The Psychological Reason You’re Feeling So Unfocused—And What To Do About It

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mapodile/iStock via Getty Images Plus / mapodile/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Two days ago, I sat down to transcribe the interview I did for this article. Since then, I did the dishes and a load of laundry, then blankly stared at my computer for almost an entire day just considering my impending deadline. It’s not a procrastination problem, though. It’s a pandemic problem. For the last two months, my mind has either been all over the place or completely blank, couched with both a never-ending exhaustion and an inability to sleep a full night.

I’m not alone, either. The anxiety of COVID-19 has pushed many of us to our breaking points, taking on an inordinate amount of stress that medical professionals call the allostatic load. The term refers to the amount of stress and anxiety we can carry as individuals before we get so overwhelmed that we just completely check out.

Una McCann, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, says it’s an arousal problem. If we’re comatose, we’re at zero arousal and unable to do anything. If we’re in a raging panic, we’re over aroused and unable to do anything. The optimal level is somewhere in the middle.

“Think of an athlete, like somebody on a baseball team,” McCann said. “They’re at the plate and the pitcher is about to pitch. If they’re asleep, they’re not going to hit the ball. If they’re way too anxious and panicky, there’s no way they’re going to hit the ball. Somewhere in the middle is ‘the zone.’ The zone is the perfect level of arousal, activity, and excitement. You’re aware of something, you know how to do it, you’re focused, and yet you’re not overly excited to the point that you’re distractible and your body starts malfunctioning.”

According to McCann, the allostatic load is represented by a bell graph. The far left is the comatose state, and the far right is the completely over-hyped state. Every new stressor that happens ticks us another step to the right toward overstimulation, “beyond that zone level where we all feel comfortable and focused, and into the anxious level,” McCann said.

Stress From All Sides

Both COVID-19 and the ongoing protests for racial justice are affecting the allostatic load on a global level. Basically, we’re all feeling it right now. Maybe you’ve watched too much of the news, and you’re emotionally exhausted. Maybe you’ve been running around trying to homeschool your children while also working full time and making sure all the household chores are done, and you’re physically exhausted. Maybe seeing masks everywhere gives you constant anxiety. Or maybe you’re just social by nature and being home all the time has sapped your energy. Whatever it is, we may end up despondent, unfocused, and tired. We lose our inner drive to achieve things we normally tackle easily.

So what can we do to get ourselves back to the optimal middle point in the graph? The solution is different for everyone and their circumstances. For social people, it could be as simple as reaching out to friends and loved ones through text, call, or video to vent about everything that’s going on and share experiences. For others, especially those who were already anxious before the pandemic began, it could mean scheduling extra telehealth sessions with a therapist to follow a treatment plan. But unfortunately, some of us don’t have the ability to do any of that.

“People who don’t have the technological means or equipment can find it very difficult to reach out to others,” McCann said. “If you don’t have the right computer or the right Wi-Fi or whatever it is, you’ll have great difficulty in reaching out to those that might bring you comfort—and that’s another piece of the allostatic load that’s pushing people to the right [of the graph].”

Focus on the Future

For people in that situation—and for everyone in general—McCann suggests focusing on activities that are productive and future-oriented, like gardening or starting a new fitness regimen. Those activities help you feel like you’re making a contribution, either to yourself or to the world, and can bring you some solace and peace.

Mindfulness activities can help, too, like yoga, meditation, and even the simple act of listening to music. Remember, also, that meeting your friends where they are mentally can help both you and them. If someone hasn’t reached out in a while, check on them and share something that you found helpful.

“If you know a person loves music, you could send them a link to a new album that you find particularly beautiful,” McCann suggests. “It’s a connection between you and that person, plus they get to listen to the great music. And maybe they can share something with you.”

Just remember to listen to what your body is telling you—and know it’s always OK to just sit and stare for a while if you need to.