Can’t Focus? How To Tell When It’s Time To Try ADHD Medication

Learn more about the causes of your inability to focus and how to treat them.

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If you cannot focus and constantly feel frazzled, you might be wondering whether you have undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and need medication.

But before you think about medication, you should figure out whether you have ADHD or if something else is distracting you. Stress, lack of sleep, anxiety, or depression can all cause problems with concentration, and all these things require specific treatments.

Sort Through Your Symptoms

To figure out the cause of your symptoms, think about when your issues started and what your symptoms look like.

Symptoms of Stress or Lack of Sleep

If your symptoms only began recently, they are more likely due to increased stress or a lack of sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, you may also be experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression can make it difficult for someone to focus. You may have depression if, in addition to difficulty concentrating, you are experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Headaches
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If these symptoms occur for most of the day, everyday, for at least two weeks, depression may be the cause of your inability to focus.

Symptoms of Anxiety

You may have an anxiety disorder if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Getting tired easily
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge

Symptoms of ADHD

Meanwhile ADHD symptoms usually begin in childhood, as early as 3 years old. In order for an adult to be diagnosed with ADHD, they need to have had symptoms before they were 12 years old.

If you constantly find it difficult to concentrate and it interferes with your everyday life, you may have ADHD. People with ADHD experience symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Symptoms of ADHD in adulthood may look like:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Restlessness
  • Talking excessively
  • Avoiding tasks that require mental effort
  • Chronic disorganization
  • History of poor academic performance
  • Problems at work
  • Unstable relationships
  • Interrupting or intruding on others
  • Unable to sit still

If these symptoms sound familiar to what you are experiencing, it may be time to talk to a healthcare provider so they can assess your symptoms.

Get a Diagnosis

Since ADHD can cause symptoms similar to stress, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression, a healthcare provider will help you sort through your symptoms in order to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Even though ADHD is typically diagnosed in childhood, it is possible that the diagnosis was mistaken for emotional issues or problems with discipline, which can lead to a delay in treatment.

In order to receive a diagnosis of ADHD, healthcare providers use the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth edition (DSM-5). This manual is used to diagnose mental health conditions.

The DSM-5 states that adults must have at least five symptoms of inattention and/or at least five symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. Additionally, these symptoms must:

  • Present themselves in two or more settings (home, work, school, etc.)
  • Interfere with school, work, and/or social situations
  • Don't occur as a result of a psychotic disorder
  • Be present before the age of 12

Discuss Treatment Options

If you are diagnosed with ADHD, it's time to consider treatment options such as medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes.


A psychiatrist or other healthcare provider may recommend stimulants, a medication that increases dopamine and norepinephrine, which are chemicals in the brain. Non-stimulants may be prescribed in addition to stimulants or if stimulants are not effective or have side effects.

Medications can help improve your ability to concentrate and reduce other symptoms of ADHD. However, it isn't a decision to take lightly. Medications used to treat ADHD can have side effects such as insomnia or irritability.

Additionally, it may take some trial and error to come up with the right medication and dosage.


Even with medication, many adults with ADHD still need targeted therapy to help them learn to manage time, prioritize tasks, and get organized. The skills that are learned in therapy can help you stay on task and focus. These are the different kinds of therapy used for people with ADHD:

  • Behavioral therapy: Helps you change and monitor your behavior
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Helps you accept and be aware of your thoughts and feelings
  • Family and marital therapy: Helps your loved ones understand more about ADHD and your symptoms

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes can make it easier for people with ADHD to organize their life and stay on task. This may include:

  • Finding ways to manage your stress
  • Making sure you're getting enough sleep
  • Joining a support group
  • Keeping a routine
  • Making lists for tasks and activities
  • Using a calendar to schedule events
  • Breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks

If you don't think you have ADHD and still can't figure out why you have difficulty focusing, you can also try lifestyle changes to see if your symptoms improve. If your symptoms don't improve, talk to a healthcare provider.

A Quick Review

If you have trouble concentrating in school, at work, or in your everyday life, you may have anxiety, depression, a sleep disorder, ADHD, or you're stressed.

Since there are a few reasons you are having trouble focusing, you should sort through your symptoms and receive a diagnosis from a healthcare provider before starting medication for ADHD. Once you have a diagnosis, a healthcare provider will guide you through treatment.

If you don't have ADHD but are having trouble staying focused, lifestyle changes like using a calendar, making lists, and keeping a routine, may help. If your symptoms don't improve, speak to a healthcare provider for guidance.

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  1. American Psychological Association. What are sleep disorders?

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression.

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and diagnosis.

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