, our minds are playing catch-up and trying to process everything that’s going on. Add to that the fact that we’re feeling exhausted all the time and struggling to wake up in the mornings, and it’s no surprise that we’re struggling to make little decisions and getting upset over the smallest of things as well as finding difficult to concentrate.

If you’re struggling to concentrate, it’s important to remember that it’s OK not to be productive at the moment and take every day as it comes. The current situation is one none of us have really faced before, so we need to give our minds time to process all the information we’re receiving and adapt to a new way of life.

However, if you want to try and make concentrating on a task a little easier for yourself, Romotsky has some advice to help you find a little focus. Keep reading for her expert tips.

1. Navigate change by accepting new thoughts and feelings

“This is a very new, very trying time for all of us. Most of us will never have experienced anything like this before in our lives, and we hope never to again. During this uncertain time, it’s normal to feel anxious, confused and even a bit overwhelmed at times,” she says.

“As we navigate the very real, very physical effects of the impact coronavirus is having on the world, and immediate environment around us, it’s also important to navigate what’s going on internally and mentally, too. We may find ourselves experiencing a host of new emotions or thoughts, and some of us may be finding it difficult to stay focused or concentrate on any one thing for very long, especially as the world around us continues to change so quickly too.

A woman lying on a bed
“During this uncertain time, it’s normal to feel anxious, confused and even a bit overwhelmed at times.”

Mindfulness is a tool that can help us ground these feelings and is proven to help people better manage difficult emotions as they emerge. By becoming more aware of how we are feeling, even if it’s just noticing that we are becoming distracted or losing focus, we can observe them and accept these as normal and understandable experiences.

“Using our breath as an anchor, we can feel connected to the present moment versus worrying about the uncertain future or not being able to complete the task we’re working on right now.”

2. Use mindfulness to focus attention

“While it can be hard to maintain focus outside of your usual working routine or environment, especially as cabin fever begins to set in, mindfulness can be used to minimise distraction and help us learn to focus on the present moment,” Romotsky explains. “It’s important to keep in mind that while we’re all in this together, each person has unique life circumstances that may cause more or less acute concern.

“For those finding themselves distracted, here are some ways you can address this: 

  • Look: take time to check-in with yourself. Look for the physical. How are your energy levels? Do you just need a break?
  • Listen: practice mindful listening with yourself. Give yourself the space to be open and honest about how you feel, both mentally and physically.
  • Feel: everyone is going to be feeling a range of different emotions. Taking the time to acknowledge how you are truly feeling empowers us to respond with kindness and compassion to what we are experiencing.
  • Respond: in times of high stress, it’s easy to let frustrations get in the way of action. Pause and give yourself space to respond to what you really need in a skilful and kind way. Maybe you need some fresh air or a cup of tea before you try to tackle your next goal.”

3. Establish routine and build healthy habits

“While your daily routine has likely been impacted by this crisis, it can help to create structure even while stuck at home,” Romotsky says. “It’s perfectly normal to get caught up in the news cycle and find yourself finding simple tasks, like finishing a paragraph of your favourite book, difficult to get through or complete. During times of uncertainty, it’s important to take charge of the things you can control yourself – and ensure you are taking time to prioritise your own wellbeing while doing it.

“Now is a great time to establish healthy habits and routines. A few ideas include waking up at the same time or eating a healthy breakfast every morning to encourage positive habits throughout the day. These are two of the highest impact things you can do to have healthy sleep and a healthy body. The more we incorporate our grounded routines into a disruptive schedule, the healthier and happier we will feel.

“You can also introduce breathwork and meditation into your daily practice and simply try to be more mindful in the everyday tasks that you do. This could be as simple as mindful handwashing, making a cup of tea or simply taking moments to pause and check in with yourself. 

A cup of tea
Taking regular breaks to do something simple like make a cup of tea or practice breath work can help you to build greater awareness of how you're feeling.

“Rather than letting yourself get lost in a moment of frustration, acknowledge it, accept it, sit with it, focus on your breathing and bring your attention back to how you’re feeling and why. This will help you to be intentional in every interaction or activity and make better decisions from a place of awareness and clarity.

“Through these intentions you will find yourself beginning to understand your thoughts and feelings more and learn to work through them to increase your focus on the here and now, as well as investing in a healthy relationship between your mind and body.”

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Images: Getty/Unsplash

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