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

energepic.com, Pexels.com
energepic.com, Pexels.com

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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

1. Apple AirPods Pro; $219

Apple

You may not know it by looking at them, but these tiny earbuds by Apple offer HDR sound, 30 hours of noise cancellation, and powerful bass, all through Bluetooth connectivity. These trendy, sleek AirPods will even read your messages and allow you to share your audio with another set of AirPods nearby.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

2. Sony Zx220bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (Open Box - Like New); $35

Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

3. Sony Xb650bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones; $46

Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

5. Jashen V18 350w Cordless Vacuum Cleaner; $180

Jashen

If you're obsessive about cleanliness, it's time to lose the vacuum cord and opt for this untethered model from JASHEN. Touting a 4.3-star rating from Amazon, the JASHEN cordless vacuum features a brushless motor with strong suction, noise optimization, and a convenient wall mount for charging and storage.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

6. Evachill Ev-500 Personal Air Conditioner; $65

Evachill

This EvaChill personal air conditioner is an eco-friendly way to cool yourself down in any room of the house. You can set it up at your work desk at home, and in just a few minutes, this portable cooling unit can drop the temperature by 59º. All you need to do is fill the water tank and plug in the USB cord.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Gourmia Gcm7800 Brewdini 5-Cup Cold Brew Coffee Maker; $120

Gourmia

The perfect cup of cold brew can take up to 12 hours to prepare, but this Gourmia Cold Brew Coffee Maker can do the job in just a couple of minutes. It has a strong suction that speeds up brew time while preserving flavor in up to five cups of delicious cold brew at a time.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

8. Townew: The World's First Self-Sealing Trash Can; $90

Townew

Never deal with handling gross garbage again when you have this smart bin helping you in the kitchen. With one touch, the Townew will seal the full bag for easy removal. Once you grab the neatly sealed bag, the Townew will load in a new clean one on its own.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

9. Light Smart Solar Powered Parking Sensor (Two-Pack); $155

FenSens

Parking sensors are amazing, but a lot of cars require a high trim to access them. You can easily upgrade your car—and parking skills—with this solar-powered parking sensor. It will give you audio and visual alerts through your phone for the perfect parking job every time.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

10. Liz: The Smart Self-Cleaning Bottle With UV Sterilization; $46

Noerden

Reusable water bottles are convenient and eco-friendly, but they’re super inconvenient to get inside to clean. This smart water bottle will clean itself with UV sterilization to eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria. That’s what makes it clean, but the single-tap lid for temperature, hydration reminders, and an anti-leak functionality are what make it smart.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Just How Clean Is the Air On an Airplane?

Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leylanr/iStock via Getty Images

For millions of Americans and millions more abroad, the excitement of booking a flight has turned into concern. Being stuffed into an airplane cabin with hundreds of other people for hours at a time seems like a risk in light of the coronavirus continuing to be a threat to public health.

According to experts, plane travel is indeed a risk, and much of that risk has to do with social proximity. But the air itself might be cleaner than you think.

In a piece for Condé Nast Traveler, author William J. McGee writes that many airplanes have highly effective air cleaning systems that use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filtration to remove 99.97 percent of airborne contaminants, including viruses. (But not all. Some regional airlines may not have HEPA devices.) The clean air is pumped in through the ceiling and leaves below the window seats. The air is roughly 60 percent fresh and 40 percent filtered and recirculated constantly.

Would this impact how coronavirus or other germs may spread? Theoretically, yes. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations caution that no air filtration system can make up for being seated within a few feet of an infected person. It’s entirely possible that their germs will make their way to you before the circulating air removes them. And filtration isn’t a factor when travelers are standing near each other in line to board the aircraft.

Viruses aren’t the only air quality concern onboard a plane. Fumes from engine oil, hydraulic fluid, exhaust, and other sources can travel into the cabin. Pesticide applications may also leave a lingering odor.

The bottom line? If you have to be stuck in an enclosed space with several strangers, an airplane cabin might be the safest way to go about it. But variables like infected passengers, mask habits, and proximity make it impossible for anyone to offer assurances about safety. If you have a desire or need to fly, wearing a mask and keeping as much distance as possible between yourself and other passengers is the best way to approach it.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.