Worrying and anxiety have become the norm. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States.
And that was before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19 or was living in a global pandemic.
Now it’s even worse.
The same circuits in the frontal lobes of your brain that allow for superior human intelligence: decision-making, problem-solving, and planning, are also responsible for worry. In your brain, the only difference between worrying and planning is the amount and type of emotional involvement and self-oriented processing. When higher-functioning brain regions are preoccupied with worry, you can’t access them for other things.
No wonder you’re finding it hard to think straight — much less focus — right now.
Your Thinking Brain Shuts Down
Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you alive, and it’s evolved to accomplish that task well. Basically, worrying is just your brain doing its job. It only becomes a problem when your brain’s anxiety circuits activate too frequently continually triggering your body’s fear response.
When this happens, your amygdala hijacks your brain and puts the brakes on higher-level thinking. The amygdala is part of your brain’s limbic system. It acts as the brain’s threat radar and alarm. When the amygdala is fully engaged, it activates a chain of events preparing your body to mobilize for an emergency. Most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to making sure you survive. Your thinking, rational brain shuts down, and most automatic bodily functions come to a halt.
This stress response was meant to be short-lived to help our ancestors outrun or fight a predator. The physical changes stop when the stressor does. When a threat is ongoing, it creates a state of chronic stress which can have negative lasting consequences for your brain and body.
Your Attention Is Limited
Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism. It determines which aspects of the environment they deal with. Most of the time, automatic, subconscious processes run in the background determining what makes it through to your conscious awareness. This means that at any given time, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring your environment.
The processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated at 120 bits per second! So, even when you think you aren’t doing anything, your brain is hard at work. Therefore, conscious attention is a limited resource in your brain. It involves working memory and filtering out all the extraneous information and distractions as much as it involves selectively sustaining focus.
Right now, regardless of your intent to focus on something, your attentional space may be giving priority to anything related to the threat — coronavirus. Your brain is having to process a lot of information about the threat. It has to filter through all of it, decide if it’s important, and whether to file it away for your safety or let it go. While most of this information processing is going on below your conscious awareness, it still impacts how you feel and think.
That’s why there may be times when you really need and want to pay attention, but your brain just does not cooperate.
How to Lessen Your Cognitive Load and Increase Focus
Learning to calm your brain and directing your attention is the answer to help an anxious brain that cannot settle down and focus. Being able to target and sustain your attention to a specific desired place is a skill that can be developed through experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills through different practices. You can change your brain and increase your focus in any of the following ways:
Give Your Brain a Greater Sense of Control
One way to ease your brain’s overwhelm is to re-establish a sense of control. You are never really in control of much in this world, but your brain feels better when it thinks it is — even if it’s an illusion. When your brain feels more in control, it calms the amygdala and stress response.
In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark writes:
The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, the less stress we will feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that counts with this. You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.”
There are several ways you can help yourself feel more in control:
1. Write down your priorities.
Spend a few minutes each evening writing out your plans for the next day. Put the most important and challenging tasks at the top. List everything you need to do in a day, including the little, seemingly insignificant things like watering the plants. Writing it down helps lessen your cognitive load and gives you structure. You also don’t waste time in the morning trying to figure out where to begin.
Make sure to cross things off the list as you complete them — again even the little stuff. Doing this will give your brain a sense of accomplishment and a shot of dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter, and it also motivates you.
2. Control what you can control in your environment
Taking control of what you can in your physical environment will help calm your brain. This includes:
Effectively manage technology
- Silence all notifications for a window of time.
- Close all other applications besides the one you’re working in to limit distractions.
- Put your cell phone out of sight. (Just the sight of your phone reduces your brainpower.)
- Put a “do not disturb sign” on your door.
- Set up an auto-reply for your email saying you are not available right now and when you will respond.
- Post a public calendar of when you are and are not available for communication.
- Use headphones to reduce distractions and interruptions.
Make your environment productive
- Adjust the temperature so that you are comfortable.
- Have adequate lighting conducive to being awake and alert.
- Clean up your workspace. A messy workspace is distracting and may consume mental energy.
- Keep a notepad or phone list to jot things down you think of to revisit later.
Take care of your body
Bodily needs can compete for your attention. For example, if you’re hungry or thirsty, those conditions can pull attention away from the task at hand. To access optimal brain power, you need to set yourself up for success by addressing bodily needs before you sit down to work. Not only will staying hydrated help you maintain focus, but research shows it will boost your cognitive performance.
Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus. It’s learning to direct your attention to what is happening in your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment. Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through practice.
Over time, mindful thinking becomes a habitual way of being. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function. Many studies show that with repetition, mindfulness practice can lead to a long-term, lasting reduction of anxiety and worry.
1. Come into the present
When you find your mind drifting from the task in front of you, bring your attention back to the present. At this moment, realize that you are OK. It’s your thoughts creating a sense of anxiety or restlessness. Bringing your awareness back into the now calms your amygdala and activates your thinking frontal lobe. A mindfulness practice called grounding brings your attention to your physical environment and puts your frontal lobe in control again.
Meditation is a mindfulness practice where you learn to observe the workings of your mind and not get distracted by them. It’s actually training your brain to pay attention. When meditating, you allow thoughts to arise at random, become aware of your thinking, observe it without attaching to or following it, let it go, and return to a state of mental awareness. Over time, your mind will become more settled and calm even when not meditating.
Because of a process known as familiarization, the more the mind is in contact with a mental quality, the quicker it can return to it. With repetition and consistency, your brain makes neuroplastic changes that strengthen the calm neuronal pathways so that they become the default, and focus becomes easier to sustain.
One study showed that just three months of meditation practice significantly affected attention and brain function. One type of meditation, in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices.
3. Slow breathing
Taking slow, deep breaths through your nose into your diaphragm with slow exhales calms your brain and body. Science shows that slow breathing is your remote control to calm your brain and body to reduce anxiety and stress instantly. Slow breathing engages your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and turns down the body’s stress response. When stress symptoms recede, you have full access to your thinking brain again and can begin to focus.
The basic mechanics of slow breathing can vary slightly with each philosophy and get involved or stay fairly simple. Most teachings include three basic parts:
- With a closed mouth, inhale deeply through your nose for a count (usually three to six), making sure your abdomen expands.
- At the top of the inhalation, hold your breath for a certain number of counts (usually two to four).
- Exhale completely through your mouth or nose for a count longer than the inhalation.
Once you get the hang of it, you can practice slow breathing anytime and anywhere as needed. Here are six slow-breathing techniques you can try.
Stop Trying to Multitask
Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply cannot do it.
Oh sure. You can walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, your brain operates sequentially focusing on one thing. Research shows that our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention-requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they’re multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short-term memory.
Studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once. Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors. The neuroscience is clear: We are wired to be mono-taskers and multitasking actually impairs thinking.
Give Your Brain a Break
The human brain wasn’t designed to pay attention and be alert for hours at a time. Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day. That left a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest.
The brain is much more active — and much more likely to tire — than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of work, can make you more productive, creative, and innovative.
Blocking time and scheduling brain breaks into your day is key. One method, the Pomodoro Technique, involves focusing on one task without distractions for 25-to-30-minute increments and then taking a five-minute break. You want to use the brain break to hydrate, move, and breathe. Other methods recommend 90 to 120 distraction-free minutes, which some research indicates maximizes flow.