Attention Sappers: 5 Reasons You Can't Concentrate
What's your real problem?
You misplace your keys, waver between work assignments and YouTube, and daydream during conversations. Some of it’s normal—life can get pretty hectic—but how do you know if you have a more serious problem? For adults who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), this chronic inattentiveness becomes debilitating.
“We see an influx of adults being diagnosed around age 38,” says Timothy Wilens, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “That’s right around the time people start multitasking more, juggling jobs, families, a home, and other personal obligations—and problems focusing and staying alert seem to get worse,” he says.
But not everyone who slacks on work or forgets appointments has ADHD; there are plenty of other reasons you may be losing focus. Here are five things that could be sucking your attention span dry. Plus: When you should consider seeing your doctor.
See your doc if: You consistently find yourself being pulled away from important tasks and not being able to get back to them, and you can remember being this way for most of your adult lifewith or without the help of the Internet or a cell phone. When the brain's not functioning properly, you can't bounce from task to task without being easily distracted by thoughts or background activities, says Dr. Wilens.
Lack of sleep
If you’re missing out on sufficient shut-eye—most likely seven to eight hours a night—you’re probably irritable, dealing with mind fog, and have difficulty managing daily tasks. That’s a normal reaction, says Dr. Wilens. “By getting adequate rest, like hitting the sack earlier, you should get your focus back,” he says.
See your doc if: You or your partner have sleep problems or constantly wake up unrefreshed, suffer from constant moodiness, and have attention issues, such as a lack of focus or ability to stay alert. You could have an undiagnosed sleep disorder or might benefit from basic sleep hygiene tips. For adults with ADHD, missing out on sleep can make symptoms worse—and simply improving nighttime habits won’t fully eliminate them.
Poor job satisfaction
See your doc if: You have severe problems with procrastination, wander aimlessly at work, and have a past history of poor work performance or switch jobs a few times a year. Adults with ADHD consistently have difficulties completing tasks and are often considered the “weak link” on the team. “They struggle with a constant feeling of underachievement and with self-esteem issues,” says Dr. Wilens. Across the board, they report more job changes, less tenure, and not as much enjoyment at work.
Too much stress
See your doc if: You have other mood disorders related to stress, such as anxiety and depression, which often coincide with ADHD. Also, consider it if stress is making inattention or distraction worse, which, in turn, is negatively impacting your job, relationships, or academics. Taking this ADHD self-screening quiz, and discussing the results with your doctor, may help quantify how you're feeling.
Too little exercise
Mounting evidence suggests that regular exercise can keep your mind sharp and increase learning and memory capacity. It’s even more crucial in adults with ADHD, who battle mental restlessness. “My patients who exercise all report that they see improvement in attention,” says Dr. Wilens. Working up a sweat can also help you burn off the extra energy that causes you to feel fidgety, and it can help you sleep better at night.
See your doc if: You have a difficult time sitting still (like during a meeting or at your desk) and have an urge to constantly get up and move around the office. Or seek help if you’re self-medicating by exercising too much—say, two to three hours a day—just to keep your restlessness at bay.
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