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Missing Your Spark? Stress Can Affect Your Focus

By Emily E. Smith | March 13, 2021 | The Washington Post

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sonya Matejko, 29, excelled at getting stuff done. As a public relations consultant in New York, she often worked with clients on-site or in coffee shops, where she felt motivated by those around her.

After the pandemic hit and she was stuck in her apartment, she struggled to concentrate on work or even get through an at-home yoga practice. She checked the news constantly for updates on the coronavirus.

"It just felt like that spark and that energy was really missing," she said. "I found myself getting distracted multiple times a day and not being able to get projects done nearly as quickly."

Experts say she's hardly alone.

"I have people coming to me for the first time, thinking maybe they have ADHD," said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist. "Compounded stressors have really taken a toll on a nation that already was at an all-time high with stress."

For many, the lack of focus they've experienced during the past year stems from both physical and psychological factors, such as noise, interruptions, multitasking, isolation and the loss of healthy routines. And on top of those might be stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, racism, political tumult, climate disasters and a foreboding sense of uncertainty.

For Dekeda Brown, 41, who works as a community relations manager for a bank in Washington, D.C., accomplishing her daily workload requires monumental effort. While she works from home, she's also helping her 15-year-old daughter, who has severe autism, participate in virtual learning. Between calls, she tries to keep her 11-year-old daughter on task with virtual middle school.

After everyone's gone to bed, Brown hopes to have enough energy to do her own homework as she works toward an associate degree in general studies.

"Right now, I'm just trying to get through the day, just like everyone else is," she said.

Under these conditions, experts say, it's no surprise that many people feel they're working in fits and starts, and unable to focus.

"They're not just distracted," said Anthony Wheeler, dean of Widener University's School of Business Administration, a professor of management and expert on employee burnout. "People are losing the psychological, social, and emotional resources that we use to meet the demands of our daily lives."

So what happens to the brain as it's trying to cope with these stressors and meet deadlines? Whether your distractions are physical or psychological, both types can interfere with your brain's ability to focus, said Robert Desimone, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

When you attempt to write or edit a report amid intense distractions, for instance, the brain will try to filter out the distractions, but there's a cost, Desimone said: You're left with less brainpower for the report.

"You will not get any individual thing done as well if you're trying to do multiple things at once," he said.

Desimone said that for some people, focusing on work might remain difficult until more of the country is vaccinated and life starts to regain a semblance of the familiar. But there are a few steps you can take now that can make a difference.

Experts agree getting sleep is a top priority. Just as the pandemic upset our routines, it upset sleep cycles for many people. And the lack of adequate rest has major consequences, affecting everything from our mood to our cognitive abilities to our ability to concentrate.

"Filtering out distractions?" Desimone said. "You're worse at it if you're sleep-deprived."

Desimone said the urge to constantly seek out information or "hypervigilance" is a natural tendency in a dangerous situation. But the impulse to closely monitor for updates can hurt your work performance.

"You can't do two things at once," he said. "You can't be hypervigilant for covid or the latest political unrest or the latest impeachment trial, and at the same time get that report done that you need to get done."

The solution, he said, is to assign a time to be hypervigilant, such as an hour after work when you'll tune into the latest news and catch up on what's happening.

Exercise is another first-order remedy. Capanna-Hodge said many people are exercising less because their old habits were built into a routine away from home: going to the gym, walking from the bus stop to the office, attending group fitness classes. She recommends squeezing in some form of movement you enjoy daily and making a point to stand up and stretch hourly.

Many people are also feeling the fatigue that comes with long days of screen time, Capanna-Hodge said. Stretching and moving throughout the day can also help mitigate that, plus giving your eyes a rest. She recommends practicing this exercise hourly during long sessions in front of the screen: Close your eyes for five seconds, then open them and refocus for five seconds on something far away.

Another critical way to improve focus, Wheeler said, is to take time off.

"You have to use your weekends and paid time off, whether it's vacation or mental health days," he said. "And you have to try to do everything you can to keep those time periods free from work and, as much as you can, free from other kinds of stressors."

For some, that might mean putting their phone away or turning off cable news. It's also important to add in some "positive recovery experiences" to make time off restorative, he said. Those activities would be anything you find fun or relaxing, such as reading, crafting, going for a run or bike ride, or playing with your kids.

These solutions aren't simple for everyone, Desimone said. The same stresses and competing demands that make it tough to work also make it difficult to implement changes. But studies show incorporating even one or two of these could make a meaningful difference.

"Your brain is a biological organ, and some of these things like exercise and sleep improve your organ," he said.

As certain pre-pandemic conditions return - returning to offices, sending kids off to school, gathering for social events - Desimone expects that many people's ability to focus will make a comeback.

"I think it will be a little bit like recovering from the virus: Most people recover quickly and are fine. But some people have lasting effects," he said. "I think it's going to be the same thing dealing with the psychological effects of the pandemic."

Matejko hasn't regained her pre-pandemic level of focus, but she has taken some measures to help herself. She took notifications off her phone, so she's not bombarded with updates. She uses virtual co-working sessions - a group of people who join for a video call and work on their respective tasks for a set period of time - to get into a good work zone and tackle her to-do list. And perhaps most important, she's trying to go easier on herself.

"I genuinely believe that this is a moment in history that we're all living through," she said. "And I think that there's a lot to learn from it, including that gentleness with yourself."

This content is licensed with permission. Read more in health and wellness at www.washingtonpost.com.

Emily E. Smith
The Washington Post

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