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.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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Starbucks Is Giving Free Coffee to Frontline COVID-19 Workers All Month Long

Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks

Starbucks is showing its support for those individuals on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 this holiday season by giving the gift of free coffee—all month long.

From now through December 31, any health care worker or other frontline worker can get a tall hot or iced coffee whenever they stop by Starbucks. The offer extends to just about anybody in a medical profession, including doctors, nurses, public health administrators, pharmacists, paramedics, dentists and dental hygienists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals. Non-medical hospital personnel—including members of the janitorial, housekeeping, and security staffs—also qualify, as do emergency dispatchers, firefighters, police officers, and active-duty members of the military.

To address the pandemic’s emotional toll on essential workers, Starbucks has also contributed $100,000 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness to be used for virtual mental health services; and the company will give out 50,000 Starbucks care packages and gift cards to frontline workers across the country. While the main goal is to show gratitude to those keeping the nation afloat during an extremely difficult time, Starbucks is also hoping their initiative can be an example for other companies with resources to spare.

“Hopefully other brands will join us in thinking about how [they can] use their platform to again show support,” Virginia Tenpenny, Starbucks's vice president of global social impact, told USA TODAY. “Little deposits in morale can really go a long way, just so that they feel the support from our community.”

It’s not the first time Starbucks has spearheaded a long-term coffee giveaway this year; between March and May, the company handed out more than 2 million free cups of joe to professionals helping the country through the coronavirus pandemic. The Starbucks Foundation has also donated several million dollars to relief funds, food banks, and local organizations.

[h/t USA Today]